I’m currently travelling down through Dorset to stay at The Pig on the Beach, and on my way I’ve stopped at one of that hotel’s trusted suppliers, British charcutiers, The Dorset Charcuterie Company. I’m talking to one of the founders, Lee Morton, about how he became involved in charcuterie and why, until recently, it’s been an art scarce practised in the British Isles.
I wanted to know how Lee had first became interested in charcuterie and he explained that it was almost by accident. Originally he’d been interested in working for River Cottage, “I like the idea of ‘growing your own’, I think it’s important to know where the food you eat has come from” he explains. And so, there he was, on his way to an interview at River Cottage for the post of Head Gardener.
“On my way there I passed a delicatessen and butchery which was supplying River Cottage. Although my father was a butcher, I’d never really been attracted to that. But somehow I decided to go in and I ended up with a job there instead… that’s how I got into charcuterie.” Lee explains that he then moved to another butchers which was based in Dorset at Bere Farm, where he met his future business partner, Benjamin Sugden, who complemented his butchering skills perfectly with his experience in the catering industry.
Lee’s employers closed down and made him redundant but in the meantime he and Ben had already decided that there was a serious market for locally produced charcuterie.
“For centuries the Italians, the French and the Germans have been famous for their hams, their salamis and their sausages, I thought ‘why not us?’. At the time there was only one other charcuterie that we knew of, based in Monmouth. The British are not that adventurous, there are lots of old recipes but most of them amount to simply smoking in the chimney. It’s quite wet here so that makes hanging difficult”, explains Lee. But he says that’s all changing very fast now. “There is an increasing demand, particularly from London. We add value: it’s all completely natural, nothing artificial is added, and we also add shelf life”.
Because of the paucity of charcutiers Lee and Ben are largely self-taught. “Look at this” he says, pulling down a heavy, well-thumbed, tome which turns out to be Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn’s bible Charcuterie, “we gave ourselves a thorough grounding on the approach outlined here and then we began experimenting. As basic as it seems there is science behind it, in the same way as there is to baking bread, or making yoghurt.”
Support came for their new business in the form of both their landlords, and from The Prince’s Trust, from whom they received the maximum grant (“I think they appreciated the fact that we are a bit different… not just tee shirts or DJs”). However, there were also difficulties. “I’d qualified officially as a butcher” explains Lee, “and although the local authority had a thick manual on the sale of raw meat, they had nothing on charcuterie. It took a year to prove to them that it is entirely safe to eat uncooked meat.
When I met Lee he was with his suppliers, Claire and Andrew Head, of Cedar Organic, the local farmers who rear the Mangalitsa pigs Dorset Charcuterie specifies. “We chose the Managlitsa because it has lots of succulent fat. This breed is much bigger than a normal pig (less than a year they are too small to use), and it’s hairy, closely related to the now-extinct Lancashire Curly Coat. The animals on Claire’s farm are free-range, woodland-range. They enjoy the best welfare standards. They’re lucky, apart from those that produce, Jamón Ibérico, many animals are fed on GM corn, inside, in pens, in the dark – these, Lee explains, produce very mean, lean meat.
The Dorset Charcuterie Company doesn’t just cure pork. They also use beef, and less obviously, pheasant, goose, duck and squirrel. “What’s the squirrel like?” I ask, intrigued. “Well, it’s sort of nutty” Lee grins…”it’s gamey, earthy, a bit like rabbit but even leaner”. Beef coppa is the chuck eye), and pork coppa is the collar of the pig – it’s air dried for three months.
And Lee and Ben also make chorizo – again all natural. The pork is flavoured with smoked paprika, coriander, fennel “and other things” describes Lee mysteriously and with finality. Then he reaches up to unhook a monster ham. “The chorizo doesn’t take long to make, but the pig this would have come from would have been about two, and since then it’s been maturing in the rafters for another three years, it’s a true vintage”.
For more about British charcuterie try the courses and tasting sessions run by Cannon & Cannon at their HQ in Borough Market.