Charcuterie can feel a bit like meat plus alchemy. Originally made to preserve meat before the invention of refrigeration, good charcuterie is a great upgrade for your basic cheese platter. We spoke to Adam Bielawski who makes, sells and distributes charcuterie of all types for his companies Poach Pear, and The Black Pig Deli & Co. Adam helped us break down what makes charcuterie great, and how to tell you’re getting the best charcuterie you can find.
Adam says while they don’t tend to categorise much, what separates one piece of charcuterie from another is all in the process. The foremost distinction comes from whether a piece of charcuterie is based on ground meat or a whole piece of meat which has gone through a curing process.
Ground charcuterie goes through a mincing process before being cooked, cured, or both. The end result is determined by how fine the meat is ground, with terrine and salami on the coarse end of the spectrum, and mortadella and pâté at the finest end.
Ground charcuterie, also called Forcemeats, can be further broken down into cooked and cured meats. Mortadella retains its bright colour and shape from cooking in either water or smoke, whereas salami gets deep in colour and a little rough around the edges from being fermented and then air-dried until it loses a predetermined amount of moisture.
The other side charcuterie is cured whole pieces of meat. This includes prosciutto, jamon iberico and serrano. These meats are usually whole portions of a butchered pig which are salted and spiced before being air-dried for between six and twelve months. Much like with mortadella, similar cuts of meat can be smoked or cooked to create a familiar deli-style ham.
Levelling Up Your Charcuterie
Among his own salami and prosciutto Adam focusses on a less common level of charcuterie, making terrine, pâté and rillette for their Poach Pear brand. "They're all charcuterie which is made relatively quickly and are to be eaten within a month. It's not a long term process, whereas salamis and hams take months to prepare, and are made to last a long time.” Adam said.
At the Black Pig Deli & Co. Adam makes seasonal terrines, which are sliced fresh for the customer. "Terrine is named after the cooking vessel, which is similar to a bread pan. The meat which goes in is similar to a sausage.” he said, "Terrine comes from the farm. It uses everything, and whatever herbs and vegetables you have growing. It's really thrifty: I'll get a local pig and make that into three or four different products, then make terrine out of the trim, or the excess leftover meat. We also use local duck and heritage chicken, as well as lamb."
Pâté is a spreadable paste made of liver which is blended and then set in a jar with gel or clarified butter. Adam prepares Pâté using chicken and duck, with various different seasonings.
Rillette, one of the lesser known charcuteries, is slow cooked pork shoulder or neck, usually cooked in it's own stock with vegetables and herbs for six or seven hours and then shredded set in a jar back in with it's stock. Rillette is similar to confit, and employs a confit cooking process, but the charcuterie itself is defined by the meat being shredded before being set back in with the stock.
Where to Buy
We can’t recommend The Black Pig Deli & Co. in Inglewood enough. But if you’re scoping out your local, there are plenty of signals to look out for which can tell you whether they’re putting out great products. Adam says the quickest and best way to find out about a deli’s produce is to speak to the person behind the counter.
"We're a small family business, so it really matters to us that we source the best quality product, and that the customer trusts us that our choice is right. We get that trust and respect. When I'm slicing I can tell people where most of our stuff comes from. I can tell them that this is comes from a certain butcher, or that I've made it, but that I've selected from this particular butcher.” said Adam.
Good deli owners will only purchase charcuterie from butchers they are proud to support, and will often develop a personal relationship with those butchers and farmers along the way.
“There’s really no comparison between the role of small butcher or someone doing small batch charcuterie versus a supermarket.” Adam said, "The stuff made in-house in supermarkets is made for the masses, it's got to be the same flavour every single time, and has to be made exactly the same way. A small butcher can adjust the flavour, the salt content, they can treat each animal individually and taste, rather than recipe, dictates their process."
"A large scale supermarket may use caged meat or just one variety of animal, and often not the best quality. They don't have any personal relationship with that animal, it just comes in and gets pressed or made into that piece of meat. Whereas a small place will likely know the farmer and will build relationships. We have a really good relationship with Linley Valley Pork. We’ve seen and understand their process from start to finish. You have a sense of pride when you're working with something you've seen first hand."
Finding Quality Charcuterie
You can get a lot of information about a piece of charcuterie just from looking at the fridge. Adam notes to look for a small selection of whole pieces, ready to slice for order. Colour and size variations are actually an indicator of high quality, bespoke meats, as a perfectly shaped ham leg indicates that the product has been set in a mould.
A good deli will also have determined the best way to slice each meat which comes into their fridge. While Adam says he is happy to cut to a customer’s taste, he is also happy to make suggestions.
"I like to slice based on what the customer wants, but I do like certain ways of cutting certain meats.” Adam said, "A salami is better off a little bit thicker than say a slice of proscuitto or jamon, which will just melt in your mouth if sliced thin enough.”
Adam’s Picks for a Simple Cheese & Charcuterie Board
While charcuterie can get nerdy and complex, Adam recommends a simple, easy cheese and charcuterie board: two or three cheeses and two or three meats. He recommends mixing it up, so you don't oversaturate with any one sort.
"I always recommend a pate or rillette, I try to incorporate a Poach Pear product, they're basically designed to go with any cheese board. I would always recommend a solid meat, so like a ham, proscuitto or jamon, a salami of some description, and something a little different."
When all of your types of meat are covered, Adam recommends balancing out your board with a range of flavours: Even if you're a fiend for spice, it's great to have one middle-of-the-road meat to give your palate a different flavour. The same can go for thickness. Finally, Adam recommends using the cheese and charcuterie board as a space to experiment with something new. You can, and should, get your favourites. But there's room on the board for one meat which you haven't heard of, and which might become your newest obsession.
"There's always something people recognise, but we also change the cabinet quite frequently. I always have about half a dozen things in the cabinet which are a little bit different, which most people haven't tried before."