Philip Crouch on how Slow Food principles permeate his stall, The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand
The paths to Slow Food enlightenment are many and varied: some come to it in childhood, their parents or neighbours being producers. Some come to it in their travels around Italy, the movement’s homeland—others through Borough Market, where the principles of Slow Food increasingly hold sway.
Philip Crouch arrived by chance some years ago: “A good friend was secretary of Slow Food UK and invited me to a festival, the Salone del Gusto. It was the most amazing 10 hours. I’m a food retailer. I import food and sell it. But what this festival really showed me was that quality food is a broad church. Of course I knew that in theory, but the festival put meat on the bones of the idea.”
Or rather, in Philip’s case, it took meat off the bones. Alongside the obvious, his Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand sells a number of cured hams and salamis—an offering which, post Slow Food enlightenment, has grown in quality and range.
“Slow Food can seem rather an academic term. I’m not an academic, but I did buy into its broad concept, which is if I am going to sell this food I should know who made it, where and how, and whether the animal’s welfare was taken into account in the process.”
Culatello di zibello is a case in point; a handmade salami produced from the back muscle of the hind leg of a specific breed of pig, reared on the flatlands of the River Po near Parma. “They’ve been doing this here for many hundreds of years,” Philip explains. Indeed, the first mention of culatello dates from the 15th century.
“The amazing thing is, every stage of the making it is unchanged: from the animal husbandry to the curing process, which involves the meat being salted then placed in a maturing cellar for between 12 and 18 months.” There, the humid atmosphere and mould within breaks the meat down to produce the deep, slightly sweet taste for which culatello is known.
Its ‘slowness’ doesn’t stop there: even when it’s delivered to Borough Market, Philip and his team must take several meticulous steps to prepare it before it’s ready for sale. “It arrives on Wednesday, and we rinse it in tepid water and soak it in dry white wine for two days.”
On Friday morning, the skin comes off and the fat is trimmed—a skilled act Philip only trusts to himself and his Italian colleague, who has been working with it for more than 30 years. “Culatello is a rare and highly valuable cut of meat. It needs to be looked after properly.”
‘Looked after’ is the buzz word here, as it is with all of Philip’s Slow Food products. “It’s about being rooted in the locality, in products which go from field to fork with respect for a process that is vernacular and artisanal.” This respect and rootedness extends from his own preparation at Borough Market, right back to the pigs we owe such spectacular cuts of meat to.
“The producers have their own small herds, which they use exclusively for each product,” he says. “The quality is hugely different to those that are industrially reared.” Welfare is everything. “If pigs are intensely reared, they live for a matter of months before slaughter. They are fed on industrial ‘feed’ rather than naturally grazing and roaming free,” Philip points out.
This practice isn’t just ethically questionable, it changes the taste profile, as the ratio of muscle to fat in the meat is affected by the manner of rearing. The maiale nero pig is a prime example. Unique to the province of Messina, Sicily, it spends its days roaming free in the forests of the Nebridi national park.
It’s fat—a feature which historically puts many butchers off, due to the lower ratio of saleable cuts it garners—but its earthly wanderings and diet of foraged berries and acorns makes for the intense, inimitable flavour you’ll find in Philip’s prosciutto di maiale nero.
Italian cured meats
“Our business is in selling the classic Italian cured meats,” says Philip. “Slow Food produce is important, because it signals a better standard and because customers at Borough Market in particular are increasingly interested in the provenance of their food.”
They like a good story in both senses; the goodness of the food and its provenance being as important as the fascinating tale of, say, lard being aged in a marble basin rubbed with garlic in the small city of Colonatta to make his lardo di colonatta.
“Most food production, even if ethical, has to be slightly industrialised in order to meet quality standards,” says Philip, “but visiting producers in Colanatta and Zibello is like entering a time warp. It’s extraordinarily old school.”
The Italian Health Department has, in the past, questioned the ageing of meat in marble. To no avail: it’s a time-tested practice, the salt and cool mountain winds are proven to be an effective way of removing moisture and inhibiting harmful bacteria, creating a gleaming white ham of superlative silkiness and a rich flavour.
“Sometimes I accompany my kids to the supermarket, and I’m speechless at the way they handle a piece of ham,” says Philip sadly. “It’ll have been kept in the fridge for a month before being sliced poorly, on the wrong machine. If you come to us we have purpose built tools for our meat—and we know what we’re doing,” he continues.
Even those products that aren’t strictly Slow Food accredited are aligned with the principles of sustainability, quality, localism and being looked after. “We’re a Slow Food trader, with Slow Food values. All our foods align with that philosophy.”