Britons have eaten Continental charcuterie for decades. Walk into any Tesco, Sainsbury's or Waitrose and you'll see packets of the stuff piled high in fridges, or finely sliced on the deli counter. The predominantly pork-based slivers are served as antipasti in our restaurants, stuffed hurriedly into sandwiches and displayed on platters to impress guests at dinner parties.
Originally a way to preserve meat before the advent of refrigeration, for years we have relied on Italy, France and Spain to satisfy our charcuterie cravings, importing meat from across the Channel to fill our cupboards and remind us of long, languorous lunches in the Mediterranean sun. But, as consumers become increasingly aware of their carbon footprints and wary of mass-produced, over-processed, supermarket fodder, British delis, market stalls and farm shops are competing for a slice of the market, popping up across the country, selling their free-range, locally sourced wares to foodies who care about the provenance of their meat.
One deli buying into the tasty trend is Damson & Co, run by Portugal-born Antonio Cardoso. Located on Brewer Street in Soho, London, surrounded by busy PR firms and fashionable bars, the tiny café couldn't be further from lazy lunches on the Continent. Despite this, it prides itself on its weird and wonderful British charcuterie.
I was brought up on a diet of chorizo so paprika-stuffed that it stained my fingers orange, French saucisson so oily that I left greasy stains on my favourite dresses, and Parma ham so deliciously salty, I would forgo a chunk of melon if it meant I could cram more of the Italian meat into my salivating mouth. Needless to say, I leg it to Damson & Co as fast as my shoe boots can carry me.
"Charcuterie is completely dominated by the Spanish and Italian markets," says Cardoso, as I cast a greedy eye over the menu. "British charcuterie is very artisan, very cool. It's created by people with a passion for food and it's not industrialised. The skill and the husbandry that go into it are amazing."
He's not wrong. The names of exciting and untried meats jump out at me from the menu and soon a smorgasbord of tasters from across the country appears. Charcuterie virgins can test the waters with Yorkshire spicy chorizo and Dukeshill Shropshire cooked ham, while braver, more experienced folk can dive straight in with Dorset air-dried, cured mutton, Wyre Forest wild boar salami and, coming soon, goose salami. A house selection of three cured meats, toast and homemade piccalilli costs £16 and is served with a cheery smile and advice on the best British wine to accompany the sumptuous morsels.
Cardoso talks me through the meats on the board, stopping to let me taste and insisting that I wash them down with a delectable Gusbourne Pinot Noir. "I'm very keen to promote British farmers," he says, between mouthfuls. "Supermarkets really control how meat is sold, which is good because it is regulated, but it can be difficult for independent farmers. Charcuterie is a slow-pace, long-term income for British farmers."
John Doig, the founder of Moons Green Charcuterie, supports this theory. The New Zealand-born pig farmer started making charcuterie two years ago, after transforming two fridges in his garage into curing stations. Now he spends his days surrounded by bellies, collars, loins, cheeks and several other parts of pig, and couldn't be happier.
"The days of grey meat and three veg are behind us," he says, taking a break from the butchery in Rye, East Sussex. "British free-range pork is arguably the best in the world. These butchers are driven by passion, not by their bank balances. They couldn't do what they do if they were."
The British charcuterie market is dominated by people with a passion for the product. Brothers Sean and Joe Cannon set up their business Cannon & Cannon in 2010, after falling in love with the food on family holidays to France. Sean tells me that simple lunches of meats, cheeses and fresh bread make up some of his happiest childhood memories.
Cannon & Cannon started life in Brixton Village, selling a wide range of British cured meats, which the brothers claim rival anything the Continent has to offer. On the menu are delights such as air-dried alpaca, wild venison chilli chorizo, venison bresaola and cold-smoked mutton, as well as a more traditional chorizo and saucisson selection. The siblings recently set up shop in Borough Market and are in the process of developing a book about the cured-meat movement.
"In Britain, we eat a lot of charcuterie – several million tonnes a year, in fact," says Sean, who claims that Britons actually consume more of the meaty treats than the Italians, Spanish or French. "British charcuterie is made with meat from really well-raised livestock. That's one thing we do very well in the UK – our animal welfare is very sound. Happy animals mean great meat.
"When you cure a piece of meat, you're concentrating all of the flavour. With British charcuterie what you get is a really meaty experience with a real sense of the animal and the provenance of the beast."
This mission statement means that the brothers' produce, sold wholesale to restaurants, pubs, delis and shops, appeals to the ethically aware customer. The meat is sourced in the UK, so the food miles are low and the lads can tell their customers all about the origin of the animal, sometimes even down to the field that the cows grazed in. "On the market stall, we meet people who are fascinated by the concept of British charcuterie," says Sean. "When they try it, it sings because it's made with love and it is exceptional meat."
Back in Damson & Co, I've polished off the last of the spicy chorizo from Yorkshire. I leave with a full belly and a clear conscience, knowing that everything I've eaten lived a happy life. In a world where the meat market is monopolised by big supermarkets and a cured-meat selection platter from Tesco will set you back only £1.70, it's satisfying to eat meat that has been well cared for. The price tag is higher (100g of Cannon & Cannon's Oxsprings English air-dried ham costs £5.50), but it's justified by the quality of the product.
British charcuterie is about well-kept animals, talented butchers, and entrepreneurs who are brave enough to take a chance on goose salami. It may be a slow-burner income but, if made with love, talent and top-quality meat, charcuterie may soon become the trump card of British farmers.