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British charcuterie has snuck up on us and is gaining momentum as I write. The past fifteen years have produced charcuterie enthusiasts in nearly every region in Britain - they're making everything from salami to nduja, chorizo to prosciutto-style hams across cities, farms and garden sheds. The humble garden shed is often where it all starts. Charcuterie, still largely artisanal and cottage-industry, was brought to greater public attention at the inaugural British Charcuterie Awards, founded by British Charcuterie Live at Blenheim Palace in August 2018 during the BBC Countryfile Live Show. With over a hundred producers entering and more than 400 products competing, there is little question that market is fast becoming as much a part of the craft food landscape as home grown cheese and wine.
So, what is British about British charcuterie? On the face of it, not that much. It could be argued that most gold medal winning products were replicas of crowd-pleasing and admittedly delicious mainland European standards. There were one or two exceptions amongst the winners, manifested in "blast from the past" olde English cured delicacies. I'll come back to these meaty heroes in due course. Without a doubt, traits of Britishness are evident amidst a sea of Italian and French influences. This is clearly demonstrated within the layers of detail and bravery underpinning the excellent work of producers. For starters, many are using British native breed animals; they're deploying local and regional ingredients; they're innovating with gritty entrepreneurial determination, as the need grows for farm diversification; some are taking risks in downsizing from city to smallholding; they're adopting the philosophy of "back to the land" living and product specialisation; and the list goes on.
In many cases, home grown makers are producing arguably better versions of continental originals. Controversial, eh?! Well, Beal's Farm Mangalitza ham for example (winner of overall best product) had all the savoury yeastiness of culatello and silkiness of San Daniele hams. Shropshire Salumi produced the best fennel salami I have ever tasted, and Cwm Farm Charcuterie - an ultra regional Welsh Laverbread salami (delicious!), to name but a few. The effort in taking a continental product and reproducing it with a homegrown nuance was in evidence across all classes.
British charcuterie is not just a rural affair either. Cobble Lane Cured and Black Hand Food are two central players in London. The capital also has its very own British Charcuterie Hub in Borough Market, hosted by the well-established Cannon & Cannon and has a seaside counterpart in Brighton, The Great British Charcuterie.
The history of cooked charcuterie is not solely a British one either. In France, charcuterie is almost entirely cooked products. Confit, jambon blanc, pâté, fromage de tête, boudin noir, saucisse de Morteau are all either cooked, smoked or preserved in fat. It is more than possible that these traditional products and methods migrated to and from Britain. Is a sausage roll's antecedence in pâté en croûte? A pork pie, the same? Black and white pudding? Britain's charcuterie traditions may not be clear cut but the skill of curing and preserving signature British regional meats has been on the decline. Now it is a specialised pastime… not one that, in times gone by, was part of every day life for each household.
Britain's last apprenticed curer, Maynard Davies (author of "Maynard, Adventures of a Bacon Curer" and "Maynard, Secrets of a Bacon Curer") embodied the spirit of British charcuterie. He was celebrated as a "food hero" by the inimitable Rick Stein and appeared on BBC Radio 4's The Food Programme and countless television programmes celebrating traditional British food. Sadly no longer with us, his legacy lives on through his books and the people he met. He travelled far and wide plying his trade - there was a long stint in America - and his encyclopaedic knowledge of recipes and methods of every ham, bacon, sausage and pudding that was ever made in the British isles over the last five hundred years is the stuff of legends. A dedicated disciple of form and function (looks good, tasted good and does what it says on the tin), he embraced the new without throwing away what was good about the old. He was also an expert in the nose to tail ethos. I cannot recommend his books highly enough.
British traditions are very aligned to this "use and eat everything" philosophy in a number of ways. Using fifth quarter meat (the offal) gives you the main ingredients for haggis, black pudding, haslet, faggots, brawn and pâté. Currently artisanal versions of these are scarce by comparison to fermented meats and salami. Similarly, other traditional products like corned beef, salt beef, bacon and ham are nowhere near the levels of their former glory. Only a hundred years ago, Britain had a thriving ham industry with regional hams being made all over the country using county breed specific pigs, local cures and a method of fermentation known as bacteria brining or 'live brining'. The practice of keeping the same brine topped up with new salt to retain the distinctive and protective bacteria would almost certainly be out ruled now in the name of food safety.
So given all of these factors, it was heartening to see three golds going to producers of traditional British products - my "meaty heroes"! A W Curtis Bakers & Butchers Ltd for their Lincolnshire boneless stuffed chine (a herbed and cured loin of pork); Lishman's of Ilkley for smoked Bath chaps (cooked cured pigs cheek); and also Trealy Farm for their Bath chaps.
The not-inconsiderable challenge for British charcuterie is to revive these traditions and prove that there are exceptional versions to be made and that they are relevant to the modern palate. The challenge is great. Many of these products are no longer eaten or seldom recognised as good. Often they are treated suspiciously as containing all things bad. This is unfortunately true in many cases. It's hard to get children to eat liver without lying about what it is. This, coupled with a generation and a half who haven't eaten offal, nor know what it is, make it a challenge to reproduce excellent versions for a younger audience, who are, on the whole, willing to try new foods, but still experience their parents' dread over hearing the words Fray Bentos, spam (spam spam as celebrated in the gloriously silly Monty Python song) and tinned corned beef. Who indeed would want to be identified as British in relation to these products? Especially when one of the joys of going to mainland Europe is to enjoy local and regional specialities that seem timeless, steeped in history, part of the terroir and rare or unique. Can we be proud again of our food heritage and be brave enough to re-discover and evolve the curing culture of our forebears?
So where next for British charcuterie, on the back of what are already incredible successes for such a young industry? On many counts, British charcuterie can contribute positively to the sustainability story. Eat less meat… east good meat… utilise the whole animal… these are all mantras that the charcuterie world already fits nicely into. And, in agricultural parlance, although pork is probably the most popular ingredient for charcuterie, I would argue that Britain's native breed cattle, hogget, mutton and lamb must not be overlooked. The northern European and Scandinavian traditions of smoked mutton, hogget and lamb that migrated to these shores are seldom seen, but the producers using these animals are making some unique charcuterie. British beef breeds are known for their flavour, marbling and texture. The tradition of smoking meat and fish in this country is strong and it's important to remember that native breed cattle and lambs are largely grass fed, free range and self-sufficient feeders, thereby low impact and sustainable.
Farmison & Co have now launched their range of heritage corned beef. Not in a tin and not minced to within an inch of its life, but hand shredded and pressed like a terrine with some beef bone broth added back in. Made from heritage beef cattle, it's lightly seasoned to ensure that the taste of the beef remains at the forefront. Small steps in contributing to a traditional British charcuterie revival but every step towards eating better meat has to start somewhere.