Drawn together: the slate curing tray

Categories: Expert guidance

Award-winning blogger and Borough Market regular Ed Smith displays a talent for illustration as well as the written word, as he talks to stallholders about the tools of their trade. This month: the slate curing tray

Illtud Llyr Dunsford, Charcutier Ltd

My family have been farming the same valley in Carmarthenshire for over 300 years. I was brought up in Cardiff, spending weekends and holidays here, and then moved here in 2004 when I took over the running of the farm and the production of meat for our own table. In 2010, I diversified the farm business, which is now Charcutier Ltd, making more of our fresh sausages, as well as starting to cure meats on a commercial basis.

For the cured meats, I follow techniques gathered from my studies around the globe—from time spent in Europe, Asia, North and South America. But much of it stems from family traditions, and things I witnessed when I was growing up. It always annoys me when people tell me there’s no history of charcuterie in the UK. In fact, we’ve an immense history of charcuterie, and especially of meat preservation. It’s just not something people think about or are used to.

Made from solid slate
There are loads of tools on the farm that have been here for generations. We’ve got no idea how old they are or where they’ve come from. But they’ve clearly been well used, many of them for the processing and preservation of meat.

For example, we’ve got this extremely heavy salting tray made from solid slate. You need three or four people to lift it. We keep it in one of our out-buildings, using it just once or twice a year to process sheep, cows and pigs in the winter—though its main purpose is for the salting, curing and preservation of hams.

I suppose I’d describe it as a very shallow sink, with an indent that angles and drains to a hole in the centre, where moisture drips out. It’s very simple, but ultimately ideal for what we use it for. Much better, in fact, than a modern plastic tub or metal tray.

Wrapped in muslin
The idea is that you put a layer of salt in the bottom, you put your hams on top of the salt, then the rest of the salt over the hams, covering them. The salt extracts moisture from the meat, forming a crust. It’ll be left for anything from 30 to 45 days—the exact period of time depends on the size of the ham. Then the salt is cleaned off, the ham wrapped in muslin and hung to dry, preserving it for up to nine months.

We can fit two hams on there, using the pedigree Welsh breed pigs that have existed in our area since records began. Traditionally these are really big animals: around 200-250kg dead weight, and so more than twice the weight of even the bigger pigs you generally get, and nearly five times the weight of a standard butcher’s pig.

You still need to cook the ham once it’s been salted. The process is for preservation, rather than to make a ham that’s ready to eat in the sense of a Spanish or Italian ham; there’s no fermentation. But you can imagine how important it would have been in the years before refrigeration existed.

People came together
Every farmhouse in this region would have produced a salted ham like this at one time. During my childhood, I remember it was a social thing to butcher and process your own animals. Well, sociable in that people came together, but they worked hard and were very respectful. They’d turn a pig into things like black pudding, faggots and fresh sausages, and portion up the fresh meat, as well as starting the curing process. The sides and rear legs of a pig, for example, would be made into bacon and hams, using the slate tray.

Traditionally this would be done when there was an R in the month, because that’s early autumn and into winter. Cold snaps were perfect weather, both for the processing but also because there wasn’t much else we could do on the farm.

We continue to utilise the process and the slate tray, at the same time of year too, and make a couple of hams each time. But it is a really salty product and wouldn’t suit my customers’ taste— much of the cooking process is about removing some of the salt content through multiple changes of water—so it’s just something we do for our table.

Ultimately, and in-spite of all my studies elsewhere, watching those pig processing occasions is really how I learnt to cure. And the slate tray is part of my heritage—it’s been instructive to the development of our modern products and processes at Charcutier Ltd.