Ham, ham, lovely ham.

Following on from my last post, I’ve been thinking more an more recently about what constitutes an artisan product. I started thinking about it after taking part in a Radio Cymru discussion recently on sausage production. There’s a generalised view that products sold from a farm shop or high street butchers are going to be hand-made in small batches. Sadly, it’s not true, many small retailers buy in sausages, bacons and cooked meats from larger producers.

As I’m looking at potential grant streams, I’ve been drawing up budgets for the type of machinery I’d like to get for my new processing unit. Essentially they’re all slightly bigger versions of what I already use. What’s caused me the biggest quandary is the sausage stuffer. I currently hand crank every single sausage I produce, batches are small, recipes traditional, ingredients are of the highest quality, casings are natural, any twisting or tying is done by hand. I’m not willing to change any of my ingredients, but if I started to further mechanise any of that process, would it stop being an artisan product?


Sticking with the processing theme, I noticed a new tv advert for the ‘only ham made with 100% natural ingredients’. As soon as I saw it, and their claim, I was onto their website to see their ingredients list. The key ingredient (along with pork and salt) in bacon or ham is either sodium nitrite, sodium nitrate or potassium nitrate (or a combination of the three). It lowers the risk of clostridium botulinum (that causes botulism) and it generates that delightful pink colour in cured meats. Nitrite/nitrate is usually synthetically produced, and should be listed on an ingredient list as a preservative with its own E-number. So, what makes Richmond Ham so natural? Well, they use a mixture of sea salt (which contains natural trace elements of sodium nitrate) and celery extract (which also contains sodium nitrate) instead of synthetically produced cure. It provides them with a ‘clean-labelled’ product, as they don’t have to list it as a preservative. It’s fascinating stuff (well, for me anyway). While on my study tour of the US last year I came across a huge amount of nitrite/nitrate free clean-labelled produce. It seems to be a major consumer choice there. I have mixed feelings over clean-labelling.

There’s legislation already in place limiting the levels of nitrite/nitrate in cured products from synthetically derived nitrite/nitrate. However, there’s little to govern the levels derived from natural produce such as celery. Many people buy nitrite/nitrate free products as they don’t believe in ingesting nitrite/nitrates, however, the likelihood is that they’re ingesting even higher doses. There’s also the moral question – is a synthetically produced compound any worse than a compound derived through heavy processing? And are we fooling customers labelling something as natural, when from a chemical perspective it’s the very same product?

The other item on the ingredient list of interest is pork protein. I’m taking a guess here, but I assume it’s an emulsified mix of pork and cure that’s being re-injected back into the muscle. Still sound natural to you? It doesn’t put me off one bit, it’s how emulsified products are made, it doesn’t make this one any worse or better. If there’s an introductory offer on for it, I’m pretty sure I’ll be buying a packet to try it out. But spare a thought when you’re reading a label that says 100% natural.

A visit to IBERS

Another month goes by, and I’m hugely aware that I haven’t managed to blog. I’ve got a stack of things to write about at the moment, but little time to actually do so. There’s plenty going on, but I wanted to mention a visit I made a couple of weeks back to IBERS – the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University. I was there as part of a Ruminant Innovation Network Event that had been organised by the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network. Now I know pigs aren’t ruminant animals, but my interest lies more in the information that they had on both feed and grassland and it’s effect on meat quality. It was a fascinating day, I was really out of my depth scientifically for a large part of it but I did learn a lot. I won’t try and explain everything I saw, I’ll just concentrate on some of the bits that I found interesting. I’m getting on my soap box now, so if you want to avert a rant, stop reading. For those willing to carry on I’ll try and keep it short and simple.

Global population is rising, therefore we need more efficient ways of farming in order to produce more food. We also need more efficient modes of processing raw ingredients into food to lessen waste. There’s a general snobbery that supermarket food is poor quality – I wouldn’t always say so. We have friends who breed some of the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, and all their animals are sold to supermarkets – they’re amongst the most progressive farmers that I know when it comes to the type and quality of grasslands that their flock grazes on. They don’t have the skills to process their own animals, but have a ready outlet a few miles away with a supermarket contracted slaughterhouse.

At IBERS they’ve got extensive ‘test beds’ of different grasses, ryegrasses, clovers and chicory. The testing that they undertake (which is often part funded by the supermarkets) looks at plant breeds, it’s productivity, it’s composition and the effect on soil. They also test the effect the feed has on the animals, both in terms of daily weight gains, and methane production. This doesn’t necessarily involve a whole load of ‘nasty chemicals’ or lab type animal testing scenarios, it’s basic plant development vs the effect on animals – it’s ultimately a very natural way of production.

During the visit, they’d set up a basic methane test tent for us to see, two willing sheep volunteers were happily producing methane for us within this controlled environment. We also got to see the cattle sheds where radio id tags on the ears of every animal would record the daily feed intake which could then be used to calculate daily weight gains. During a presentation we got to see how GPS tags were used to calculate grazing patterns, and how, through a combination of GPS mapping and soil testing – specific parts of fields could get the right level of fertiliser or manure to create a balanced crop.

Where productivity often falls short is when it comes to taste. It doesn’t matter what breed an animal is, what the welfare standards are, whether it’s free range or intensively raised, the main, key ingredient when it comes to taste is the feed that we give that animal. What goes in = the quality of what we get from the animal. When I started my journey of rearing animals, I looked back to the past to the ways that my grandfather kept his pigs. His feeding regime of straights, foraging and vegetables are the centrepiece of my feeding regime. However, I’m not doing it to emulate some ‘old-fashioned’ way of life – it’s based on science. Composite feeds from the large feed producers are the most efficient way of producing super lean pork. However, that isn’t what I’m trying to produce. That said, I’m not averse to using new technology, new feeds and developed crops if there’s a positive effect on the animal. I’ve recently submitted a DEFRA grant application into the effects of vitamin E as a natural antioxidant in pork. A huge amount of research is readily available for ruminants, not so much for the beloved pig. Who knows if I’ll get anywhere, but it’s worth trying.

I’m not advocating that supermarket produce is perfect. Far from it, if we’re realistic, the cheapest supermarket food is functional – it’s there to provide food to this growing population. As a small scale traditional producer, the products that I make take a long time to produce, and are probably hugely inefficient – I have to charge a premium for the product because of this. When we look at functional food, it can be pretty scary what large processing companies have to do in order to produce a product that can be sold cheaply. I’m not saying that processed food is bad, I have a huge respect for processed food, and even though we try and be as self sufficient as possible I often find myself trawling the aisles of the local supermarket looking for a cheap and tasty solution for the evenings meal.