It's About Time

My earliest recollection of charcuterie goes back about 35 years and I remember a vivid, hideously pink slice of what I discovered was salami flecked uniformly with white fat.  It was salty, so very salty, and I still recall the flavour and texture like it was yesterday. Not because it was in any way delicious but it was unlike anything I had ever eaten and something I had avoided at all costs since then.

My next memory was far more pleasant. Fast forward 4-5 years and my family were visiting friends in North London for lunch (we still lived in India but were here in the UK for the summer as we were most years for the best part of a decade).  The table was covered in platters of different meats, pickles and breads, my reaction straight out of a cartoon – eyes popping out, the tendrils of smell pulling me towards the table by my nose.  I remember laughing when the host told us to leave room for the main course – a seemingly ludicrous thing to say when there was more food than could be eaten.  My delight at seeing the table laden when I first walked in, matched only by the horror at seeing the actual main course arriving.  Roasted meats, vegetables of all description all of which a waste in my eyes as, like Mr. Creosote I couldn’t eat another thing.

That was the start of a lifelong love of all charcuterie or salami, which has developed and evolved over time.  I started to learn a little about the different cuts and to understand a little bit about differences between countries and regions but it was still, like the world of wine, bewildering and vast with no obvious starting point from which to learn.  I started to actively try and learn more – about the processes about the flavours, but all of it felt pretty abstract as the words on pages were still divorced from the products I adored.  The first big change came in mid-July 2008 (I remember it clearly as it was at exactly the same time as our  first child was due) where the previous years’ Christmas present from my wife Aileen was due to be delivered. A whole pig given to me as a piglet on a farm in Yorkshire back in December now ready for the pot/oven/freezer.  I had invested in various nose to tail books, new knives, a meat grinder and sausage stuffer, casings and curing salts, a chest freezer – I had even booked 2 days off work (precious holiday with paternity leave on the immediate horizon).  I had envisioned my own homemade sausages, bacon, pork pies and a freezer full of roasting joints for Sundays for days.

Despite all the bravado and enthusiasm I hadn’t allowed myself to even consider the prospect of making my own air-dried charcuterie. Hams, coppas, lonza (or lomo) or salami all too far removed from my fledgling and rudimentary understanding of the processes.  Air-dried meats for me fell into that area of food, which to my mind, was alchemy, pure and (not so) simple.  One of those things that mere mortals could never do at home, much like cheese and wine-making.  All the reading in the world couldn’t change that in the same way that watching Paul Daniels over and over wouldn’t make me a magician.

I am delighted to say that I was wrong. So very wrong. Well, about the charcuterie anyway (for now I shall leave the cheese to the blessed makers and wine to the experts).  I have learned over the years that it is indeed possible to make not only passable but excellent produce at home even if you don’t live on a Tuscan hillside (as my business partner and fellow charcuterie geek discovered in our rented, pokey commercial kitchen in Earlsfield, South West London).  We would buy a pig directly from a farmer, block out a couple of days and then disappear into a world of butchery, slicing, dicing, curing, mincing and stuffing.  Starting each day excitedly and enthusing about the bounty we can look forward to in a few months time and ending many hours later with aching hands, in complete silence, meat fatigue and repetition having taken their toll.   Those early days will actually prove to be defining days in terms of my career today and the formation of Tempus Foods, our award winning British Charcuterie company – but we will come back to that.

Thomas Whitaker is my business partner and was MasterChef runner up in 2011 (in the interest of full disclosure I was MasterChef winner 2010, just saying…..).  In 2015, by complete coincidence, Tom and I were subletting a commercial kitchen in South West London and I was also chef patron at a pub in the same area.  Over time and having spent hours, no, days watching Tom butchering whole pigs and turning out incredible charcuterie as I fiddled endlessly with yet more canapés I couldn’t take it any more and had to get involved.  Tom has an excellent pedigree and background in charcuterie production, as he trained over a number of years in Italy in the Po Valley outside Parma, under some of the modern-day great producers. His teaching and training as classic as can be, the emphasis firmly placed on process and obsessive focus to detail.  Understanding the fundamentals and a firm grasp on the science behind all the processes underpinned all his teaching, and as I learned from him, underpins mine.

These fundamentals are the foundation of what we do at Tempus and why we do it.  Not running before we walked by putting out hundreds of flavours of salami or weird and wonderful flavour combinations, but focusing on truly understanding the processes and the importance of each one in the complex chain of events required to make wonderful produce.  All of this, the technical understanding and the science behind the art is essential before even touching a knife and starting to break down a pig.  We believe making truly exceptional charcuterie depends on getting the most out of the meat being used, about enhancing the intrinsic qualities of the animals used not overpowering it or masking it.  And in order to do this the science is essential.

The other half to the equation is the choice of what animals are used.  We began by experimenting with various British rare-breeds trying to understand the attributes and qualities of each. We actually launched Tempus as a single-breed producer exclusively using British Large Black pigs – a truly wonderful breed.  What we discovered over time, is that in our opinion, age of the animal is as important as the breed.  We like our pigs old, as old as possible, but this comes with its own challenges.  Animals bred commercially tend to be slaughtered at different ages depending on the intended use but we discovered that the average weight of even the oldest commercially reared pigs for meat are not old or large enough for what we want to do.  Pigs reared for meat can very simply be divided into 2 categories  - those for bacon which are up to 80-90kilos and “cutters”, pigs sold in their various constituent parts, of around 70 kilos.  We realised early on that the animals we wanted had to be around the 170-180 kilo mark (as a bare minimum) which in comparison is enormous!  There was only one way we could get animals of this size and that has defined the ethos of Tempus Foods. 

We needed older animals, the older the better and through a serendipitous meeting found a supplier of British sows.  Beautiful old pigs whose commercial existence is based on their ability to deliver farrows (litters of piglets). These wonderful animals live outdoors, they live long lives at the end of which they are, in our eyes, the most perfect animals for charcuterie.  The flavor, the fat, the texture unparalleled and all improved over time.  Also, as we are using animals already in existence and not breeding more animals we feel this to be a much more ethical approach.  Old is good, no old is best, and it’s all about time. Time in the context of age of the animals, time of curing and ageing and generally time that we relooked at parts of the meat industry and our relationship with meat.

We have taken the same approach to the beef we use and only use ex-dairy cows for our Bresaola (we also dry age it for up to 3 months for the most sublime steak you could have the good fortune of tasting – but that’s another story).  Knowing that we are building our business on these animals is incredibly important to Tom and I and will always be so as you cannot rush or speed up or hurry along what only time can do when it comes to working with meat.

Having focused on the technical aspects and the animal selection the remaining parts to the puzzle, from our perspective at Tempus, was the production facility and ageing room and our use of spicing to help us create our range of products.  We designed and built our facility from scratch just outside Weybridge in Surrey which may not have the aesthetic appeal of a Tuscan hillside but it does exactly what we need it to. 

Tom and I have learned more about humidity, temperature and airflow along with the role of mould in the context of charcuterie than we ever thought possible and this learning process never stops.  There is always a lesson to be learned, someone to learn from, some way of improving what we do and how we do it.  Quite simply every day is a school day. We now have an ageing room colonized by naturally occurring moulds (ie we didn’t use a bought mould for the room) which in theory mean we have products completely unique to anywhere else on earth.  Theoretically someone else could take meat from the same animal and use the same recipe and the same processes and age theirs in a different room to ours ,which should yield a completely different product to the one matured in our ageing rooms.  We have actually done this exact thing with another producer to see what the effect the ageing environment has on the finished product (salami in this case) and the results were staggering!  In the same way terroir will affect wines and the affinage process will help cheeses develop and evolve, so the ageing environment will greatly affect charcuterie as it matures and ages.

As well as the ageing room and the processes helping our carefully selected pork and beef along, we add hints and nuances of flavor through the use of spices to accentuate and enhance the intrinsic qualities of the meat.  I have adored spices and have loved cooking with them for decades and this nearly lifelong love affair for spices has spread into my love of charcuterie.  It’s a real joy to take two genuine passions and to not only find a way of them coexisting but genuinely complementing each other.  We are as obsessive about our spice selection as we are with our meat but its essential that we are.  We only use incredibly small amounts of spices as we want them to be subtle, in some cases barely perceivable but there in the background somewhere improving the experience.  Our Achari Spiced salami which is flavoured with fennel seed, black pepper, nigella, fenugreek and mace is one of our best sellers and exemplifies our approach to spices.

The British Charcuterie industry is booming and there are a number of excellent operators making excellent charcuterie to rival much of that from the continent from much bigger and much better established producers.  We are still in our infancy as a producer and as an industry but in time and with a more collaborative approach I have no doubt that British Charcuterie can establish itself alongside our European counterparts. If there are ever days we are struggling or finding things difficult we take inspiration from the British cheese and wine industries who are world beaters when it comes to what they do.  The next decade will be a very exciting one for all of us in this exciting industry and I cannot wait to see what it holds.