James Swift of veteran British charcuterie producers Trealy Farm tells us about Wales vs Italy, why classic beats quirky, and how marbling gives good mouthfeel.
Besides bacon-making and corned beef, curing meat has virtually no historical footing as an artisanal trade on our islands – certainly not when compared to continental Europe. There are, however, a growing number of charcuterie producers in Britain. We spoke to Cobble Lane Cured a few weeks ago. Others, such as The Dorset Charcuterie Company and Capreolus Fine Foods have come to the fore over the past few years. Some restaurants, such as The Clove Club in London, are producing their own charcuterie, and companies like Cannon and Cannon are making it easier for us to source British cured meats. Longer established than most is Trealy Farm Charcuterie of Monmouthshire, who have been winning awards yearly since their inception ten years ago. We speak to the founder and owner, James Swift, to find out more about his craft and business.
How long has Trealy Farm Charcuterie been around?
Trealy Farm Charcuterie has been going for ten years. My wife is from a ‘proper’ farm, and myself more from a smallholding background, and we bought Trealy Farm together in 2000 after moving from very different jobs in London. We began to raise traditional breed pigs and, after a bit of time, built a production premises in one of the old barns and started selling cured meats at the local farmers’ market.
How did you get the knowledge and skills to make cured meats?
I had no knowledge of charcuterie before I started, apart from my mum’s French farming heritage and the familiarity that gave with the products. So I taught myself by reading, through trips to producers and, later, meat technology schools in Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland – and trial and error. We made an awful lot of mistakes; our Labrador got fed well!
So, do you use the methods you learnt on the Continent?
Actually, I realised that you can’t just apply the techniques used, say, in Italy, over here. They’re making it as they do because they’re in Italy – Tuscan hillsides and Welsh hillsides don’t have too much in common. The flora in the air, humidity, etc , all different and you can’t use the exact same method. So I became very interested in the microbiology of the process – what was actually happening at every stage and what the variables were.
That’s interesting. So you have to be scientific about the process?
Absolutely. We have to be technically proficient. To make a consistent commercial product and also to allow expression and experimentation, you have to look at the science and appreciate what’s going on. If you look more widely at the artisan scene in Britain, a lot of it is now about producers understanding the base product they’ve got and working out what the best thing to do with it is, given their resources and environment.
Tell us about where your products are at now, ten years down the line.
We have more than 30 products that we make regularly, running the full range from sausages and bacon through many differed cured meats – which might be smoked or air-dried salamis and whole hams. We do classic things such as black pepper or fennel salamis, coppa, boudin noir and pancetta. But also things like blood, wine and chocolate chorizo and venison ‘carpaccio’ with juniper. Many of our products are pork based. But we also use beef ,venison, lamb, duck, goose and wild boar.
Quite a range. Will you keep developing it?
Definitely, though I think there’s a balance to be struck. One of the paradoxical advantages of being a British artisanal producer is that, because we’d almost totally lost our food culture, we can pretty much do whatever we want. I know that if I’d set up in, say, France, people would have questioned and perhaps doubted what I am doing. But I think there’s also a bit of a down side to that, too. I’m often asked “What have you got that’s new?” People jump on a quirky name, or things that sound new and different, and that can get a bit sickening.
Our new UK food culture is in its teenage years. We’ve tossed things up in the air to see how they fall, and there’ll become a time to settle on what really works. The freedom is good, but many classic styles and products are classic for a reason – we should keep that in mind.
You mentioned that you use a wide variety of animals. Do you rear them yourselves?
Only some of the sheep and a few pigs. Pork, beef, venison, lamb and poultry are local, and sometimes we source things like wild boar from further afield. We did originally raise all the pigs for the business on Trealy Farm, but I realised fairly early on that this wasn’t the best thing to do. The farm is steep and better suited to sheep. Crucially, there are loads of farmers around us raising traditional breed pigs (Tamworth, Saddlebacks and so on). So we developed a sort of co-op system where we specify free range, traditional breed pigs – big, raised up to a year old and 200kg, which is much bigger than normal. We guarantee them a good above-market-rate price, and seek a community feel to the business. There are people out there – specialists – who can’t sell their pigs, so we work together.
Why traditional breeds?
We use traditional breeds across our products because that’s where we started with the pigs. Looking around on the Continent, you see that it’s the traditional breeds that make the best charcuterie – for example the Mangalitza in Hungary and Austria, and pata negra for Ibérico ham in Spain. Traditional breed animals grow slowly. Their meat is denser, there’s less water content; the marbling of fat in the meat gives the right sort of mouthfeel and, ultimately, a better flavour. Charcuterie is what traditional breeds are for.
How do you suggest our readers store charcuterie? I’m never sure how long it should last or where to keep it.
Things vary a bit, depending how the charcuterie is made. First of all, you should know that properly made charcuterie is not likely to go ‘off’, ie: become dangerous to eat. Which is why you’ll see “best before” rather than “use by”. So storage is really about maintaining quality. If it’s sliced and the packaging opened, the clock is ticking because it will oxidise. A whole piece will gradually oxidise, too, though that could take a very long time if it’s big.
Basically, you need to keep charcuterie cool and dry. Humidity being too high is the real danger to quality. Most of us don’t have the optimum stone flagged cold larder – so the best thing to do is store the meat in a paper bag (not plastic) and in a fridge, which is the most consistently dry environment in a house. If mould develops on the outside, that’s fine – wash it off, hang the piece to dry, put it back in a drier place.
James Swift’s choice charcuterie
- Our bacon is never off the menu at home. People forget that bacon is charcuterie, but it’s a cured meat. I have it pretty much every morning.
- I really like our beef carpaccio at the moment – it’s not traditional raw carpaccio, but it mimics the consistency of carpaccio. Really moist and with a long shelf life. Lovely with celeriac remoulade.
- We created an air dried goose breast as a Christmas product, and we’re going to keep it going. Local geese, a couple of spices and a light smoke, then thinly sliced. I love this.