In the last 10 years the UK has seen a profound growth in British charcuterie production. Under the influence of some of our oldest European neighbours (France, Italy and Spain) the demand for ‘home grown’ cured and cooked meats has risen significantly. From Devon to the Scottish borders, the list of small British producers has increased steadily. In a relatively short amount of time this group of passionate artisans has transformed a niche market into something that is now starting to feel like a staple of modern British culture. However, despite this growth and passion, there still appears to be a distinct identity crisis about what is made and the nature of its heritage. Products that can truly be called British, in both name and substance, are still very ‘few and far between’. Fortunately, there is a new charcuterie company, based in the county of Rutland, that is starting to demonstrate that this historical tide may be turning.
The Rutland Charcuterie Company is a small, innovative company that was set-up by Nick Brake, with the help of Rich Summers, at Nick’s farm in Braunston, just outside Oakham. After returning from living and working in France, Nick and his wife Nicky decided that they would convert an existing outbuilding on their farm and put their time and effort into setting up a charcuterie business. Like most British charcuterie start-ups, they had been influenced by their experiences in Continental Europe and their desire to make similar products for the UK market. Nick spent a year completing the Advanced Diploma in Butchery and Charcuterie at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire, where he was fortunate to meet Rich (an experienced Butcher of many years), who was a tutor on the course. After graduating, Nick asked Rich to join them in their new venture and The Rutland Charcuterie Company began developing its range.
In the beginning…
From the very start of setting up The Rutland Charcuterie Company it was important to both the Brakes and Rich that they established the value commitments that would form the bedrock of their new business venture. For the business to be a success, it was crucial that these commitments (provenance, good animal welfare standards, and great flavour) informed everything their business represented, as well as each practical decision about what they made and how they made it. However, setting up a business like this would require a lot more than just the commitment to a set of values. As with most new food based businesses there was a whole range of health and environmental standards to meet, as well as many new things to learn on the way.
In the beginning it was simply about giving over time to sourcing stock and developing the products. As Rich remembers, “Theoretically, we had had the knowledge for a while, and were making very similar products before we got together…what we wanted to do, to be able to hit the ground running, was product testing to start, and a lot of product development, getting the flavours right, getting the process right and getting that right consistently, and at the same time sending samples away to the lab to have them tested.”
The process of choosing their stock was critical, however, choosing that stock by its age and how it had been reared was even more so. This meant exploring a range of suppliers that would not only provide them with the type of raw material they required, but that also supported their own value commitments in terms of provenance and high animal welfare standards. Their first challenge was to source traditional breeds from either inside the county or from neighbouring counties, as Rich states, “Traditional native breeds will come up to a killing weight at an older age, age is certainly critical because we are getting slightly less available water within the muscles…and this gives us a fighting chance.” Although, choosing the stock wasn’t just about the breeds. While broader interest in traditional rare breeds has grown significantly in last five years or so, as Rich points out, the rearing of the animal is just as important. “An animal should be selected on, not necessarily how pretty it looks, or even how well it eats, it is whether it suits the area in which you are rearing it. For example, it is pointless trying to take a Suffolk sheep to the Lakeland fells and trying to ‘finish’ it there, and on the flip-side it is pointless trying to take a Herdwick to East Anglia and trying to ‘finish’ it there, because it won’t work.”
For their pork, Nick and Rich chose to use Packington Free Range Farm in Barton Under Needwood, which is located near the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border. “They use a commercial pig but slow down the growth process in feeding. When they come to ‘finish’ pigs…they’ll finish on a very, very sugary feed with very high glycogen content, which in the conversion from meat to muscle, that glycogen is used as energy to finish the animal respiring after death. It is that conversion, of glycogen to lactic acid, which needs to drop very, very slowly…If it is stressed prior to being stunned and killed, it has used up that glycogen and the lactic acid is already in the muscles, which will drop the pH like a stone and we can’t do anything with it.” These rearing and ‘finishing’ practices are critical for the types of products Nick and Rich prepare, however, this was not the only reason for choosing Packington, as Nick points out; “We are using Packington Free Range, (which is less than five miles from the abattoir), because although we have loads of people around us we could use, they [the animals] would have to travel so far to an abattoir, the chances of them being stressed is not worth it, so we have chosen Packington Free Range because they give us a really consistent product.”
The issue of the proximity to an abattoir highlights the second, and perhaps more significant challenge for Nick and Rich, which was about getting well reared animals to an abattoir that would give them the consistency they required, as Rich points out; “The key thing is, certainly for meat production, is that the farm is closer to the abattoir.” Both Rich and Nick believe that the travelling distance and consistency of slaughtering practices can have significant effects on the quality of the final products they produce. This challenge was also compounded by the decreasing number of abattoirs, in the regions adjacent to Rutland, that will slaughter the types of older animals that Nick and Rich require. “That has been the challenge is this area…there are very, very few abattoirs that will kill pigs in Nottinghamshire. There are very, very few in Leicestershire…it is just small things like having a scalding tank big enough for an older pig, not everybody wants older pigs, but we do.”
Despite these challenges Nick and Rich managed to quickly get up and running with a range of products that started to showcase their skills and passion. Although, as Nick describes, they had to phase some of their investment based on the products they wanted to make. “It depends on what level you want to do it at…because we have decided to go down the air-dried route, that’s a big investment, but we could make a lot of products with just an oven or a little smoker, you could do it that way…we started off with a little smoker, a DIY thing, that got us through the first six months. We also had a little hand sausage stuffer and we managed with that…and a little domestic oven before we invested in the big oven.” As the business and investments steadily grew, the range increased in both volume and diversity. It currently stands at around twenty-four different products and includes some wonderful salami, coppa, bresaola, biltong, pastrami, smoked and cooked hams, pancetta, prosciutto and confit.
Dealing with the present…
Just before our visit Nick had gone through the long process of setting up a website with retailing functionality, so that their customers can order from their extensive range and have their products delivered directly to their homes, which is a very useful service if you don’t have the time to purchase direct from their ‘cellar door’. “It was hard and very time consuming. We haven’t pushed it massively, but it’s another arm to the business that will be very, very important.” They have also recently gained the necessary certification from the Environmental Health Officer to trade through wholesaling channels, although Nick admits the process wasn’t a simple one, due the nature of their products. “Yes, that was a long process. Obviously with the products we were making we were having to educate our EHOs…but they have been really helpful.” To gain the necessary certification to sell their products to the wholesale market took a great deal of time and effort. Nick and Rich worked with three tiers of local and regional Environmental Health infrastructure to ensure that all the necessary regulations and conditions were met. “The thing you need to do is to satisfy the Environmental Health, you need to show that you are competent. It’s amazing that you don’t have to be qualified to mix your own cures…which can be frightening…and means you could be potentially making people very, very ill.”
With the necessary certification granted and the website up and running Nick and Rich have never been busier. They are regularly ‘out and about’ at the local farmers’ markets and regional festivals showcasing their products and building their customer base. They have also recently hired some additional help to support them with a growing list of media commitments, which is helping ‘spread the word’ that little bit further. Seeing them during their day-to-day activities tells us that they are really enjoying their work, as Nick states, “we are not doing the same thing everyday and it’s great variety, it’s fantastic! We cure, we air dry, we smoke, we cook and bake, it’s endless.”
From being ‘out and about’ Nick and Rich have identified that their customers are shopping for information about the produce as well as the products themselves, which is something that they both feel is important considering the value commitments they have built the business upon. As Rich states, “Every animal is an individual…it’s about age, how the animal has been fed and how it has been killed, that is the most important thing to us. You don’t need a marketing strategy…we just tell people what we do and why we do it, and that seems to be enough.” Both Nick and Rich feel that having the opportunity to talk to customers about their products helps them
establish the connections between their values; “We need to find a way that we can value meat properly, the main way I explain it to people is to tell them about the breeds and what is good about the breeds. What I then say is we have dry aged this piece of beef and one or two things are happening here. The first thing is the enzymes that break down the tissue after death, they are breaking down some of the muscle fibres and connected tissues, therefore tenderising it. At the same time, moisture is being taken out, moisture is being evaporated…and that is intensifying flavour.”
The role of communicating with the customer is the area that Rich is more passionate about than most, having experienced the general deskilling of the meat industry over the last couple of decades. He now feels that the skills and role of the Master Butcher are making a much needed comeback. “We had that cultural shift, with the population boom just after the war, we were under pressure to feed more people and we decided it was a good idea to feed animal protein back to herbivores. It was all about mass and volume rather than quality. We were constantly told that everything had got to be lean and pre-packed and we deskilled an industry at the same time…as you deskill you lose the value…a Master Butcher used to be someone who could select stock, book it in at the abattoir, be able to kill it, dress it, hang it, bone it out, turn it into product, serve the customer and put the money in the till. That used to be the definition of a Master Butcher.” Rich feels that these unique skills got lost in our quest for quantity over quality, the long-term consequences of which we have started to experience more recently in the guise of various meat scandals. Although, he does think that the meat factories have provided the industry with some progressive practices. “There are lots of procedures in the big meat factories that work really well, I just have an issue, sometimes, with the quality of what they put out…the way Nick and I are able to produce twenty-four different products has come from techniques learned from high through-put boning plants, so there is a way of getting yourself organised.”
Thinking about the future…
Now that Nick and Rich are established and producing an extensive range of European influenced charcuterie, their thoughts are beginning to turn to matters a little closer to home. Like most small charcuterie producers their range includes some fantastic salami, coppa and noix de jambon, however, the obvious European heritage of these products is plain to see. Nick and Rich have been thinking for sometime about what history and heritage existed for British cured meats and how they could, in their own small way, begin to add to it.
Like their other products, anything that would have a strong British heritage would have to start with the animals and the land on which they were reared, as Rich passionately describes; “I love the rare breeds, I’ve got a massive passion for them. In terms of the beef products we make, they are fantastic, we use Longhorn beef, and that was developed over in Dishley Grange by Robert Bakewell, so you can’t get much more local. The breeder that we use actually farms in the area that they were developed in, so in North West Leicestershire and the South Derbyshire border, so that kind of granite, volcanic, acidic type of soil.”
Using this unique rare breed product as a base, Nick and Rich have worked with history to try and create something anew. “We have made a Melton Hunt Beef and it’s virtually, step by step, the exact same way I would make a pastrami, it’s exactly the same. The process is the same, but the herbs and spices have changed, and that’s it. All we are doing is putting a few different herbs and spices in and through that osmotic process those herbs and spices are flavouring that meat, but they are very much traditional British herbs and spices.” The recipe for Melton Hunt Beef was first documented in a work by an anonymous author entitled The Art and Mystery of Curing, Preserving and Potting all Kinds of Meats, Game and Fish (1864), and then adapted a number of times before reappearing in Elizabeth David’s Spices, Salt and Aromatics in the English Kitchen (1970). However, the likelihood is that it had existed, in different undocumented guises, long before even the earliest of these publications. During our visit we had the opportunity to taste some of Nick’s and Rich’s development samples and they were genuinely as good as anything that we have tasted from the Continent.
It is pretty clear that both Nick and Rich are extremely competent in producing the types of charcuterie we are all used to eating. Their product range represents the high quality of their combined skill and passion, as well as what the UK market is currently demanding. As Rich points out, “If you go and look at the delicatessen section in any supermarket you’ll find chorizo, you’ll find Parma Ham and you would have done for quite a few years. People will always want that, we just need to turn them over to buying British, because if the Brits don’t make these popular products we will just end up importing them.” Although, while the European influenced products remain popular, there is the desire to demonstrate that a range of truly unique British products could emerge alongside them, if there are producers, like The Rutland Charcuterie Company, who are willing to explore and experiment. “We don’t have to, but it is what we want to do. We could just stick doing some bresaola, coppa or noix de jambon…but we want to be British, we want to look back at our recipes and bring them on.” This small step shows that while there is a significant market for the European influenced products, there is also perhaps a new market that could include some of the unique cultural and culinary characteristics that have matured for many years in the lush pastures of old England.
As well as beginning to delve into history for their inspiration, Nick and Rich have lots of innovative plans and ideas for the future. They both have a great deal of respect for the work being done by the Mutton Renaissance campaign, although, they have some reservations about developing a mutton product within their own range, as Nick explains; “At the moment we are concentrating on this, but who knows, we are just getting to know Gwlym at Launde Farm and in the future we might get involved. We have got a large product range as it is…and we thought that as we were developing products and getting them out there some would dwindle away, but everything is popular and selling.” However, they have been thinking about new additions to their current offering, as Rich was keen to explain; “In terms of what we are doing here, yes, we have started off with these products, we are also working on a range of products that are additive free, so we will be using a particular type of sea salt, which means that we don’t have to add manufactured nitrates and nitrites, a bit like they do in the Parma Ham factory…that will be the next stage that I envision being very popular.”
Both of Nick and Rich are also very interested in the potential of education (Rich is already a tutor at The School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire) and thinking longer term about sharing their skills and possibly bringing apprentices into the business. “I have a massive passion to get people into the meat trade, it’s a big thing for me and I’m passionate about doing it.” A sentiment that Nick wholeheartedly agrees with, “Absolutely, 100%, that is what we would love to do.” They are also not afraid to try new things, even if, in the long-term, they don’t necessarily work out. “We were going to be rearing ducks here [at Nick’s farm where The Rutland Charcuterie Company is based], we dabbled with it, we looked to go ahead with it, but the cost was too prohibitive, it was just bonkers! So we are not doing it, we are buying in and I’m very pleased we are, because we can then concentrate on what we are good at here. Leave it to the experts, we will be the experts in this and convert it.”
Converting or transforming the raw material and adding value is what The Rutland Charcuterie Company is all about. Taking some of the best locally sourced stock and thinking about how it can be made better is what Nick and Rich are really passionate about. It is clear that to create a truly British charcuterie product, worthy of the name, requires a unique combination of physical raw materials (animals, land, herbs and spices) and the expertise and knowledge to transform those materials into unique products. It is obvious that Nick and Rich have the skills, passion and motivation to achieve this task, and it will certainly be interesting to see how this innovative little company continues to develop, and in its own small way, makes its mark on the history of British charcuterie.
A complete list of The Rutland Charcuterie Company’s product range can be found on their website or for further information and trade enquiries contact Nick on 01572 724655.