A cure for anything: How to put together the choicest selection of cold cuts

Chorizo, prosciutto, saucisson and Black Forest ham – what could be simpler and more summery than a delicious plate of charcuterie?

Alice-Azania Jarvis
Thursday 05 May 2011 00:00

Bresaola, jamon, rillet and saucisson: over the past few years, Britain has witnessed a charcuterie revolution. Whether it's the tapas-y experience of Polpo, Morito, et al, or the more substantial undertakings of Brawn and its older sibling, Terroirs in London's Strand, 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 – from lardons and pancetta to wild boar chorizo. Even on the high-street, the change is apparent: cafes 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 and 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 why putting 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 Piedmonte 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 paté 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.

But across Europe, you'll find regions fiercely proud of their contribution to the ham-eating world. Germany's black forest ham ("Schwarzwälder Schinken") is the best-selling on the continent; elsewhere Westfaelischer Schinken, from the country's Western regions and Ammerländer Schinken, from the North, have been granted special protected status by the EU.

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 he has recently begun supplying Marks and Spencer with the lesser-known capocollo (distinct from proscuitto in that it comprises meat from the pig's shoulder and neck, rather than its thigh) and lonzino, a cured pork loin. Indeed, should you want to stop at ham, the three work well together, just as they are. That way, says Tindal, "you get the traditional flavour of the prosciutto toscano, the leaner and drier taste of the lonzino and the fuller and richer flavour of the capocollo".

Stage two: Sausage

France, really, is the spiritual home of the sausage – as Wilson observes, you'd be hard-pressed to sit down for a glass of wine in Lyon "without having some bit of sausage or other on the side". Key to determining the quality of your choice is the fat content: you want plenty of nice white globules to be visible. "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

With the simplicity of the sausage and ham, a paté 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.

At Brawn the pork rillet, served in individual kilner jars, is a menu staple. "There's a contrast – something you can dip your bread into. It offers something a bit different." And who could forget brawn itself – the meat jelly made from the head of a calf or pig, after which the restaurant is named? There are plenty of corresponding Continental offerings, from France's tete pressee to Italy's coppa di testa, but in its British incarnation, it remains something of a national classic. The peppery, aspic-heavy terrine offers a refreshing addition, far more delectable than its name might suggest. "It's something we grew up with," agrees Darragh O'Shea of butchers O'Shea's of Knightsbridge. "It fell by the wayside over the years; being classed as peasant food, but now it's coming back in fashion. There's more awareness than ever."

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 less often eaten hot than not.

And 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. There's no need to marry it with something else."

Instead, he suggests serving simply bread – "a crusty, country loaf" – and cornichons, whose acidity offers a welcome counterbalance to the meats' richness.

As for the drinks – well, few things could go together more perfectly that wine and charcuterie. "They absolutely go hand in hand," says Wilson. "It's something we haven't really come to embrace in this country."

Charcuterie tips

Think about presentation. Served too hot, the meat will be sweaty, limp – or worse, dry. Too cold (which is to say, straight from the fridge) and its flavours won't live up to their potential. "Make sure to remove any meat and cheese from the fridge half an hour or so before serving," advises Tindal.

When looking for your meats, seek out products that have had as little done to them before they reach the plate as possible. At delis and specialists, you should be able to get the meat sliced before your eyes.

Traditionally, supermarkets have tended to have their meats compressed into cylinders or blocks before slicing to ensure that every piece is the same. This is something Tindal refuses to do: "Some of our slices are bigger that others, but they retain as many of the characteristics as possible. The philosophy is very much that we need to guide a natural progression rather than make or process a product."

For a really interesting selection, don't be afraid to experiment. On one recent trip to Tuscany, Wilson came across Biroldo della Garfagnana. A "kind of Tuscan haggis", it combines head meat with heart, tongue, rind and fat to be mixed with blood and spices and boiled in a pig's stomach. "It was delicious," he says. "An entirely new experience."

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