Think of the great meat-curing nations and it's likely you'll look across the Channel. The Spanish have jamón, the Italians make prosciutto, and French produce saucisson. But have you tried beef jerky made in Norfolk, Nduja from East London, and Cornish chorizo? Probably not.
"The British cured meats market is less than 0.01 percent of the charcuterie market in Britain. Yet the quality of British meat is exceptional and we're the best farming nation, so therefore we should be able to make the best charcuterie in the world."
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I'm talking to Sean Cannon, charcutier and co-owner of British cured meat retailer Cannon & Cannon at the business' new charcuterie bar Nape, which opened in Camberwell, South London last week.
"Not that I'm biased," he adds with a smile.
Cannon & Cannon already sells its homegrown charcuterie at market stalls across the capital, supplies to professional kitchens, and runs the Meat School at London's Borough Market. But Nape—named after an English cured and air-dried coppa (a.k.a. the marbled muscle from the base of a pig's neck)—is another venture Cannon hopes will further spread the word on proper British cured meat.
"Generally, if you order a charcuterie platter, it'll be this huge thing on a board with house salads and pickles, and maybe even cheese and pies. It all tastes like a big mash of flavours and it's probably not from the UK," says Cannon. "But what's great about good, British charcuterie is that the flavours are so distinct and nuanced that you don't need three or four meats together. You only need one plate of really good quality meat but people can be quite apprehensive about charcuterie."
And he thinks the French are to blame.
"I love French charcuterie but they're very good at creating mystery around food, which sometimes makes people think they can't fully understand it," explains Cannon. "We've got to cut right through that. Charcuterie is a peasant food that was invented and made by smallholders to preserve meat."
Cannon continues: "You just take a piece of muscle like the loin and cover it in salt which draws the moisture out. Bacteria can't live in the meat because there's no moisture so they die. Then you just let it dry until it reaches the perfect texture. Then you eat it. That's really all there is to it."
Sounds straightforward enough. And scanning Nape's evening menu, I notice that most of the country is represented—from Cumbrian ham to Monmouthshire sausage and Hackney brawn. So, why hasn't the UK been producing cured meats as long as other European countries?
"Charcuterie used to be made in the natural air so you needed certain atmospheric conditions to make it safely. Then refrigeration came along and now, about 99.9 percent of charcuterie is made in controlled, walk-in chillers. Not, unfortunately, in a cave in Italy anymore," says Cannon wistfully.
He continues: "But it takes time to build the infrastructure to make charcuterie a successful commercial business. It's also got to be worth the farmer's time and money to breed the animals in a certain way for curing."
"However, when it's possible to make charcuterie even in the desert, the defining factor in the quality of your end product becomes what goes in it: the meat."
Enter Britain. As Cannon unpacks a few cured meats to show me, he explains why he thinks British is best.
"Our traditional heritage pig breeds like British lop, Gloucester Old Spot, and semi-wild pigs like boar cross have been bred to grow slowly unlike modern factory pigs which are rushed to maturity. The latter don't grow and develop fat in the way pigs that have been reared slowly do," he says. "And the fat is key. You want dense, creamy fat. It binds everything together and delivers the flavour."
"It's also amazing how distinctive regional flavours are. For example, red deer from the north of Scotland compared to deer from Monmouthshire is wildly different."
Cannon places a hunk of the Cornish Lop nape on the spikes of a majestic-looking meat slicer, and starts to crank a wheel which sends a blade spinning. Slowly, slowly wafer thin slices of gloriously fatty, marbled meat appear the other side. He swaps the nape for veal and sage Monmouthshire sausage.
"With muscle meats like the loin, the cheek, the coppa, you would dry-cure it and you'd never cut anything off. The other form of charcuterie is sausage, which uses everything else left in the carcass, ground down," says Cannon. "The French would say saucisson, the Italians salami, the Germans versht. We don't have a word for it but we're looking to coin one. We always call it dried sausage but it kind of has some unpleasant connotations."
"Right, we'll use Big Bertha to slice the rest of the nape."
I look around. There's no one else in the room and Cannon laughs. "We like to name the slicers. We've got Abigail back at the Cannon & Cannon HQ and Big Bertha over there. But this one still needs a name."
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While still pondering what to call the newest member of the team, Cannon shows me what will soon become Nape's courtyard area outside the back of the building.
"Do you see that space down there? It's a kind of covered arch leftover from the train tracks. We're hoping that once we get clearance from health and safety, we'll be able to cure our own nape."
In addition to getting more people eating British cured meat, it seems Cannon may have his wish of bringing back cave charcuterie granted, too.