Nick Lawford came on one of the School’s Curing and Smoking courses – he was so impressed he wanted to share his experience…
A few months ago a beautiful and generous combination of loved ones presented me with what can only be described as the BEST BIRTHDAY PRESENT EVER: a day learning about how to cure and smoke meat at the School of Artisan Food in north Nottinghamshire (http://www.schoolofartisanfood.org/).
Duck - before and after salting
I’ve made a handful of attempts at producing charcuterie over the years, with varying degrees of success. Air-dried salami (inspired by this article by Tim Hayward: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/wordofmouth/2010/feb/08/how-to-make-salami) did not go well. In fact it went rotten. A trip to New York – and, specifically, two visits to Katz’s Delicatessen (once with friends, the second time a solo visit – just me, alone with a massive sandwich, in love) – embedded an obsession with pastrami. My fridge is now no stranger to a hunk of beef, bathing patiently in a tub of brine.
This, however, was an opportunity to really learn about these age-old techniques of preserving and flavouring meat, to have a go at things I’d only ever day-dreamed about.
The School is based on the very grand Welbeck Estate – amidst beautiful parkland and a whole community of food and creativity: a farm, an art gallery, a 12th century abbey, a farm shop, a dairy, artists workshops, a bakehouse… The School itself is housed in the beautiful former stables block, which dates back to 1870. We were welcomed with coffee and bacon sandwiches before a quick look round the school, which specialises in baking, dairy and, where I found myself, the butchery department.
There were seven of us meat geeks in all – three more enthusiastic home cooks like me, a couple of farmers and a Guardian journalist (who went on to write this excellent piece: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/sep/02/curing-and-smoking-course-nottinghamshire).
The course leaders, Chris and Rich, slapped half a pig down in front of us. From its nose to its tail, we got to know that fine animal that day. Both Chris and Rich have huge experience in the meat industry as well as passion and enthusiasm for artisan butchery. They stressed the importance of using good quality meats when curing and smoking.
Learning about meat provenance and watching master butchers chop up a pig is all well and good, but I wanted to get stuck in, so I was first with my hand in the air when Chris asked for a volunteer to mix up the first of our recipes of the day: Smoked Countryman’s Sausage. I washed my hands, rolled up my sleeves and enthusiastically massaged together the sausage mixture – a mix of diced pork, pork mince, pork fat, salt, garlic powder, black pepper and mustard seeds. The group then took it in turns to feed the mixture through the huge industrial sausage maker, filling up the hog casings and making neat meaty horseshoes. These were then pricked and would ordinarily have been allowed to dry for 2-3 hours. We skipped that step, though, and just put them straight into Chris’s smoking cabinet to be hot smoked at 85 – 90 degrees for about 2 hours. Also into the smoker went a pork tenderloin which had been cured for half an hour in a mixture of salt, Demerara sugar, juniper berries, shredded bay leaves and black peppercorns.
We then paused for lunch. Which was incredible. I tried to take a photo of the buffet but I was shaking with excitement so it didn‘t come out very well. Pressed beef, marmalade ham, cured ox tongue, pigeon & venison terrine, pork pie, scotch egg, plus pates, quiches, a range of lip-smacking salads, home-made breads and cheeses – all produced on site. It was magical. Bliss.
The morning had been pretty good fun and the lunch was mind-blowing, but it still didn’t prepare me for the excitements of the afternoon, which was hands on and action-packed.
We started by carefully boning and skinning hunks of pork belly. These were then rubbed in a sugar/salt mix and vacuum-packed to take home and cure in the fridge, eventually becoming streaky bacon. Part of the joy of the day was that it kept on giving even after you’d gone home…half of the stuff we took away wasn’t ready for days or weeks afterwards. Curing meat certainly teaches patience.
Throughout the day Chris had a few pots simmering away in the background – one a vat with pork hocks and trotters, another with an ox tongue, all of which had previously been in brine for a week. Not for the first time I found myself daydreaming about having a fridge at home just for brining stuff. A weird dream.
Eventually two lucky volunteers were picked to assemble a ham hock terrine – a carefully built construction of the beautifully tender succulent shredded meat, sweet pickled gherkins, finely chopped celery and a few ladles of the stock that the meat had been bubbling away in all afternoon. The ox tongue too was skinned and pressed into a bowl, weighed down and chilled. This one was a revelation when we eventually ate it – rich, delicious, melt-in-the-mouth meaty goodness.
Also in my bag to take home was a chunk of silverside of beef (it wasn’t an entirely pork-filled day), which we trimmed, cut into strips and rubbed in salt. This then had some wine added, at home, before being dried, rubbed in a spice mix and hung to dry, to make the South African delicacy biltong. We were told that this would take up to 10 days. I didn’t really have a suitable cool, dark and airy place to hang mine, so rigged them up in the oven instead, where I left them for several days. My wonderful girlfriend did a good job of not being bothered that the fridge was now full of half-cured meat and the oven was out of action for 10 days because it was home to some slowly drying beef.
As it turned out my oven method wasn’t actually ideal, I think it was lacking a crucial flow of air – after about 4 days I realised that my biltong was going mouldy. I didn’t panic, however (well, not too much), as Chris had told us that white mould is actually okay. It’s black mould that we should fear. I bravely mopped off the white mould with some vinegar and decided to speed up the drying process, leaving them in a very low oven overnight. They didn’t turn out too badly in the end – chewy, spicy, meaty snacks. Plus no-one got botulism, which is always something worth celebrating.
The last of the meaty treats was truly amazing and subsequently I’ve done it a couple of times at home and you should do it too: Duck Proscuitto. It is what the name suggests – a duck breast cured to become a kind of sweet, cured ham. It’s flipping awesome.
As Chris made very clear, when you’re home curing you don’t want to start out trying to make a Jamón Ibérico. You’re going to be disappointed. And someone might get botulism. Start out with Duck Proscuitto instead.
Rinse and dry a 170-180g duck breast. Put a one inch bed of salt in a plastic container (like one you’d get from a Chinese restaurant), lay the duck on top and cover it with another layer of salt. Leave this in the fridge for two days.
Mix together 2g of ground coriander, 2g ground fennel seeds and 2g ground black pepper. Remove the duck from its salty bed, rinse it with white wine vinegar and then with water. Pat it dry and then rub the spice mixture over it.
Wrap the duck breast in cheesecloth, tie it up at both ends and hang it in the fridge. The duck needs to cure until it feels “firm but not dry”, which takes about 2 weeks, less for smaller breasts.
When it’s ready, slice it thinly and enjoy. Perhaps in a salad, or on toast with a dollop of fruity chutney. Or perhaps just on its own with a glass of red wine. It’s bloody delicious.
The next available Smoking & Curing course takes place on 28 April at the School of Artisan Food: http://www.schoolofartisanfood.org/coursedetail.aspx?instanceID=829. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
With huge thanks to Chris, Rich and everyone at the School of Artisan Food. And to Kayleigh, my parents, her parents, sister and family, who all made it happen for me.