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Drawn together: the cured meat slicer

Categories: Behind the stalls

Award-winning blogger Ed Smith, part of the Cannon & Cannon team, displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word as he explores the tools of Borough Market. This month: his own stall’s cured meat slicer

At Cannon & Cannon, we have been selling British cured meat at our Borough Market stall since 2010. There, most of what we sell consists of small, air-dried sausages weighing 80-100g each—easy for people to take home and slice as they wish with a knife.

But a large part of the business involves selling wholesale to restaurants and delicatessens, most of which buy larger versions of those sausages, plus whole muscles and hams—things that you might have seen labelled as ‘coppa’, ‘lomo’, ‘cecina’, ‘bresaola’, ‘prosciutto’ and so on in European restaurants and bars. Meats like these need to be sliced as thinly and as uniformly as possible. A knife won’t do—you need an electric or fly wheel slicer.

We’ve got a number of different slicers—large and small—but by far my favourite is ‘Abigail’, a beautiful, deep red, cast iron, hand-driven flywheel slicer made by a Dutch company called Berkel. It’s properly retro and dates back at least 60 years, but she’s an absolute stunner and still performs beautifully.

Niche industry
Cured meat is still a niche industry in Britain. It’s not entrenched in the nation’s mind in the same way it is in continental Europe, where you’ll find cured and air-dried whole-muscle meats and sausages in every supermarket and deli, waiting to be sliced to order by one of these machines. In the UK, we’re more used to seeing them in plastic packs.

When the meat is still whole, you need a machine whose blade will slice it paper-thin. This is important because charcuterie, or salumi, or whatever you want to call it, is a concentrated form of the fresh meat that began the curing process. During the curing and drying process, it loses around 40 per cent of its weight and takes on a lot of salt. It becomes incredibly intense and also quite hard. So you can’t just bite into a thick piece. By slicing it as thin as possible, it is enjoyable rather than overpowering in flavour, and will melt on the tongue rather than take your teeth out as you chew.

Pure theatre
Abigail somehow slices cured meat even finer than our other electric driven machines. You just turn the handle and watch the meat gradually move towards the blade. There’s a whirring, clickkety-clacking sound as she works. It’s pure theatre. The sound and performance really seems to draw people in—she’s quite the show-off. I guess it harks back to industrial times, cotton mills and stuff, rather than the monotonous buzz of modern electric life.

I’ve no idea why we called her Abigail, though I do recall a heavy drinking session and that by the next morning she was christened. The name seems to fit, so it’s stuck. We’ve taken to naming all of our slicers now. Percy is a real work horse—but Abigail is the star of the show.