A cure for everything

What could be simpler and more summery than a delicious plate of charcuterie? Alice-Azania Jarvis finds out how to put together a perfect selection of cold cuts
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The Independent Online

Bresaola, jamon, rillet and saucisson: over the past few years, Britain has witnessed a charcuterie revolution. Finding an appetising selection of cured meats no longer necessitates an easyJet flight to the Continent. The trend's not just limited to dining out. Producers like the famous Trealy Farm in Monmouth, Wales, and the Cotswolds' Real Boar Co have taken to producing their own, home-grown take on charcuterie. High-street cafés offering some variant on the charcuterie plate – be it in its purest form or in the more muddled incarnation of the ubiquitous "antipasto platter" – are 10 a penny.

Meanwhile, this summer, Marks & Spencer will attempt to do the (hitherto) impossible: bring top-quality, succulent charcuterie to the supermarket. "All the meats will be made by family companies," says Peter Tindal, whose company Fine Italian Foods is behind the operation. "The skills have been passed down from father to son."

"It has really started to gather pace," agrees Ed Wilson, head chef and co-owner of Brawn, London's go-to spot for boards of meat and carafes of natural wine. "People know about wine and cheese – it's a similar idea: a glass of wine and a few charcuterie. As people travel, they become more aware of it."

What could be more summery than a selection of delicious cured meats enjoyed outdoors with a nice cool glass of wine? The lack of cooking, the lack of fuss and the association of a communal experience; of a group of friends picking at a plate of food; it's quintessential al fresco dining.

The surprising thing with charcuterie is that, really, we're spoiled for choice. It may, until recently, have been an indulgence to be enjoyed on holiday, but in fact there's no reason whyputting together a board of good-quality meat in the UK need be any more difficult that anywhere else.

The word itself might be French, but the concept is very much an international one. The M&S range comes from farms in the Emilia Romagna, Lombardia and Piemonte regions of Italy, and elsewhere, in Spain, Germany, France – even in Finland, Poland and, historically, the UK– the concept is common. The menu at Brawn features charcuterie from all over Europe. In fact, geographic variety is, in many ways, central to ensuring your charcuterie board retains its own identity; just like putting together the perfect cheese plate, the aim is a combination of complementing, rather than competing, flavours. As Wilson explains: "A good charcuterie board should show different styles from different countries." He recommends a choice of four different styles of meat: a ham, a sausage, a pâté and a final, quirky option like a lardo. "Four, really, is the perfect number: that way you can get a bit of everything without it all becoming too much."

First, choose your ham

Frequently the focal point of a charcuterie board, the most obvious go-to point when it comes to selecting a ham tends to be Spain, thanks in large part to the fame of jamó* ibérico – particularly the revered jamó* ibérico bellota, made from pigs fed entirely on acorns.

For their part, both Wilson and Tindal advocate starting with an Italian option. "Spanish ham can really be quite strong; quite dominant," says Wilson. "But I'm a big fan of Parma ham. At Brawn we have a Parma ham from a very good producer. It has spent 28 months ageing; acquiring its own flavour – so the taste becomes that of the ham rather than the pig's diet."

Tindal prefers a prosciutto Toscano – "for me, it has that little bit more flavour", he says – though has recently begun supplying Marks & Spencer with the lesser-known capocollo(distinct from prosciutto in that it comprises meat from the pig's shoulder and neck, rather than its thigh) and lonzino, a cured pork loin.

Stage two: Sausage

France, really, is the spiritual home of the sausage. Key to determining the quality of your choice is the fat content: you want plenty of nice white globules to be visible, as Wilson observes: "I would want a good saucisson sec – a dry sausage. I use a guy from the Basque country, just on the border between France and Spain, who uses Duroc pigs. It has a really wonderful balance."

Texturise with terrine

A pâté of some sort – be it in the form of a terrine, a rillet or something altogether different – introduces that extra element to the charcuterie board.

Finally, some fat

"What I admire about Italian producers is that you get people who just make one thing and have done for generations," observes Wilson, who likes to introduce a final twist by including some lardo on his board. "I love the constancy; the idea that 'we do this one thing and it's fantastic, so we don't need to do anything else'." He serves a Lardo di Colonnata from the village of Colonnata in Northern Tuscany. Little more than a slab of fat – thick, white, sprinkled with a few herbs and spices – it is, he says, "truly delicious".

Tindal, meanwhile, suggests serving a sliced porchetta alongside the cured meats, introducing a cooked element. Roast slowly over wood embers – he recommends six or seven hours – it is, essentially, a joint of stuffed, roast pork – rich with fat - that has been allowed to cool before being sliced and served. While we might associate roast pork with a hot meal on a Sunday, in Tuscany, porchetta is often eaten cold.

now... the accompaniments

Cheese, olives – even fruit – are frequent bedfellows of charcuterie.

"In the UK, we don't tend to consider eating pieces of parmesan broken from a wedge," observes Tindal. "But these go perfectly with sliced meats."

Wilson, however, prefers to keep things simple: "If you have chosen the right combination, I really think your meat is best eaten and enjoyed on its own." Instead, he suggests "a crusty, country loaf" and as for the drinks – well, few things could go together more perfectly than wine and charcuterie.