I keep on saying it, but I don’t get a chance to post half as much as I want to. It’s not laziness, it’s a lack of time. If you have a friend that runs their own business, who’s bad at keeping in touch, slow to answer emails or rubbish at leaving birthday wishes on Facebook, spare a thought, they’re probably very very busy. Over the past few weeks I’ve had more than one person say to me “I’ve got a huge amount of respect for what you do”, the immediate response, is a shy “oh shucks guys, thanks”. But when I start thinking about it, I turned my back on a very comfortable, safe, well-paid desk job, working an exact 37.5 hours per week for a job that’s 24/7 with little or no pay. My personal reaction is more akin to “this guys effin crazy”. I’ve also had a couple of people ask me over the past few weeks “would you do it all over again, if you’d have known how many ups and downs the last year has thrown you?”, and every time, I’ve responded with an instant, direct “yes”.
For those of you with a couple of pigs thinking of going into the ‘charcuterie game’, please take note. It’s not a get rich quick scheme, it doesn’t offer masses of money for your raw product, it isn’t simple and easy, but neither is it a dark art. It’s a scientific process, one that needs to be fully understood. Just because you can make a half decent salami in an outbuilding doesn’t mean that that product is safe to sell to the general public. My ‘experience’ of producing hams comes from generations of family tradition. When I took over the reigns in producing our own home cured products in 2004, I took on the processes and lessons that had been learnt from one generation to the next. However, that experience was all about tradition – transfer the process into a contemporary food production environment and you start understanding the science underpinning that. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, charcuterie is all about meat science, whether it’s to do with cure, bacteria, mould, water activity, pH levels. Once you know the science behind producing a product, you can then make a signature range of flavours to your product by tweaking salt and cure levels, changing the acidity or by adding a little smoke. I guess in some ways it’s like comparing your Mam’s cooking with Heston Blumenthal, my mother knows how to cook a decent roast, and loves experimenting with flavours, but Heston (and his team of scientist) understand a little more about how both flavour and the science of cooking can create the end product. During my trip to the States last year, I always found that Chefs who were producing charcuterie were making the most flavoursome product, but they weren’t always technically perfect, whereas more commercial producers were technically superb but left a lot to be desired on the quality and flavour front. I hope that I’m somewhere in-between the two. At the Charcuter-ish meat-up earlier this year, one producer made a comment that’s stuck with me, it went along the lines of “all it takes is for one person to produce a deadly salami, and that could be the death of the British Charcuterie industry”. Having done the leg work, I know exactly what he means, and without naming names, I could list a handful of producers that I’d never ever buy from again.
This week saw yet another major milestone for me. My latest ‘test’ batch of air dried whole muscle cured products were ready, and for the most part I’m extremely chuffed with them. They’ll be sliced and sent for microbiological testing this week, just so that all the research can be rubber stamped. I’m at that point now that everything from my initial air dried range can go into production. I’ve been in a slight daze this weekend, and still am, as I’ve felt an immense sense of relief, and a sizeable level of trepidation at what’s ahead. I’ve invested heavily in this ‘little project of mine’, I shudder to think of the total cost, but between grant aid and my savings in the region of £30,000 has been invested in research and development in order to have a market ready product.
It’s time to roll up the sleeves and get working properly, my main problem now is finding a space to produce from. Although I have a space put aside here on the farm, the cost of converting the building without even purchasing a piece of equipment is over £50,000 ($75,000). To get the very best equipment it’d be a further £100,000 ($150,000) and in the end it’d be a very modest sized unit. This week I took a look at a food processing unit that’s just come available. It’s not absolutely perfect, it’s 26 miles away from home, it’s a little on the small size but it’s already set up with food grade walls, chillers, change areas etc. Sadly, I’m not the only person interested in it, and it looks like it’ll be a case of business plan and interview to compete for the space. I’m frantically searching online for cheap second hand equipment to see whether there’s any way of atleast starting with the barebones of what I need. Watch this space, I’m currently writing my ‘kickstarter’ script and there’ll be a call for contributions this autumn. If you’re a meat devotee, please find it in your heart to offer just a few pounds or dollars to the cause!