What do I look for/ask for when I’m shopping?
I took a course with the Guild of Fine Foods in London, and there I learned a good test for texture. If you shut your eye and lightly press on your eyelid, that’s the texture under your finger that you’re looking for with cured meat. It needs to be soft and have some give. If you’re buying a whole stick or joint of cured meat, it’s likely you’re spending a good bit of money, so don’t be timid.
Ask the person at the counter if you can have a latex glove or a bit of clingfilm/plastic wrap and if you can prod the outside; they should let you. If it’s softer than your eyeball and really ‘gives’ it might be tainted or have been stored at too warm a temperature – not good. If it’s really solid under your finger, it might be old or overaged and it will be very chewy and hard – not good either. If you’re buying it ready-sliced, the producer should have picked up on any problems before slicing and wrapping it so it’s a safe-bet.
As I have said, good cured meat doesn’t come cheaply – because of the cost of manufacture, care and skilled labour that goes into making it. That means you shouldn’t be embarrassed to ask questions, nor to ask to taste a small piece if they’re slicing it fresh for you. It won’t cost the shop much at all to give you a little sample, and they should see that as a good investment. Of course, don’t be cheeky and ask to try them all, at least not without buying something!
Create a perfect charcuterie board
It is the French we have to thank for the word ‘charcuterie’, as pork products are so important to them that pigs get their own specialist butcher. A few years ago, I cycled through Western France, through some incredible wine regions.
I ate Pain au Raisin until around 11 am, when I moved onto cheeses, and, after parking up my bicycle around 5 pm, would eat cured meats, rillettes and pâtés (and drink a lot of wine...). It was no surprise that although I cycled about 50 miles a day, I still managed to put on weight!
But completely, utterly worth it, too. Here are some ideas for the perfect charcuterie board.
There is a wide variety of hams (jambon) in France. Some are raw and air-cured (jambon cru), and others are smoked or cooked. Look for regional varieties marked Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), which ensures products are genuine.
The most ubiquitous PGI ham is Jambon sec – a dry-cured ham made from pigs that meet a minimum weight, and which has been dry-cured for at least three months.
Hams in this category include those produced in the Ardennes, Auvergne, Bayonne, Lacaune, Najac and Savoie regions. Jambon sec supérieur is a variation that comes from pigs raised and butchered by traditional methods, such as Bigorre Ham from free-range Gascony black pigs raised in the Pyrénées mountains.
Jambon de Bayonne is a particular speciality of the Pays Basque region in southwest France and is prized for its rich, nutty flavour. It comes from pigs that enjoy a ‘clean’ diet, which includes chestnuts, acorns and beechnuts. The hind leg meat is salted (with local Salies-de-Béarn salt), then air-dried and matured for up to 10 months.
Jambon d’Ardennes is produced in northeastern France and has long been renowned the world over for its texture and very mild, slightly sweet flavour. This is not to be confused with Ardenne Ham, which is salted and air-dried for several months and has a fine, dry texture. This ham is produced in Belgium.
Saucisson sec is a dry-cured sausage. Much like Italian Salami, it uses neck and shoulder muscle, minced/ground and comminuted with seasoning and spices, usually fresh garlic, black peppercorns and sea salt. It is hand-tied and cured for 30 days.
Don’t forget the pâté
The most famous pâté is foie gras, which is cooked and minced/ground fattened goose liver, seasoned, chilled and topped with melted butter (which seals the cooked meat underneath and extends the shelf-life).
Concerns about animal-cruelty surround the controversial production of fois gras, so I would opt for a good chicken liver pâté, which makes an excellent alternative. Pâté is usually served as a spread to go on crisp Melba toasts, or try potted rillettes (right).
These are similar to pâté but they are slow-cooked, are not puréed and don’t traditionally contain liver. Their texture is rougher, more like shredded meat, and they are often spooned, rather than spread, onto a slice of crusty baguette.
The technique and method can be used with other meats like beef and game. Terrines (or pâtés au terrine) are similar to pâtés but made with more coarsely chopped ingredients, baked in a loaf mould, sliced and served cold or at room temperature, in slices.
Tarte au saucisson sec with caramelised red onion, brie and tarragon pastry
Ingredients, serves 2
- 1 red onion, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons runny honey
- 100g butter (at room temperature)
- 220g plain/all-purpose flour
- a big pinch of sea salt
- a big pinch of dried tarragon
- 200g Brie, sliced
- 7–8 slices saucisson sec (about 60g)
- 100ml crème fraîche/ sour cream
- freshly ground black pepper
- dressed salad leaves/greens, to serve
- tart pan or baking sheet, greased
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F) Gas 4. Put the onion in an ovenproof dish, drizzle over the honey and stir to mix. Roast in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, until caramelized. Meanwhile, to make the pastry base, rub the butter and flour together in a bowl with your fingers until crumbly, then add the salt and tarragon. Add about 1 tablespoon cold water and mix to make a dough, but don’t let the mixture get too soggy. Gather the pastry into a ball, then turn it out onto a flour-dusted surface and roll out.
2. Use the rolling pin to help you transfer the pastry to the prepared tart pan and gently press it into the base and up the sides of the pan (or transfer the pastry to a greased baking sheet if you don’t have a suitable tart pan – just make sure you fold in the edges so the top-ping doesn’t leak out during cooking).
3. Prick the base of the pastry all over with a fork, then bake the pastry base on its own in the preheated oven for 5 minutes. Arrange the brie slices over the pastry base, then sprinkle the caramelized onions over the top.
4. Put the slices of saucisson sec over the onions, then add little blobs of crème fraîche/sour cream around the top. Add a sprinkling of pepper.
5. Bake in the preheated oven for a further 20–25 minutes. Serve with dressed salad leaves/greens and an ice-cold glass of wine or cider
Ingredients, serves 2
- 200g pork belly (rindless), trimmed and diced
- 1 tablespoon sea salt
- 30g/2 tablespoons butter
- 1 garlic clove, finely chopped
- a small pinch of ground mace
- 1 bay leaf
- a pinch of freshly chopped or dried parsley
- 50ml dry white wine
- 150ml chicken stock
- sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- freshly squeezed lemon juice and freshly chopped parsley, to serve (optional)
Melba Toast, to serve:
Two slices white or wholemeal/whole-wheat bread
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melba toast method (makes 16 pieces)
1. Preheat the grill to medium.
2. Cut the top crust off each slice of bread. Lightly toast the bread on both sides, either under the preheated grill/broiler or using a toaster on a low setting.
3. Remove from the grill/broiler or toaster and slice horizontally through the middle of each slice of toast to halve the thickness, then cut each slice diagonally both ways to make four triangles. You should now have 16 triangles.
4. Lay the triangles on a baking sheet with the untoasted sides facing up, sprinkle salt and pepper over the top and then pop them under the preheated grill for 1–2 minutes, until the tops are toasted. Serve immediately.
1. Put the pork belly in a non-metallic container and sprinkle the salt over the top. Massage the salt into the meat, then cover tightly and refrigerate for 1–2 hours. Rinse and dry the pork cubes – the salt should have already drawn some of the moisture out of the pork belly, but you don’t want to draw out too much because you’re going to slowcook it, which will benefit from keeping the fat.
2. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat (you’re going to need a saucepan with a lid), then add the pork belly, garlic, mace, bay leaf and parsley, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring often, to slightly brown the pork and coat it in the seasoning, then add the white wine and increase the heat to high for 1–2 minutes to reduce the wine. Pour in the chicken stock.
3. Turn the heat down to very low and put the lid on the pan. Leave it cooking gently for 75mins. At this stage, press one of the cubes of pork with a fork and if it starts to fall apart, it’s had long enough. However, it’s likely that it’ll need a little longer. If the mixture is starting to dry out and stick to the bottom of the pan, just add another splash of chicken stock – about 50 ml. Replace the lid and leave to cook gently for another 20–30 minutes, until the meat is falling apart.
4. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Discard the bay leaf. The best way to shred the pork is with your fingers, so let it cool enough to touch, then pull it apart with your fingers and mix it really well. If you have a large piece of fat on its own, you can remove it, but the fat should have mostly melted.
5. Transfer the pork to a container or two ramekins and chill in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour so that the mixture can set.
6. I recommend bringing it out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving – the texture of shredded meat is best at room temperature and it allows the flavour to come through really well. Feel free to add a squeeze of lemon juice before serving, an extra crack of black pepper and a sprinkling of freshly chopped parsley, if you like.
Extract and recipes from Charcuterie by Miranda Ballard, published by Ryland, Peters and Small, 2018. Photographs by Steve Painter