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The only way is ethics: sustainable charcuterie production

Categories: Behind the stalls

Sean Cannon of Cannon & Cannon on why charcuterie production plays a vital role in sustainable British livestock farming

“I don’t actually eat that much meat,” says Sean Cannon, laughing at the irony of this statement, given his profession. Sean is one half of Cannon & Cannon, retailer and distributor of fine British-made charcuterie and cured meats. But his moderate meat consumption, while seemingly incongruous, in fact fits perfectly with a business that has quality and sustainability at its heart.

Together with his brother Joe, Sean grew up in Norfolk, in a farming community whose judicious use of resources was fundamental to its approach. “Charcuterie is part of the lifecycle of a smallholding or homestead that looks to be self-sustaining,” he explains. “The art of preserving and curing fresh produce allows for the fact that nature gives us periods of glut and periods of scarcity, by enabling us to prolong the life of fresh meat.”

This means doing justice to the animal you have slaughtered by “using it all and using it respectfully”. It means, at Cannon & Cannon at least, exceptional standards of animal welfare, including natural grazing, wide enclosures and ensuring slaughter is as stress-free as possible. “I am a committed carnivore,” Sean explains, “but I do believe we eat too much meat farmed in a way that is unsustainable and damaging to the environment. I think we have a responsibility, as a society, to encourage small-scale livestock farming in the UK.”

Our soil and ecosystem
As a country, we are eminently suited to it: historically, climatically and geographically. “We are a proud island nation, we have wonderful conditions for agriculture, and we have got to protect that.” This is not just about history and culture, though such things are important: “The grazing of animals on pasture also has a positive impact on our soil and on our ecosystem.” It’s sad, therefore, to see that movement “highjacked, slightly, by anti-meat lobbyists in favour of industrially produced, soy-based faux meat”.

Sean’s sentiments apply to all high welfare meat, of course—but the case for conscious carnivorism is particularly strong when it comes to charcuterie. Not only is its flavour-to-cost ratio better than any fresh meat, but a little chorizo in a stew or air-dried ham in a soup goes a long way. “You just get more bang for your buck. It is filling, high in flavour.”

One of the main reasons that continental charcuterie is more widespread here in Britain than our native products is a lack of infrastructure: at present Cannon & Cannon does all the slicing and packing of its meats by hand. “At the moment we are crowdfunding to buy the machinery to slice and pack charcuterie more efficiently and ethically—we’re trying to build the infrastructure to reduce our waste, and enable us to compete with international charcuterie,” says Sean excitedly. “We want to create a localised supply chain in this country—and if we fail at offering a great product at a fair price the industry goes away and people revert back to the mass-produced commercial stuff.” Strong ethics are all very well, but without “giving quality and value within that ethics base”, Sean’s dream of “bucking the trend of globalisation, being local and remembering provenance” will be confined to a mere handful of customers.

Brink of extinction
“It is a wonderful word, provenance. That is why everything we sell you tells you where it’s from,” continues Sean. This is not mere romanticism: the growth of Britain’s cured meat market has revived the populations of heritage breeds of pigs and cattle, whose slow growth and high fat content render them perfectly suited to charcuterie and cures. “British lop was on the brink of extinction a decade ago, and has returned in force now because farmers can add value.” The farmer raises a herd of pigs, serves the main cuts to the butcher, and the rest to the charcuterie producer. British lops, Gloucester old spots, Tamworths, Berkshires—all these native breeds of pig have experienced a surge in popularity now that raising them “makes commercial sense”.

Though our culture of hams, black puddings and other fermented or boiled meats dates back centuries, we do not have a strong history of charcuterie on this rain-soaked island. Only since the innovation of special drying rooms has it been possible to recreate the conditions for air drying. Yet we do have “wonderful conditions for agriculture”, Sean points out, and unique regional produce that lends itself perfectly to chorizo, salami and merguez—from Cornish seaweed to Scottish bog myrtle to Islay whisky.

“We raise great meat here, and we should cherish it rather than wasting it or sending it abroad,” he continues. Eat less meat, and make it count. That’s his principle—and what tastier, more cost-effective way to do that than with, say, a chunk of wild Scottish venison chorizo or a piece of English native breed biltong?