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The Cure

Continental Europe has a tradition of curing meats stretching back centuries, but the Brits have only cottoned on to the possibilities much more recently. Sudi Pigott assesses how far we have come and, opposite, our tasting panel puts a few of the pioneers through their paces

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

7 April 2011

12:00 AM

On the continent, the creators of cured meats can draw on a tradition imbued in the genes (in the case of Parma ham, for example) since the time of Hannibal. Can a much newer generation of British charcutiers possibly hope to compete, boosted by the surge of interest in hand-made food with clear, local provenance and with a potent mix of bloody-minded determination and passion?

Of course, there has long been a tradition of British hams — think Cumbrian or Carmarthen — but somehow they’ve never quite enjoyed the recognition and kudos of their European counterparts. But now at last we’re seeing British coppa (air-dried pork collar) and culatello (taken, as Antonio Carluccio once put it, from the plumpest part of the arse) jostling for position.

Newest on the scene is Tim Matthews, who was given a home smoker by his wife several years back and got utterly hooked. Formerly in property, his new-found passion for smoking coincided neatly with the recession. Initially, he found himself smoking more and more salmon for friends.

‘Quite soon I was doing up to 30 kilos a week, and realised this was more than fun, the beginning of something new. I love steak, so my first challenge was a beef carpaccio.’ His sublime beef fillet (made from East Anglican Aberdeen Angus or Hereford beef, hung for 28 days, dry cured for five days and smoked gently for three days in maple wood) immediately won Gold at the Great Taste Awards, even though the company is barely a year old. What’s more, it’s still run from Matthews’s home kitchen.

Near neighbours Ian and Sue Whitehead at Suffolk Salami started out as traditional pig breeders of Duroc and white Landrace and had long wanted to diversify into salami, but didn’t know where to start. A chance encounter with a friendly butcher while on holiday in Italy, who invited them to watch him make his salami, was all the incentive they needed. ‘It’s not something to undertake lightly,’ they say. First they travelled in Spain and Germany for inspiration, then spent more than a year experimenting to make salamis that could hold their own. Using meat from their own pigs, they make just two salamis: a semi-dried chorizo that can be eaten raw or cooked and an Italian air-dried salami with a protective penicillium mould.

For Cornish food-lovers Jean and Martin Edwards it was frustration at not being able to buy interesting air-dried meats locally that led them to undertake extensive research and develop their own award-winning Deli Farm Charcuterie recipes. Best of all are their unusual air-dried duck breast ‘ham’, their coppa (there’s a version with honey and mustard smeared on after salt/herb curing before drying) and an intriguing salami using black olives in place of fat. Though the Cornish climate is more suited to air-drying than much of the UK, it’s still too damp to make whole air-dried hams similar to Parma ham. Smaller cuts get the flavour, but don’t require such long ageing time.

Creating a new tradition of charcuterie was also the dream of James Swift of Trealy Farm Charcuterie. He was also spurred by a desire to show that anything was possible here, even Italian inspired lardo (matured, herb-imbued pork fat originally from Tuscany, though Trealy Farm’s has divine truffle oil rubbed in with the rosemary) and lomo (air-dried pork loin). What makes the new British charcuterie so exceptional, says Swift, is the use of impeccable traditional-breed, ethically-reared meat.

‘I find it fascinating that the charcuterie tastes distinctly different every time I use a different breed or work with a different cut or muscle of the beast,’ he says. ‘We have the benefit of not being hidebound by tradition. And, there’s a growing appreciation of such micro-terroir and artisanal produce again now.’

Restaurants including Hix Soho and Searcy’s at St Pancras regularly include Trealy Farm charcuterie on the menu. Aside from using Saddlebacks, Old Spots et al from a co-op of local farmers, Swift also got wind that Prince Charles was sending his Highgrove Tamworth pigs to Italy to be made into air-dried ham. Now, Trealy Farm is making salamis and air-dried meats (including air-dried loin, fennel and black pepper salami and sweet chorizo) from the regal pigs, on sale at Fortnum & Mason. Perhaps they’ll feature one day in the king’s speech.

Sudi insists it’s pure coincidence her nom de plume rhymes with foodie.

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