Standard bearers: Charcutier Ltd

Categories: Behind the stalls

The story and philosophy behind Slow Food approved trader Charcutier Ltd

“I’m pretty much as Slow Food as it gets,” laughs Illtud Llyr Dunsford, chair of Slow Food Cymru Wales and the incumbent owner of a family business whose history of meat production stretches back centuries. Their approach has come to epitomise the values behind Slow Food. Its latest incarnation, Charcutier Ltd, sees it bringing traditional British, southern European and North American methods of curing to bear on their own pigs, and those of free range producers from further afield: mangalitsa, Berkshire and large white specimens.

It was while looking at how to add value to their own pigs, Pedigree Welsh—a rare breed whose numbers had dropped to worryingly low levels—that Illtud became involved with an EU-funded project to increase its population and secure the genetics of the breed.

They looked into its provenance, how it compared with more commercial competitors and whether its quality and taste were enough to persuade pig farmers to invest in the breed as a premium product. “Big commercial breeders who value efficiency over taste and quality tend to stick to modern breeds, which are quick-growing with a high meat content. The question was whether we could persuade some smaller producers to take the risk.”

One idea was to study the hair follicles of 700 Welsh piglets, capturing the DNA of the breed and identifying those traits which produced the best meat for bacon, versus, say pork chops. Taking a leaf out of the commercial industry’s book, they studied the pigs’ genetic heritage in such detail that, when it came to applying for protected food name status for his beloved Welsh pigs—an application which the European Commission recently announced as successful—Illtud had a bit of a head start.

Charcuterie and Charcutier

The legends of King Arthur
The breed, a white, lop-eared variety, had existed in Wales since records began. “There are references to it in the legends of King Arthur,” says Illtud. “It’s evolved to be part of the natural environment.” The proof of the pig’s uniqueness is in the eating: “We don’t have time to explain to all our customers what I’m explaining here. We make the best product possible,” Illtud continues. If they come back, it’s because they’ve tasted something unique—superlative, even. “Only then might ask a few questions.”

They might ask what the pigs are fed on; the answer is locally grown feed, waste vegetables, or whey from their local dairy, Hafod, where it is a byproduct of their cheesemaking. “We pay a premium, both for the whey and for the veal calves they supply us with for curing. We pay for cost of production, and more on top of that.” The pillars of Slow Food are “good, clean and fair” he points out—to be fair is to ensure your suppliers make a living, to engage the local community where possible, and to take your global impact into account for example, not using soy, as is often used in livestock feed.

You don’t need to go to Brazil (though Illtud has) to be aware of the impact soy has had on the Amazon, with huge tracts of the rainforest slashed and burned to accommodate vast, monoculture soy farms. “It really upset me to see just how much deforestation has occurred as a result.”

Thus appraised of their traditional, soy-free feed, which will soon be enshrined in the conditions of the EU protected food name, the customer might wonder where the animals are reared. The answer is indoors, or outdoors—what is paramount to Illtud (and now the European Commission) is the amount of space they are allowed. “The amount of space is far greater even than that the RSPCA stipulates. The same goes for transportation to the abattoir.”

Charcutier bacon

Beyond the call of duty
Illtud tests all the meat for a high pH (often the result of adrenaline) to check stress levels are minimal. “If something’s wrong, we’ll pick up the phone and tell our abattoir,” he says. Yet another example of Illtud going beyond the call of duty.

Excitingly, the European Commission will publish its accreditation for protected name status for the Pedigree Welsh pig in about six weeks’ time. After that, pork from the breed will not only be part of the Ark of Taste—an international catalogue of endangered heritage foods which is maintained by the global Slow Food movement—but will also have stringent EU protections applied to its name.

“It’s fantastic news. Long-recognised in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the preservation of this native and ancient breed is crucial in maintaining our culinary heritage,” Shane Holland, executive chairman of Slow Food UK, points out.

Thus far, Illtud believes only three breeders in Wales will meet the heightened standards in feeding and rearing conditions. “We really want to raise awareness among breeders that there is a better way, so we can get the best quality out of the animal.” Charcutier Ltd will of course have little problem, having been rearing pigs to this standard for at least 500 years for their own table: “Livestock keeping is in our blood. I’ve been brought up with the ‘seasonal kill’ being a major event.”

A remarkable occasion
It’s a remarkable occasion. Twice a year, family, friends and farm hands would come together around the carcass to feast and to prepare meat to store for the months ahead. “I remember thinking, if only I could extend this and share it,” Illtud recalls fondly.

The business was started on this premise—to extend their products to include air-dried recipes from around Europe, and to bring them to the rest of the UK. First, fresh products would be made—black puddings, sausages, and faggots made to his great aunts “legendary” recipe (“I still meet people who remember her faggots,” he chuckles)—then the cuts to be hung and dried according to traditional recipes, then a “celebration” of good food and harvest would commence.

“We use the whole carcass. We still do today,” says Illtud—a rarity among commercial producers of charcuterie, who usually confine themselves to those bits they need. That which he can’t use, Illtud is looking into utilising through other means, such as traditional, animal fat-based soaps. If successful, it will take the idea of ‘clean’ food production to a whole new level. But that’s another story.

For now, it’s enough to know both the genetic code and the codes of best practice for this rare and ancient pig are protected—and, as Shane Holland concludes, that “consumers are guaranteed an animal which is slow reared and full of flavour, and the small producers who rear them are rightfully celebrated.”