Like many traditional foods that are making a comeback, charcuterie is a culinary art developed from necessity; it is the way meats were preserved long before the days of refrigeration. And just like pickles, fermented vegetables, home drafted beer, broth and kombucha, charcuterie has been revived and brought front and center by the traditional food movement. And in our humble opinion front and center is exactly where it deserves to be.
One might argue that we no longer need this ancient preservation method. We have our fridges, our freezers, our ships and planes; we want for nothing and we have access to everything all the time. But there are serious consequences to this mindset, that of cutting across seasons and seas in the pursuit of all. It is also easy to forget that ‘food waste’ is a modern invention.
How long can it continue? Will we be forced to return to a more local, seasonal diet that draws on many past methods of preservation? Maybe?!
It is important to acknowledge that we have long-standing food traditions that make the most out of ingredients in order to survive and even thrive during tough times. There’s a sort of alchemy in turning what’s perceived as ‘nothing’ into ‘something’. From aging pork bellies to fermenting cheese, pickles and sausages, techniques have been honed to feed us through difficult periods, like long winters, famines, droughts, wars and recessions.
The significance of these old traditions is as important as ever as we observe our natural resources diminish and our climate rapidly change. It is essential that we look to the past to inspire innovation and technology for a more sustainable future.
As our population expands and the environment weakens, these practices could be of vital importance in the modern-day world.
In the charcuterie
If you have ever walked through the doors of the charcuterie, it feels as if you’ve entered an enchanted world of meaty wonders. Meats of all shapes and sizes, colours and flavours… tangy, funky, explosive and heavenly. Charcuterie transforms meat into something special.
At its most basic level charcuterie is the technique of seasoning, curing, processing and preserving meat, a charcuterier’s bounty ranges from confit, sausages, pates, terrines, and hams.Limited only by the imagination… the charcuterier can make any part of the animal a taste sensation.
But charcuterie goes well beyond the charcuterier… the landscape, the seasons, the breed, the diet and the weather itself shape the end result, creating its unique terroir.
In the Meatshed
On the shelves of the meat shed, you’ll find buckets brimming with salt and stacked containers crammed with whole spices. Tubs of garlic, onions, and freshly picked herbs.
Meat makes up the core of the charcuterie, but our farm and pantry provides us with a palette of flavours with which to work.
Walk into the Meatshed kitchen and you’ll likely smell spices toasting, bones roasting, and broths simmering, see fresh sausage being hand-cranked out into coils, cured meat being hung on hooks for aging, a veritable vat of pate de tete being shredded and seasoned with freshly chopped parsley, then packed into jars… all by hand.
Peer into our curing room where guanciale, bresaola and pancetta hang quietly, patiently, enrobed in a delicate snowy bloom of mould.
The entirety of every animal serves a purpose and is created into something amazing.
The issue of all natural
Preservatives are used as additives in meat products, such as sausages, charcuterie and canned meat, in marinated fish, and even dairy products. They usually take the form of nitrites and nitrates—substances that are added to foods, especially mass-produced foods, to speed up curing, protect them from microbial contamination, and to improve their appearance (pink colouring) and texture.
Today, the use of additives seems unavoidable and taken for granted, but it is overlooked that charcuterie has been produced for centuries using only natural preservatives, such as salt, pepper, chili pepper, spices and smoke.
Since the post-war period, the practice of using nitrites has become so widespread that even many artisan producers consider them to be essential, there are still (though increasingly fewer) producers that make preservative-free charcuterie, sold not only in their own shops, but throughout Italy, with no shelf life problems.
The widespread use of preservatives in charcuterie is just one of the many symptoms of the industrialization of food production.
While there are natural alternatives to synthetic cure mixes, such as celery salt, the amount of nitrate present can vary dramatically, resulting in sheer guesswork.
The decision as to whether or not to use nitrates or nitrites is a difficult one, particularly if you want to create traditional authentic salami. Current legislation in Australian requires the use of nitrates or nitrites in the production of fermented sausages and salami, which aren’t heat treated.
So why did we decide NOT to use synthetic cures? Put simply, they are incompatible to our approach, which is to use the most natural ingredients and the most traditional methods to showcase the natural flavours of the meat.
We do not believe you need them as long as you follow best practice, add the right percentage of salt, and keep the curing products in the right conditions. With the advantage of modern scientific knowledge, we can apply precisely the correct ratio of salt and monitor pH levels (low acidity being a crucial factor in the development of botulism), as well as air-drying in the best conditions so that humidity and temperature are perfect.
While the decision to cure without nitrates and nitrites means we aren’t able to produce and sell traditional fermented salami, we can produce ready to eat whole muscle cures, cooked and smoked products and we will continually be developing our product range.
Bacon is the food that drives vegetarians crazy, and it seems to have a natural way of finding itself on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates in a very complementary and unassuming manner and is one of the most celebrated and versatile foods.
Everything, is better with bacon... Or is it?
There is no doubt about it. Bacon is a much loved, iconic ingredient in Australia - yet what most people aren't aware of is that 80% of the bacon sold here is made from imported pork and this isn’t good for our farmers, our pigs or for you as the consumer.
So what does it mean when the label on the front of a pack of bacon reads 17 per cent Australian content? How can bacon be 17 per cent Australian? Well, boneless, factory farmed, imported pork, is defrosted, placed in tumblers with water, salt, sugar and chemicals to make this bacon - the water and possibly the salt and sugar are the Australian part. The rest is imported.
So be sure to check the Country of Origin label, a percentage of over 90% of Australian ingredients will ensure you're buying bacon made from Australian pork. Or better yet buy from your local butcher or farmers markets.
We grow the best and healthiest, disease free produce on this planet. So why would we import anything that we can grow right here in Australia?
First catch your pig...
Not all bacon is created equal. There are various versions of bacon around the world – they are all made differently due to variances in the quality and cut of meat, the curing process, the spices/ingredients used, and the smoking process (or lack thereof). The only common denominator of real bacon: you need to first catch the pig.
Principally, pork belly is cured to make streaky bacon, the loin section (the part with the rib bones) is cured to make ‘eye’ or ‘shortcut’ bacon. And the whole loin and belly cured together is a side of bacon.
Curing is an ancient food preservation technique that draws away moisture to help prevent spoilage. Two common curing methods are salt curing and smoke curing.
In salt curing, the large among of salt (mostly commonly, in conjunction with nitrates) deprives certain bacteria of water, which helps prevent the oxidation process that causes meat to spoil.
Similarly, smoke curing helps seal the exterior pores of the meat, making the meat more resilient to infection from bacteria.
With as many types of bacon as there are methods of curing and flavouring (honey or brown sugar cured…, apple wood or hickory smoked…) - the big differences come in either dry curing (with or without nitrates) or brining and hot or cold smoking.
So how do we do it in the Meatshed? Our bacon is the simplest and purest kind of bacon, with a mild flavour. We take a slow-grown, Berkshire belly slab or loin, massage it with our dry cure (only pure Australian sea-salt), refrigerate, rinse and then dry. Once it is cured, it is hot-smoked using local apple wood, then cooled and sliced into thick rashers. Our whole process takes about two weeks from piece of meat to bacon heaven.
And OMG… a slab of bacon just out of the smoker is heaven on a platter. It is hard to resist tearing off a little piece (or a whole belly) and shoving the still steaming, salty, sweet meat into my mouth.
As with most artisan made things, there is a threat to the existence of traditional cured foods. Sadly, the fast-food, accelerated version of smoking and curing is perhaps now the most prominent.
Mass-produced bacon is made in a different way – cured by injections of salty water, which can also include chemicals such as potassium nitrate, sodium nitrate and ascorbic acid. Add a little time and there you have it – Bacon.
Beware of cheap bacon that has been pumped with salted liquid.
It doesn’t take much to work out that not only is the original moisture still there, but so is the added water, salt and additives. When that bacon is cooked the heat causes the brine to be released – resulting in a pan full of water.
Cheap bacon and sausages may sometimes seem tempting and moreish, not because of any real qualities they possess but because of the combination of the comfort of familiarity and the deceptive, almost hallucinatory effect on the tastebuds of artificial flavours and preservatives. As with bad Chinese food and cheese and onion crisps, there is a shallow, pharmaceutical gratification of the taste buds but little, if any, lasting pleasure or satisfaction. The moment you turn to comparable products of worthy provenance and true quality, you realise what a cheap trick (literally) it’s been.
Take slow-grown, rare-breed pigs, make dry-cured smoked bacon from their backs and bellies, or sausages of coarsely ground pork from their shoulders. Flavour the former with nothing more than salt and smoke, the latter with a pinch of white pepper and nutmeg, and you’ll have all the robust flavour, deep savouriness and lasting pleasure that you could ever wish for from a rasher or a banger.
Did you know?
Bacon is not fully cured or cooked. It’s not safe to eat raw, like salami. Bacon requires further cooking.
Because of its high fat content, bacon keeps well frozen, making it easy to always have some on hand to throw into the pan.
The Best Way to Cook Bacon…there is actually more than one way.
The perfect method depends on the circumstances. Here’s how to get the perfect bacon every time, no matter what.
Making this essential food may seem like a no-brainer, but think back to all those floppy strips you’ve served up. Even the simplest food benefits from proper cooking. Here are a couple of foolproof methods to see you through breakfast and beyond.
The Classic Method: In a Frypan
This tried-and-true method is the obvious choice when you need to cook 6 to 8 slices at a time.
1. Pull out the bacon from the fridge 15 to 20 minutes before cooking. At room temperature, bacon just cooks up better (just like steak).
2. Don't preheat the frypan. Lay out the bacon strips without overlapping in a cold pan. This helps the fat render slowly, for consistently cooked strips.
3. Cook over medium heat — again, good for even rendering. Turn the strips as needed until they reach the desired crispness, 8 to 12 minutes.
4. Drain well on a paper-towel-lined platter.
For Feeding a Crowd: In the Oven
Make this your go-to method when you need bacon for a big group and don't want to bother making multiple batches. Plus, there's no turning and cleanup is simple.
1. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil or parchment paper, and lay out as many bacon strips as will fit snuggly without overlapping.
2. Place in a cold oven. Then heat the oven to 200oC and bake to desired crispness, ~25 to 35 minutes.
3. Drain well on a paper-towel-lined platter.
From the beginning of human history until the middle of the last century the word fat had positive connotations. Fat was valuable and useful. The best meat was well marbled and had a good coating of fat, with only the plumpest chicken selected for the pot. Fat was an integral part of our diet, and those that didn’t eat enough were sickly and often died. Eating fat and being a little plump was a sign of prosperity and health; no one wanted to be thin.
Nowadays it seems everyone is on a diet or watching their weight. Fat is no longer seen as valuable, and being plump is a health risk. Fat is no longer admired and worse still, the fat in our food is now inexorably linked to the fat on our bodies.
Our fear of getting fat makes us choose lean meats as we rejected marbled beef, fatty pork, and plump birds, producers responded by breeding leaner animals.
But fat is fundamental to the flavour of our food and essential for cooking it.
Fat is just as indispensable to our health as it is to our cooking. Every cell in our body needs fat, our brain and hormones rely on fat to function, and fat supports our immune system, fights disease, and protects our liver. Fat promotes good skin and healthy hair, and it regulates our digestive system and leaves us feeling sated. Diets low in fat, it turns out, leave people hungry, depressed, and prone to weight gain and illness.
All fats, however, are not created equal. While we have reduced our intake of animal fats, the total amount of fat in our diet has increased. We have replaced animal fats with man-made hydrogenated fats and vegetable oils which aren’t good for us. They’re full of Omega-6 fatty acids (not the good Omega-3s), that cause heart disease, obesity, and all sorts of health problems.
Note: Meat and butter from grass-fed animals contain omega-3, but animals raised on a diet high in grains are full of omega-6 fatty acids.
Fat makes everything we eat taste better, and eating fat is satisfying, so we eat less and our desire to snack is reduced. Enjoying our meals makes us happy and lowers our stress. And, as hard as it is to believe, fat is good for us, too.
Pork fat: The king
With its high proportion of fat to meat, the pig is truly king when it comes to animal fat. The pig is valued as much for its fat as for its meat… or at least it was.
Pork has lost its fat, and with it its flavour.
But the tide is turning for pork fat. The realisation of the dangers associated with trans fats has caused many of us to reconsider the benefits of lard. This trend, combined with cooks demanding pork with more fat and flavour, has led to an interest in heritage breeds such as Berkshire pigs. These pigs naturally put on fat and have a delicious, lightly marbled meat.
However the quest for lean meat is so ingrained in us, that our rosy Berkshire pork covered with a thick layer of fat is often met with resistance. We need to understand that this coat of fat tells us that the animal was raised slowly and that the meat underneath it will be much more flavourful. That fatty coat also means that there will be more fat to render into lard.
Pork fat in all its forms is not only very useful, but it is also good for us. Like all fats, it is a mixture of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. While the exact percentages vary with the pigs diet and the breed of the pig, pork fat is mostly monounsaturated.
Pork fat’s low level of polyunsaturated fatty acids means it doesn’t turn rancid easily and is very stable when heated. This makes pork fat an excellent fat for frying. Not only are foods fried in lard very crisp, but they also absorb less fat than if they were fried in oil. Lard is also great for making pastry, because its crystalline structure makes dough very flaky.
We use lard in nearly all of our cooking – it has a mild, bacony flavour and makes every dish stand out because it lends a rich, depth of flavour that you can’t get with any other cooking oil.
We sell jars of lard from our pastured pigs. Or why not make your own short-cut lard? It’s very easy to make; the bacon that’s been sizzling away has left lard in the bottom of the pan. If you’ve been slow-cooking a pork shoulder for a while, the fat that has rendered in the bottom of the pan is lard. One tip: pour that fat through a very fine strainer to remove any burned, black flecks. Those burned bits can turn your lard. Store it in a tightly sealed container in the fridge or freezer, and it can keep for months.
OK, I’m sold. How do I use it?
You can toss it in a sauté pan instead of butter to fry eggs or sauté veggies. Use it to baste chickens at the end of cooking to get a crackly skin. And you’ve got to try a lard pie crust at least once. Confit whole chickens and ducks, make scratchings (pork crackle), and even add a little umami boom to chocolate desserts.
Fat is good: so let’s cook our chips in lard, spread our bread with butter, make our pastry with real animal fats, grill a well-marbled steak, and enjoy them all, in moderation of course!