Think Wales and you'll think leeks and lamb but almost certainly not salami. But in a pocket of rural Monmouthshire, charcutiers James Swift and Graham Waddington are proving that la vita can be equally dolce in Britain as in Italy. Their array of cured meats has just scooped a plethora of awards, and graces the tables of some of the country's classiest restaurants and gastropubs.
Swift and Waddington at Trealy Farm are among a small but burgeoning band of artisan charcutiers in the UK who find inspiration in Europe, particularly Italy, to create cured meats that are starting to rival what you might find in Parma or Padua. Many of their products still borrow their names from Italy – coppa (pork collar), pancetta (pork belly) and bresaola (cured air-dried beef) – but their recipes and meats are firmly British. From Cornwall to Suffolk to Cumbria, artisan producers are placing British charcuterie on the map. In the Cotswolds, Simon Gaskell uses free-range wild boar to make top-notch salamis; in Hampshire, racing driver-turned-organic farmer Jody Scheckter has built on his Ferrari connections to develop some tasty salamis, and already sells a first-rate bresaola and coppa (not to mention a buffalo mozzarella, which he's threatening to export to Italy); in Cumbria, Richard Woodall's family are air-drying locally reared Large White and Landrace pigs – as they have been quietly doing for the past quarter century. And there are more (see box).
Apart from the Woodalls, the practice of air-drying meat, instead of selling it raw, cured, or cooked, was pretty much unheard of in Britain until recently. Swift believes this is in fact a boon: "It means we're not hampered by tradition. It's a bit like wine: 25 years ago, who in Britain knew anything about making wine? But now we're gaining international respect for our wines. Not having a tradition means we can take the best from abroad and adapt it to conditions and tastes here."
Given their backgrounds, it's clear that Swift and Waddington are not burdened by tradition, either. Swift was brought up on a smallholding in Sussex, graduated in history then worked as a civil servant in London, while Waddington, originally from Wimbledon, had a job in Cardiff as a dispute resolution practitioner. Both had foodie grandmothers (Swift's was French, so understood about making tasty use all parts of an animal) from whom they inherited a love of food and cooking. Both moved to Monmouthshire in search of the Good Life, keeping a few traditional-breed pigs from which they made sausages and hams. In 2004 they bumped into each other at the Abergavenny Food Festival, got talking, and slowly the salami idea took shape.
"I spent ages trying to work out how I could make a living out of pigs," says Swift, sitting at the kitchen table in his Welsh-stone long house with its stunning view towards the Black Mountains. "Making sausages and bacon didn't pay. We needed to add value, using every bit of the animal." Inspirational books such as Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's The River Cottage Cookbook and Maynard Davies' Maynard: Adventures of a Bacon Curer became compulsory bedtime reading, and a period of experimentation began. Trials included hanging salamis up the chimney; the salamis developed awful black moulds. "Our dog got very fat on the cast-offs," laughs Swift.
Swift and Waddington set off to Europe in search of their Holy Grail – the secret of how to cure meat to perfection. They visited feisty fleischmeisters in Germany, quizzed families air-drying jamon serrano in Spain's Sierra Nevada, and made pilgrimages to the hallowed heart of air-dried ham, Parma, in northern Italy. The knowledge they gleaned from this patchwork of traditions was thrown into a mental melting pot and gradually the two developed their own recipes and techniques.
"We soon learned that you couldn't simply replicate what's done on the Continent," says Swift. "Each product is based on the micro-climate of that particular region. I remember going to a village in Italy and quizzing an old man about how he air-dried his hams. He explained how the pigs had to be slaughtered on the Feast of, say, Santa Caterina, and the hams hung out when the swallows arrived, and so on. We could have come back to Wales, checked when the Feast of Santa Caterina was and followed his technique to the letter, and we'd have ended up with a rotten piece of meat. The climate in a hill-top Tuscan town doesn't have many similarities with that of the Welsh borders. Hams can be hung outside there, which is impossible here."
Swift and Waddington could have followed the northern European route of smoking meats during air-drying to preserve them. But they went for a blend of methods, so hams or salamis are smoked over beech chippings, or air-dried in chambers whose humidity and temperature are artificially controlled.
In one important respect, though, Trealy Farm claims the edge over many of its competitors at home and abroad: the breeds of pigs it uses. Monmouthshire has always reared traditional-breed pigs, which grazed in the area's once plentiful fruit orchards. Today, scores of small farms still raise traditional breeds like Saddleback, Tamworth and Oxford Sandy and Black – all of which make great cured meats. Swift and Waddington hope that by offering decent prices they can help provide local farmers with a livelihood, and at the same time preserve the breeds.
"Commercial breeds are reared to grow as fast as possible with as little fat as possible," says Swift. "The meat has no marbling (flecks of fat through the lean meat). But this is exactly what you need to make the best air-dried meats. So we use traditional breeds which are grown longer – they are slaughtered at nine months or more, compared to the commercial norm of four – and are fed a varied free-range diet. They produce huge pigs with well-marbled, flavoursome meat. Oddly, even Parma ham is now made from commercial breeds, as Italy has lost almost all its traditional breeds. So they have to achieve quality through technique instead." Trealy's local network benefits everyone, and keeps food miles down, too, says Waddington. "It's very satisfying. Every bit of the chain is firmly rooted in the local area, from the suppliers of our traditional breed meat, to the slaughterhouse to our customers at local farmers' markets."
Swift and Waddington have also started a charcuterie service for farmers further afield. One of their first customers was the Prince of Wales, who last month presided over the BBC Food & Farming Awards, where Swift and Waddington were awarded Best Food Producer. They heard that the Prince was sending some of his Tamworth pigs to Italy to be turned into air-dried meats. "We rang and asked if he'd like to send us some as an experiment, so he did," says Swift. "Apparently he was impressed with the result, and he's been sending them ever since."
It has not all been easy, though, as Swift and Waddington readily admit. Financially, curing meats is far riskier than selling them fresh or making bangers, as money is tied up in the hams and salamis while they age. "This really is slow food. There are no quick returns," says Swift. "It's no good if 5,000 people suddenly turn up at the door asking for air-dried hams. These take up to six months to produce, so you have to plan ahead carefully to meet demand." Demand is certainly there, including a contract to supply Waitrose this year. Next month Swift and Waddington are moving their business to larger premises near Usk.
Another struggle has been convincing environmental health officers that uncooked meats are safe to eat. "To them it was taboo, so we had to teach them the science. We sent our air-dried meats off for testing at labs and the results after three months showed that they actually contained fewer bugs than fresh meat." Officials are also wrestling with the best way to define Trealy's meats, smiles Swift. "They keep asking whether our sausages are raw or cooked. When we tell them neither, they can't get their heads around it."
Despite the challenges, Swift and Waddington have no regrets about going the whole hog. Swift recalls a moment at Usk farmer's market a few years ago that made it all worthwhile. "A little boy tasted one of our snack salamis and said to his mum: 'It's like a Peperami – but nice.'" Accolades have come from Italy, too, such as the praise the pair won from an Italian chef at the BBC awards ceremony. "Coming from him, that meant a lot," says Swift.
As consumers, we may still lack sufficient confidence in our food culture to believe that produce crafted on our doorstep can be as tasty as the "exotic" meats we eat on our European holidays. But maybe it's time that we, and celebrity chefs like Jamie, started to think outside the Parma box. Judging from the meat that is coming out of Trealy Farm, we can do it just as well as can la bella Italia.
Where to buy it: British charcutiers
Mitchel Troy, Monmouth
Around 50 products, from air-dried ham to chorizos and salamis. Sold at local farmers' markets, Waitrose (from Jan) and online.
01600 740705, Trealyfarm.com
The Woodall family were the first in Britain to air-dry ham and pancetta. They now make salamis too. Sold in Booths, delis nationwide and mail order.
01229 717237, Richardwoodall.com
The Real Boar Company
Farmer Simon Gaskell uses his own free-range wild boar to make a selection of salamis and chorizos, including: wild boar salami and red wine; wild boar and venison salami with red wine; and Cotswold game salami. Buy at Harvey Nichols, delis nationwide and online.
01249 782861, Therealboar.co.uk
Suffolk Salami Company
Ian and Sue Whitehead make two air-dried salamis, one with pork and fennel, the other with pork, red wine and peppercorns. They also make a semi-dried chorizo. Sold in local delis, farmshops, Fornum & Mason, and mail order.
01379 384593, Suffolksalami.co.uk
Wenlock Edge Farm
Makes dry-cured ham, pancetta, coppa and chorizo, mostly from own livestock. Local farmshops and mail order.
01694 771312, Wenlockedgefarm.org
Laverstoke Park Farm
Bresaola, coppa, salami, biltong – all from organically reared livestock from Jody Scheckter's farm. Available at farm shop and online. Biltong on sale at Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Harrods.
0800 334 5505, Laverstokepark.co.uk
Deli Farm Charcuterie
Husband and wife team Jean and Martin Edwards use local Cornish meat to make a wide range of salamis, coppa and bresaola.
01840 214106, Delifarmcharcuterie.co.uk
Castellano's Deli & Charcuterie
Sicilian-born Vincent Castellano makes pancetta and French-style salami ( saucisson sec) using locally sourced free-range pork which he sells in his Bristol deli and at farmers' markets.
0117 9652792, Castellanos.co.uk
And in Ireland:
West Cork, Ireland
Salamis, hams, bacon and continental-style sausages, using own pork. Sold at farmers' markets and mail order.
00 353 28 27824, Gubbeen.comReuse content