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Cut and dried: Croatian and British cured meats

Categories: Product stories, Expert guidance

In the final post of this series, Ed takes a look at two countries whose cured meats might not be as well-known as those of Italy, Spain and France, but should be: Croatia and Britain

Beyond the big hitters
Through this series we’ve discussed cured meats in general, Italian regional variations at length, and the two other giants of European curing—Spain and France—in detail too. Hopefully I’ve added context to what you already knew and loved, and the articles provided some encouragement to try a few slices of something new next time you walk around the Market (the rolled pancetta at Bianca Mora is looking particularly fine (and fatty) at the moment…).

While those three regions are the places most Brits think about when it comes to cured meats, there’s more to it than salumi, charcuterie and charcuteria.

Germany and Scandinavia in particular have fine traditions of curing—often with a smoky edge, most likely because their climate necessitated that element more than the natural curing chambers provided by the caves of Emilia-Romagna and the Iberian Peninsula. At the Market, two other regions are represented: Croatia and Great Britain.

Croatia—a long-established and very tasty tradition
Croatian cuisine is varied and regional. To knowingly over simplify things: food in coastal areas take a distinctly Italian and Mediterranean turn, with olive oil, rosemary, sage, bay leaf, figs and truffles; further inland, the influence of Hungarian and Turkish cuisine is clear, so think paprika, black pepper and lard for cooking (rather than olive oil). One thing is consistent, though: traditional cured meats.

Pršut
Next time you enter Taste Croatia, look up—there’s often a whole pršut hanging from the ceiling.Pršut is the dried rear leg of a pig so, basically (but not specifically), the same thing as prosciutto or serrano ham.

I am told that you will find pršut across Croatia, though the two areas that this meat tends to be produced are Istria and Dalmatia. These are coastal regions that benefit from climatic conditions which are favourable to curing and air-drying pig’s legs, with both steady winds from the Adriatic and dry winds from coastal mountains.

Dalmation pršut is lightly smoked for flavour, but otherwise simply salted, and often matured for a couple of years. Istrian pršut is unsmoked, but (unusually for this style of meat) skinned before the curing process begins and seasoned with pepper, bay leaves and garlic, and aged for a year.

Kulen
Kulen is like a very meaty, slightly crumbly chorizo seasoned with paprika, garlic and white pepper. We need to head east and inland to understand it and, again, there are a couple of different varieties.

Both are oval shaped and large, often up to 10cm in diameter, on account of the fact the sausage meat is stuffed into a pig’s intestine. But kulen from Baranja, the Croatian-Hungarian border region, is smoky and spicy and paprika-heavy; kulen from Slavonia, on the other hand, includes already-cured bacon among the pork mince, and less paprika.

Wild boar, venison and salami
Other meats exist beyond the stars of kulen and pršut. As with the other regions we’ve discussed, premium products and styles develop over time, but the prime reason for curing was always to preserve the meat of an animal for as long as possible, so every bit would have been used.

As one might expect, small salami-style sausages are prevalent. At Taste Croatia you can find salamis from Istria featuring Istrian black truffles, and also plainer ones using wild boar. The flavours and styles that differentiate regional salamis are so often based on meats or seasonings local to the sausage makers, and it’s no different here.

Istrian artisans have also turned their hands to curing wild venison and boar in a prosciutto-style for slicing—each really worth sampling.

Great Britain—a new, artisanal (and already very tasty) tradition
As we move inexorably towards 2020(!), it no longer seems possible to feign shock at the idea of British cured meats. The ‘revolution’ has been evident for well over a decade and a number of highly regarded producers can now be considered established.

If you’ve missed it, where have you been? For seven years Borough Market’s Cannon & Cannon has been showcasing meats produced all over this Island—from Cornwall to Monmouthshire and up to Inverness. At the stall there are a multitude of small salamis, snacks like biltong and jerky, and sliced whole muscle meats too.

In typically British magpie style, and probably because this ‘new tradition’ is grounded in food-safe production units and temperature-controlled curing chambers rather than the natural environment, the range of British meats seems both infinite and disparate. However, there are a couple of defining features and a number of stand-out products.

The meat
If there’s one thing that defines Great British cured meats, it’s the quality of the animals used at the start of the process. The best British products are the result of brilliant husbandry, slow-growing heritage or wild animals. Indeed, it seems likely that the breeds of animals and the way they are farmed will be what ensures British cured meat becomes renowned on a global level.

Numerous producers make superb coppa (sometimes called ‘nape’, as in the nape of the neck), which is rich and intense in flavour and well-marbled. The best always come from heritage breed pork. Look in particular for coppa from Cornish lop, Tamworth or Gloucester old spots.

On a slightly different note, you will have noticed that many of the products featured over the course of this series have been pork-based. This is because, historically, the pig was particularly well-suited to small scale subsistence farming and to curing. However, Britain’s meat stock is varied and now, as we produce foods for taste as much as necessity, all options are open. Accordingly, some of the standout British products are not pork-based. Look out for wild venison salami from Scotland, lamb merguez from Wales, and sliced, smoked mutton from Dorset.

Unusual flavours
Centuries of history, breeding, technique, understanding and even the long-established bacteria in a curing chamber help the bastions of European meat curing produce their best meats. We don’t have that in Britain.

It could be argued, though, that food traditions can be overly strict and constraining, whereas British producers can do whatever they want. While tying products to terroir is often best, sometimes unleashing invention yields brilliant results.

Next time you stop by Cannon & Cannon, be sure to try the veal, lemon and sage, and duck and sichuan pepper salamis, both from Monmouthshire, plus the fiery and fiendishly moreish beer sticks from Kent.

Where to shop for Croatian and British charcuterie at Borough Market:
Taste Croatia offers a focused selection of pig, boar and venison, prosciutto-style sliced meats, and small, whole sausages too. Pick up a figgy condiment, sheep’s cheese or world class olive oil to enjoy at the same time.
Cannon & Cannon sells a range of British cured meats from their stall in Three Crown Square. They have a varied selection of small sausages, as well as sliced whole muscle meats, snacks like biltong and ‘beer sticks’, and even a British version of the Calabrian spreadable nduja.

Both British Charcuterie Live and British Cured Meat Festival have been held at Borough Market in recent years.