PRODUCE: SALAMI, CHORIZO & OTHER CHARCUTERIE
DISTANCE TO TABLE: 12.23 MILES
Charcuterie. Originally devised as a way to preserve meat before we all had fridges tucked away in the corner of our kitchen, this method of preparation has become an art unto itself. Late last year I stumbled across Somerset Charcuterie at a local food festival, and was delighted to discover that they sourced their ingredients locally. I figured it was time that I found out more about this art.
The Mendips are seemingly bursting with exciting local food producers, and Somerset Charcuterie can be found tucked away on a family farm in Wrington. Andy and James great me as I arrive, and whisk me off for a tour of their facility. They’re in the middle of transferring their operation into the old piggery on the farm where Andy grew up. What started as a hobby for the two of them soon turned into a business idea. “It started after a few too many pints of cider at a lawn mower race,” James explains, laughing. Andy continues; “We thought there was space in the market for a local charcuterie producer using some of the fantastic produce we’ve got for sale in Somerset.” All the meat they use is from Somerset, along with most of their key flavour ingredients. “It’s very important to us to get everything from Somerset; we want to promote the county - we love it!” he tells me with a smile.
So in November 2013 they started looking into the idea more seriously. “We worked between six o’clock in the evening and one o’clock in the morning, after work, for about six months,” James explains. “There were some freezing cold nights, handling freezing cold meat through to the wee small hours.” But this hard work paid off, and soon they had a range of about 10 products; “We took them out to a few local farmer’s markets and the response was incredible.” From this, they properly launched the business in August 2014, and the business has been growing ever since. “We try to differentiate ourselves from the competitors and not just copy what's on the market already from Europe,” Andy points out, with James expanding; “We thought there was an opportunity to celebrate what the South West has to offer. Our first product was based on a well known Salami Milano recipe, but we took out some of the traditional Italian ingredients and replaced them with with sage, mustard and cider.”
They take me into their new building, where they’ve been for about two months. This in Andy’s domain, who’s been working as a butcher for years. “It comes in as a raw material, and we butcher in here,” he explains. “Then we mince it and mix in the cure. Then into the sausage filler and the skins, and it’s clipped at both ends with a metal clip to hold it tight. We pierce the skin to let the moisture escape, then it’s onto trolleys and into our fermentation room. That’s the basis of it!”
Roughly 80% of their products are pork, but they also use water buffalo (yes, from Somerset!), duck, venison, wild goose, lamb and beef. “The production fits into two categories,” James points out. “The first being all things sausage; salami and chorizo. It’s principally pork for everything, though we do some beef and a mixed game salami.” He pauses before continuing. “The other category is the whole cured muscle where we take whole pieces of meat; the loin, the eye of the shoulder, tenderloin, cheek.” They buy in whole pigs (around a tonne a week currently) and use the different joints for their variety of products. “The only thing we don’t use is the hock and the offal,” James tells me. Andy expands on this, “Cooking meat tenderises it, whereas we don’t have that, only the fermentation. So the quality of the meat is the most important thing; you can’t put rubbish in. The hock is quite a sinewy hard working muscle, so it’d just be really tough.”
We talk a little bit more about the pigs they use. “The pig we use is different from the ones you see on a butcher’s counter,” James explains. “For charcuterie, the fat is really important. Not just the back fat, but the fat running through the muscle.” We talk about rare breeds, ranging from the lean Old Spots, through the Oxford Sandy’s who run to fat, and the Mangalica, where even the lean joints are heavily marbled. “We love that stuff!” James exclaims. “We’re trying to find farmers who’ll work with us to grow rare breed pigs on to about 14-16 months,” he continues. “It’ll give us a much higher weight per pig, and we want that nice big Coppa that takes 3 or 4 months to dry, and those nice big slices of Lonza from the loin.” Andy joins in; “It’s going to cost them more in the last few months to feed these pigs, but that’s what we want and we’re prepared to pay perhaps a bit of a premium for it.”
Once the salamis are made, they are moved into the fermentation room, which is kept at about 24-28 degrees. “We need to meet a pH value of about 5.3,” James explains. “That’s the sweet spot at which we’re knocking out the wrong bacteria and can take them into the drying room and know they are safe. Any lower than that and you start to get too much tang.” We talk about a lot of the cheap salami you can get from supermarkets, where they are fast fermented and dried out really quickly, often leaving an acidic after taste. Depending on the product, the time in the drying room varies, from between 7-10 days for their ‘pokers’ to 5 week weeks for their larger salamis, and up to three months for the Coppa.
As well as the meat itself, they use a range of different spices and some starter culture. “It’s got three types of bacteria in it,” James begins. “One of them does the job of reducing the pH; as it reproduces, a bi-product of that reproduction is lactic acid. Then the other bacteria get to work when that stuff is done, helping develop the taste but also bring the pH back up.” They also add two sugars to assist with preservation, but also help everything happen at the right speed. “The fast acting fermentation bacteria feed on the really easily digestible dextrose, then the other bacteria get into the milk powder once they get into the drying room,” he continues.
Speaking of the drying room, our tour brings us into the space, full of tangy smells, racks of drying meat and a beautifully newly build salt brick wall. I ask whether the wall has a use, or if it’s just there cos it looks nice. “It’s mainly really awesome and cool,” James jokes, “But it does help with the drying and will give us our own unique flavour.” This unique flavour profile is something they’re also encouraging in other ways. “We've used wood deliberately in here, because we need to have a surface on which the mould can grow and develop,” he explains. “So you need those natural fibres. If you just had this washable impermeable surfaces, there'd be nowhere for these moulds to grow.” The room is currently filled with racks of salamis and joints of meat at different stages of drying. Their long term vision is to have a series of drying rooms, ranging from higher to lower humidities to allow them to control the speed of drying. Humidity is controlled by buckets of water in the room, and a series of pipes and vents that send dry air into the room and ensure constant air flow.
They’re just building up their stock again right now, after shutting down for two months in December and January to allow them to focus on the marketing and technical requirements of scaling up their production as they start to work with national distributors. There’s four of them working full time in the business right now, and up until now it’s been a slow and organic growth. “We’ve kept to local farmer’s markets, then moved into food festivals,” Andy points out. “James has developed a website so we’ve got an online shop, and we’ve got a few local wholesalers and online shops.” They go live with their bigger national wholesalers in March, and it represents a big step forward for them, but one they feel they’re ready for. “I think a lot of people do marketing the wrong way around,” James comments. “They invest a lot in marketing when they start and do a big push with fancy labels and packaging and expensive marketing campaigns.” After a pause, he continues. “For us, it’s all about the product; we’ve put everything into the product. And now we’re confident we’ve got it exactly how we want in terms of product range and quality, we’re doing a massive marketing push.”
The farmer’s markets and food festivals seem to have worked well for them up to this point though. “For some people, a shrivelled sausage doesn’t look amazing,” Andy admits, “But once they try it and you can talk to them, 90 odd percent of people will buy something, and they’ll remember your name and come back.” “Retail is not our main objective,” James continues. “It’d be nice to be able to supply delis and farm shops, but we’re not really interested in the supermarkets, although it’d be nice to get a product into somewhere like Waitrose because they have a different approach to food and their suppliers. Our ultimate goal though is to be the first choice for chefs, because then you’re talking to people who understand about the quality of the product and where it came from.”
We finish our tour in the slicing and packing room. I ask about their favourite products. “I like the Coppa, the duck and the Draycot Blue,” Andy responds, and I have to agree. The combination of red wine and blue cheese in a salami is, frankly, inspired. The blue cheese is subtle at first, but brings a lasting flavour that’ll leave you craving more. Fortunately for me, I know they’ll be at a couple of my local markets, so my salami supply is secure.
Find out more: http://www.somersetcharcuterie.com