In a new series, Ed Smith explores the history and tradition behind Europe’s regional cured meats. Here, by way of introduction, he lays out the essentials
That within just a few paces you can try and then buy world-class cured meats from a variety of different regions is, I suspect, both a unique and an under-appreciated strength of Borough Market. There’s speck from South Tyrol, nduja from Calabria, jamon iberico and chorizo from different areas in Spain, saucisson from Normandy, wild venison salami from the Scottish Highlands, Parma ham from… well, you get the idea. Three Crown Square is a carnivore’s dream deli.
Over the next six months I’m going to explore the offer in depth, which (as well as being an enviable task) should offer the opportunity to explain how the many forms of cured meat differ from each other, but also about how the influence of region is significant when it comes to key elements of the process—from the curing, air-drying and smoking techniques, to the spicing, butchery, and even the animals used.
Each instalment will be based on a specific region. There’ll be a couple of stops in Italy, as there’s much to discuss when it comes to salumi. We’ll also cover charcuterie from France and Spain, and talk about meats from Great Britain and Croatia, neither of which are areas famous for their cured meats but experience at the Market suggests we should know more about them.
Where possible, each of the posts will set out and occasionally try to explain the defining characteristics of meats from the relevant region. We’ll also touch on both superstar and lesser-known sausages and muscle meats available at the Market. I’ll then finish each post with a recipe that shows how to make cured meat bought at the Market go a little further. Sound like a good plan?
Before we begin our journey around northern Europe’s cured meat traditions, I thought it worth setting out a little key information in this introductory post.
What’s the point of curing meats?
The primary reason for curing meat, now, is that it tastes great! Historically, though, fresh meat would have been ‘cured’ as a way of making-safe and preserving meat, in order that families and villages could have access to animal protein long after the fresh meat of a carcass would have rotted, if left to its own devices.
Curing is a process of making fresh meat inhospitable to bacteria. It just so happens that, by the end of the process, the flavour of the meat will have intensified, quite possibly taken on other characteristics, and become something quite delicious. Which, in an era of easy access to fridges and freezers, is why we still do it.
It’s just sausages and sliced meats, right?
Yes. And no. It’s true to say that the clearest way to categorise different forms of cured meat is to divide them into sausage meats and ‘muscle meats’. Within that, there’s a huge range of different sized sausages, which can either be snacked on, cut into pound coin-sized discs, or are so big that they need to be sliced by machine. Muscle meats, as the term suggests, can mean anything from the jowl of a pig, to meats made out of collars, necks, rolled bellies, whole legs, single leg muscles, shoulder or prime loins.
But there’s also soft charcuterie. Things like pates, terrines and ‘head cheese’ (brawn), and other spreadable but fully cured meats like nduja and sobrasada are in the form of sausages, but you could argue sit in the soft charcuterie category too.
And if nduja and sobrasada are either a subcategory of sausages, or of ‘soft charcuterie’, then there’s something to be said for saying that cured back fat is a sub category of muscle meats, or a category in its own right. At the Market it’s possible to get both classic Italian lardo and a newer, British style. Other countries not represented at the Market are very keen on this type of curing, such as salo from the Ukraine.
And where do the likes of biltong and jerky sit? They’re made from muscle meats but couldn’t be further from a silky sheet of culatello or prosciutto. The further we look into it, the more it becomes clear that this is a rich and varied part of the food world.
How do meats become ‘cured’?
Though the details are specific to each product, the curing process is essentially the same for all of the things mentioned above.
To start, the butcher/charcutier/artisan will add salt to the meat, either via a dry rub or wet brine to muscle meats, or via curing salts and other flavourings mixed into minced meat that will become a sausage. This fairly quickly draws moisture out of the meat and begins to make it inhospitable to bacteria. While or shortly after the moisture change is occurring, the meat begins to ferment, during which time bacteria actually increases. This produces lactic acid, which further makes the meat inhospitable to other bacteria. The meats are then either dried out or, in some cases, smoked. Which again, makes it safe to eat, helps the preservation process and intensifies the flavour.
There’s obviously a whole lot more to it, but that’s the basic thing.
I don’t eat pork. What are my options?
It is true to say that the majority of cured meats available derive from the carcass of a pig.
There are many reasons why this is so, ranging from the fact that pork meat and fat is particularly well-suited to the process, but also that small-holder keeping of pigs is a good fit for the artisanal nature of the craft.
However, it’s also important to say that superb cured meats are indeed made from other animals too. At the Market you can find classic Italian bresaola and Spanish cecina (both beef); wild boar and venison prosciutto from Croatia and Britain; French wild boar saucisson and cured and smoked duck breast; British veal and venison salamis; lamb ham, and more. We’ll cover lots of these over the next few months.
Where can I buy cured meats at the Market?
The traders and their products will be written about in more detail as the series develops, but when you’re next at the Market, do make sure you pass by:
The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand
The Ham and Cheese Company
The French Comte
Une Normande a Londres
Cannon & Cannon