Adventures in Charcuterie
Illtud Llyr Dunsford of Charcutier Ltd on life as a Welsh pig expert, why beer is great for bacon and his ideal British charcuterie board
A charcutier is somebody who cuts meat — largely from pigs — and makes products from it. In a traditional French context, a charcutier was found in most towns. He did more than just make sausages: if the mayor’s daughter was having a birthday, say, the charcutier would cater for the party. It was quite wide-ranging.
If you say charcuterie in a modern context, people immediately think of air-dried meats. Which is quite sad. Charcuterie encompasses a lot more: fresh, cooked and smoked meats, a pork pie, a faggot, a terrine, pâtés, frankfurters — as well as air-dried meats.
Every country has a different name for it. We used the French word, charcuterie, because it seemed to be the most far-reaching. In Italy they use salumi which means a hung product, and encompasses mortadella, which is cooked, as well as a salami. Every country has these little nuances.
I was born in Cardiff but every weekend and holiday was spent on the farm. It felt much more like home to me than the city. My childhood was filled with foraging trips with my grandfather, though the term wasn’t really in use at the time. It was the natural way to eat from the bounty — rabbits, mushrooms, fruit and nuts — that the farm had to give.
Depending on the day, I get up around 5 or 6am. At one time, the livestock were my responsibility but recently I’ve had help from my parents and uncle. Now I’m more involved in the theory of farming: the science behind the animals, the breed lines and how different lines might produce better fat, and so on. I miss handling the livestock, particularly on those crisp, cold winter mornings when a burst of physical energy before breakfast was always invigorating.
My family has farmed the Gwendraeth Valley in Carmarthenshire since parish records have existed. That’s well over 300 years. Our two farms Penllwynteg and Felin y Glyn are mixed: we keep cows, sheep, pigs and poultry. My grandfather and uncle bred saddleback sows in the 70s and 80s, but the pedigree Welsh pig, the native breed for Wales, has been the mainstay of our pig rearing.
When I was young a slaughterman would come in and kill the pigs. I’d watch what he was doing and learn but it wasn’t until my 20s that I was able to cut and dress an animal bigger than a chicken. I’m not as confident with beef as I am with other animals, but pigs were the animal I dealt with a lot more because they were the cheap protein.
I remember my great-uncle telling me he’d never tasted beef or lamb until well into his 20s. They were too valuable, whereas pigs were cheap because they were seen as an animal that could eat swill and the waste from the table. They were the sole source of protein in the peasant diet.
Pigs really are smart. We see them test fences outdoors. They’ll make you think that they’re testing a particular part of the fence, but in reality they’ll be working on a completely different part when you can’t see them. All our pigs were free range when we started the business, but we quickly realised that in winter they weren’t happy in a foot of mud, whereas if you brought them indoors and put them on deep straw, they were much, much happier. We thought that that was the moral, sensible thing to do.
When a pig is stressed, either at the point of slaughter or during their lives, it has a big effect on the quality of the meat. It de-natures it, so the proteins are different and won’t bind in the same way if you’re making a sausage — they won’t retain water or a cure in the same way.
I’d never say that there was one ultimate breed of pig. Farmers tend to use the breed that suits them as people, or the product or the region. We’ve always used the Pedigree Welsh because it’s the regional breed for Wales. There’s a mention of a pig of that description back in 10th-century Arthurian legend, so it seemed sensible to use the pig that’s been there forever and has evolved into the environment. It’s a good all-rounder and suits both our heritage and the region.
“All our pigs were free range when we started the business, but we quickly realised that in winter they weren’t happy in a foot of mud”
Using a little bit of beer in the feed gives a wonderful nutty flavour to the bacon. One producer uses the leftovers from the drip trays under the taps in a pub, then mixes it with water and adds it to the feed. It really is the best bacon. The beer adds fat in the same way that it would for humans, but the quality of the fat is amazing. If you went through exactly the same process but removed the beer it wouldn’t taste the same at all.
Traditional Italian salami is by far the most challenging product to make. You need to trim it to within an inch of its life, so it’s pure meat and pure fat. Natural casings, traditional moulding… everything has to be traditional. Last year when we moved into our new on-site facility, the Italian technician who installed the dry room told us our floor was cold — and indeed it affected our first batch. We had to rethink the whole thing, but now I think our product is better than it’s ever been.
If somebody wants a British charcuterie board, it might have:
a. Polony, a bastardisation of mortadella which came over here in the 16th century. We use a recipe that’s derived from the 17th century. By now it’s quite different from mortadella: a really delicious, smooth-cooked sausage with pork, cinnamon, a little bit of nutmeg, ginger. Very soft and simple.
b. Salt beef. If you go to Brick Lane, you can get a salt beef bagel 24 hours a day. It’s rooted in London’s Jewish heritage and exists in many cultures, but again is a very traditional British product.
c. Regional cured hams. Where we’re from in Carmarthenshire every family would have their own curing method. If you look countrywide, every region has their own traditional cure, such as York hams and Suffolk cures. We’re a nation of ham eaters; we eat more cooked ham than most other nations. We just really love ham.
d. Sausages. Cumberland and Lincolnshire are the most famous, but they’ve deviated from their origins because they’re mass-produced and found in supermarkets. Go back to the early 1900s and the Cambridge sausage was the most popular in the UK. Go back to the early 18th century and it was the Oxford sausage, which had pork, veal, lemon, thyme, marjoram, sage… really amazing flavours.