How to build a curing shed for charcuterie

Ever since we became interested in making charcuterie the issue of the precise way to dry the salami, chorizo, and hams has been a critical part of the plan. When we made the decision to sell our produce commercially, one of the requirements from a food standards point of view was a temperature and humidity controlled environment. We had been using a pantry, which has a surprisingly good record for staying within the limits, however it also contained all of our other food, and cross-contamination ruled it out (it is also too small).
I considered the key requirements:

  •  had to be a sealed space that was clean, and big enough
  • It had to be close enough to the house so I could check it every day
  • I had to be able to install bits of heating/cooling/wetting/drying equipment
  • We had very little money

I spoke to a few people and got enthusiastic support and some great advice (especially  about what would NOT work). Thanks in particular to Neil McNiven from http://www.reuk.co.uk ( a great resource for DIY building), to journalist Tim Hayward (tweets as @timHayward, usually quite entertaining) who introduced me to Andy Mahoney (a cheesemaker tweeting as @handyface). I also got generous advice from local competitor Pete Crumby, the Cotswold Curer.

The start
Practically the only solution was to use our tiny garden shed, 4′ x 4′ and 6′ at the eaves. I started by making it as insulated as possible. Following advice from my mate Robin (an expert in house insulation) I ignored cheap aluminium roll stuff and went for a celotex foam based solution, buying lots of sheets of 2″ thick foam with a reflective surface. I then spent a jolly time fitting these inside the shed, with a ruler, stanley knife, and lots of swearing. I did this in high heat (those three days we had this summer), so as it progressed I was working inside a man-made oven. (Picture below shows first layer nearly complete). Having put in two layers of the foam, and used silvery tape to seal up the insides I was feeling pleased with myself until I noticed I had done nothing to the door. What was needed was not only insulation, but as tight a fit as possible. Cue many more hours of sweating and cursing. Even worse I could only test it by closing it on myself, and looking for light gaps, so I felt even more like an oven ready turkey as I hunched inside in the dark and heat.

Before I stared on the controls, I finished off the interior by fitting 1″ round steel rails across the shed, strong enough to hold the volume of salami, chorizo and hams we were planning on producing during the first year.

Hot and Cold
I put in a thermometer, and tested how well it retained the heat. It would certainly stop things going down to zero when there was snow outside, but overall it would still need a lot of temperature and humidity control. I had spent quite a lot of time researching how I would prevent it over-heating so was dismayed to find that the problem was actually how to keep it warm enough. I realised that most projects were based on a storage “room” that was part of (or leaning against) a house or heated building. My little shed was at the bottom of the garden, no huge heat source to rely on.

There are two ranges that the shed needs to maintain. A temperature range, around 15C (11-18 is OK) and a humidity range, 70% humidity (65-75 is OK). Too hot, and the fat melts (and other nasty things happen). Too cold and the curing stops. Too dry and the outer casing dries and hardens and the inside rots. Too wet and mould goes crazy (we got to learn about this one). I found myself waking up to the mantra “fifteen degrees C, 70 percent “. I also started called the shed “the 3 bears shed”.

Obsessed with solar
I was convinced that the energy required to keep the temperature to this range would be possible using a 12v battery, powered by a solar panel (which I had been using in my greenhouse to power a fan based heat sink, anyone remember the TV series “Its not easy being green” with the mad and wonderful Dick Strawbridge?). So I had a 12v power source and fan, now I needed  12v heater, and a thermostat that would switch it on and off.

Fitting the fan into the wall, and drilling holes for air to come in and go out, was actually quite easy. Maplins provided the 1amp fuses I needed, and the fan worked fine from the 12v battery. Now for the heater.

I bought a cheap (and very nasty) car fan heater, and a rather elegant small 12v powered thermostat. With my mate Jamie we tested the whole circuit, and it worked (we thought). It was duly fitted in the shed and I wandered back the next day to find it had already failed. The car fan heater was not the right heat source, intended only for sporodic bursts of heat. I spent ages on the internet looking for alternative 12v heat sources, but there simply weren’t any.  I decided it was time to do some maths. I have an physics A-level from a very long time ago and decided I could work out the total energy needed to raise the heat of the shed by 1C. It seemed that a reasonably powered bulb (80w) should handle the heat rise needed, and a mate Robbie suggested the bulbs used to heat reptile tanks, as they give off only heat and no light. Not trusting my own maths I bought one higher powered than calculated, and then tried to run it off the 12v battery. Nope, no chance. OK – AC/DC (for now)
I now had to run a cable extension from an outside plug socket to the shed, drill a hole through the newly insulated shed wall, and bring in a mains power source. The heat lamp worked a treat, rather too well in fact. Leaving it on for 3 hours raised the temperature to 25C, way too hot. I needed a thermostat but the one I had does not work with mains power. I could not afford another one (yet) but experimented with a timer switch on the plug of the heat lamp, setting it to come on for an hour every 4 hours. After playing with this a little it actually keeps the temperature pretty well within limits. The next problem though is that as soon as the heat lamp comes on, the humidity in the place shoots down. I handled this in the very inelegant but effective way of sitting a frame over the heat lamp, then sitting a tray of water on the frame. (Not quite tidied up version in the picture above). The water heats up when the lamp comes on, absorbing some of the heat which slows down the heating (a good thing) while maintaining the humidity (another good thing). I have a large water bottle in the shed, and top up the tray every 4 days. The bottle lasts a few weeks.So what did I learn?
The shed has been running in its final fitted mode for over a month now and the temperature and humidity seem pretty good. I can improve it by buying a lower rated heat lamp, and a mains powered thermostat. I still want to run the whole thing from solar panels, and will persist in looking for the right components. I already had the shed and reckon I have spent around £450 on its conversion (around £50 wasted). I know I still have to sort out over-heating (should we ever have a hot summer) and have some 12v ideas about doing that.

The real proof though will be in the quality of the charcuterie – as we are about the find out.

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“Are we going to to Cotswold food fayre…”

May is food fair month, so much so that for research purposes (honestly), we are visiting three in three weeks. The fairs are billed as  a chance for local food providers to show off their produce, and so we trotted along to see  what was on offer.

First stop was at the Plough Inn pub  in Kingham. It seems a theme at some of these markets, and many farmers markets that you can only have one of a certain producer; so one baker, one meat farmer, one cake stall, one jam/chutney stall, one salami maker… This makes sense if you have a small area, and want to give the aura of as wide a range of products as possible, but it also means we end up with stalls selling plates, tea towels, and other things I care nothing about (although Maria loved the tea sets).
One of the joys of an Italian or French food market is the number of stalls selling the same thing. As a buyer I know that each stall has to be good otherwise it will be shown up by its competitors. I cant wait for the day when markets will have 4 or 5 charcuterie stalls in a row. Anyway, enough of my soapbox speech (for now).

What struck me about Kingham was that the stall holders came from Warwichshire or Oxfordshire, not Gloucestershire. It is not surprising that people want to identify themselves with a county. We want to align ourselves with Gloucestershire, although this includes the far reaches of the Forest of Dean (more than an hour away) and would ignore Kingham (20 minutes away).

The stalls that took my fancy included:

Upton Smokery Farm – near Burford – www.uptonsmokery.co.uk
They smoke a huge range of stuff, not just meat and fish, t  and is looks like if they don’t smoke what you want, they will try it for you.

Nell’s Dairy – www.nellsdairy.co.uk
A local dairy with a great idea, a milk vending machine where we can go and get milk using our own containers 24/7. The waste created by plastic milk containers has always been one of my bugbears, anything to avoid this is to be encouraged.

The Cotswold Curer – www.thecotswoldcurer.co.uk
Supplies very nice Salami and Chorizo – so why am I promoting what appears to be a rival to our fledgeling operation? Good question. Actually I don’t think Peter, and other local suppliers of salami, air dried ham or pate are our competitors. I believe we are jointly competing with supermarkets at one end of the market and the VERY expensive imported stuff at the other. I think if English charcuterie is going to stand a chance of getting recognised as just as good as Italian or Spanish, then there needs to be lots of us, all producing to a great standard. (Told you the soapbox wasn’t done yet).

And so we move on to the second food fare, held at the Cotswold Farm Park. Adam Henson undoubtedly has the marketing edge, and the layout and feel of this fair was much nicer.
What I love though about all fairs is how easy it is to chat to stall-holders about what they do. All are very happy to share their experience, knowledge and obvious passion for what they are producing.

Ace baker Toby Collett from Lower Lodge Bakery was displaying an awesome array of loaves, you can find Toby at Bourton farmers market.

Crudges cheese (image above) had a lovely selection of their award winning cheeses made at their Kingham base. We tasted and had to buy the Camembert with attitude. Worth looking out for.

Finally we had the pie taste-off.

Lovett Pies – (image above) – a range of interesting pie fillings, we could not take our eyes off one described as “venison, red wine and chocolate”. We bought it.

The Pie’s The Limit – based in Tewkesbury. We bought one described as “pork and chorizo”.

Back home we carefully sampled both pies. The Pastry on the Lovett pie was superb, the filling was good, but not as good as the filling from “the pie’s the limit”.  In a very un-scientifc method we voted the latter as our winner, but would be very happy with the runner-up.

Next week we go to Daylesford Organics to see what they think a food fair should look like.

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Blood is thicker than water

Blood seems to have acquired a negative connotation in cooking in the last few years. Despite the huge amount of iron, and other valuable minerals in blood, getting hold of it is becoming harder and harder. On more than one occasion over the last year I have been informed that it is mandatory now for abattoirs to throw away the blood from slaughtered animals. This is not true. I also read that a huge amount of the commercially made black pudding uses imported dried blood (I would not be surprised if this was true). I was pleased then to be told that my pigs blood could be collected at slaughter time and kept for me to use. There was plenty of it, almost 7 litres, collected in two large sterilised milk cartons, and then frozen ASAP.

And so last week I decided I was relaxed enough to have a go at making our first ever black puddings. I was by now getting used to the idea of the amount of preparation needed for anything ends up in a sausage casing. The cereal content (oats and pearl barley) had to be soaked/cooked. The hard back fat had to be cut into tiny pieces. I am learning about hard back fat, and the best way to get it small is to cut it into inch by inch chunks, then into the freezer for an hour, just to harden it up, then it will go through the mincer and come out as small pieces, not as a melting mush.
Finally the casing had to be washed, cut into lengths and tied at one end. We only use natural casings, so washing the salt preserve from them is pretty important.

Now for the blood, I opening the container and poured it out. Some came out, a lot had thickened already. I cut apart the container and put the blood in the liquidiser. Finally straining it twice through a fine sieve to get rid of small particles that had clotted. I could now mix in the salt, pepper, spices, herbs and rum, with the feeling that at last a recipe was happening.

The recipe was quite easy to follow, but the amount was huge: onions, the minced fat, the oats, then the spiced blood, some cream and finally the pearl barley. I stirred it all together and indeed it looked like a big red mess with bits in.
(At this point I was going to insert a picture, but complaints from the vegetarian sector have meant it has been withdrawn).

Now for the fun part.

Unusually for Hugh FW, his recipe (which I followed to the letter) did not indicate HOW MANY black puddings we would get. I had made up 12 casings, and this looked far too few, we made another 12.

I now had to slide the open end of the casing over the thin end of a funnel, while Maria scooped out a jug full of the mix and poured it into the funnel. Hugh was right about one vital piece of equipment, a chopstick to push the mix down. At some point I decided we had enough filling and attempted to tie a knot in the end. It is a bit like blowing up a balloon, there is always the temptation to go a bit too far then spend ages trying to tie the knot without spilling it all.

Once we had 6 ready I wanted to try cooking them. A pan of water is brought to a gentle boil, and three of the puddings were carefully placed in a basket and lowered into the water. After 10-15 minutes, using a pin to prick and test, they were declared done and plunged in cold water before drying on tea towels. We carried on filling the puddings, only to find that the knots at one end would undo just as we had finished filling. At first we laughed.. “what are we like”. After the fourth time it happened it was more like cries of anguish as we started again one more time (I am convinced it was the ones Maria tied, she was thinking the opposite). Finally we had 23 puddings ready to go. The kitchen meanwhile looked like a scene from Sweeney Todd on a bad night.

It was now 9pm and we needed to eat and sit down.

Back in the kitchen we were thrilled to see the drying puddings looking “just like the real thing”.

I spent another hour and a half poaching the rest, and went to bed tired and quite happy.

The big test was breakfast. I cut one open. It was actually not the hard pudding I was used to, but a softer, slightly sticky texture, and more delicate in taste. We fried up a few slices each and ate them with scrambled eggs. Yummy.

This was one of the longest days of the pig processing so far, and one of the most rewarding, AND we still have another 3.4 litres of frozen blood to play with.

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Transforming the pig

Taking a whole pig fresh from the abattoir, and transforming it into the various meat produce we are interested in, is hard work. We started on Wednesday, collecting the pig at noon. As well as our pig, with head and lights (the internal organs), we also had another 3 half heads and extra liver. The blood from our pig had been collected on the Monday and was now frozen. Maria and I carried the two half carcasses inside, just as some walkers were passing our front door, we gave them the look that was “yes, we do this most days”.
Interest in our adventures had spread to Winchcombe and the butcher Colin Pilcher was kind  enough to pop over for an hour to show me a few tips. The most important thing was to get the meat processed and into fridges or freezers as fast as possible. Once this had been done we started on our first two products.

Brawn – This old fashioned delicacy comes from the desire to not waste any of the meat. The head is cut in two, and everything, except the brains (reserved for my breakfast) goes into a VERY large pot with onions, bunches of herbs and a bag of spices, and simmers for 4 hours. While this was simmering, we started on the second product.

Liver Pate – The liver was incredibly fresh, as you can imagine, and this was added to some minced belly pork and mixed with herbs, seasoning and a lot of port. It then goes into a bain marie and cooks slowly for 90 minutes.

I then started on the third big task of the day, preparing a leg for salting. This was the first stage in creating the air dried ham that is sure to rival Parma and Serrano. Tunnel boning a leg is a slow patient process, it was also early evening by now and neighbours had come over to watch and make helpful comments. Once boned it was weighted, covered in salt and set in a box with a large weight on top. The only way to weight something like this was to get the bathroon scales, stand on them, get off, pick up the leg and stand on them again. After some careful maths (checked by watching neighbour Jamie) the leg was declared 18lb, meaning it would sit in salt for around 35 days.

The next day we completed the brawn by mixing the slowly cooked pieces from the head with parsley, lemon juice, seasoning it, and then pouring over it the reduced juices, thick with gelatine. The result looks pretty good.

The pate was taken out of the loaf tins, some frozen, some ready for sale. We were not surprised that the abattoir had some spare pigs heads for us, but amazed to find that some pig owners did not want the liver. It is a fantastic source of iron, totally fat free, and delicious.
The final task of the day was to try to cure a sample of the belly pork (the result is called bacon if you hadn’t guessed). I used a technique passed on to me by Paul Peacock (www.citycottage.co.uk) of slicing the pork into thick rashers, sprinkling the salt cure mix onto each rasher, packing them together and wrapping and putting in the fridge overnight. The idea is to use less salt, and to cure quicker.

The rest of the time was spend cutting up the meat for salami, chorizo and sausages, which is exhausting. It does not take an expert to work out that the difference between cheap version of these products and the high end stuff is to do with the quality of the meat. This means painstakingly removing as much as possible of the chewy fat layers, and thin cartilage that runs through the otherwise lean shoulder meat. We made up 16 long salamis, 12 chorizo and a few dozen sausages. We added 5% cereal to our sausages, compare this to the 15-25% you can get in commercial products.

It was all very exhausting, and totally nerve-wracking. The salamis look great hanging to dry, but we wont know how they taste for another 5-6 weeks. So our first session was complete. Lots more to do though. In the freezer we still have the blood from which we will make black pudding and boudin noir. We have the hocks from the shoulder (they turn into an elegant hock and vegetable terrine), we have another leg to bone and salt, and lots more belly pork to turn into bacon and pancetta. But all of this as they say, is another story.

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Visiting the pig

We are really excited about the charcuterie we are about to start producing. In early February I had identified an old spot at an auction near Cirencester. It was mid-sized (around 35 kg) so needed to grow on before it was perfect for the salami, air-dried ham, and chorizo we will be producing. A lovely couple called Sue and Simon are doing this for us, and last week we went to visit our pig.

Unlike a lot of farm pork ours is fed on a slow feed. This is more expensive, but the resultant meat quality is higher.  Ours is the one with the red spot, beautiful isn’t she! The pigs will spend another two weeks trashing their small bit of field until they have a nice layer of the hard back fat which so important to our produce. In late March she will go off to the abattoir. By then she will have bulked up to over 60kg.

We are using a very small abattoir for two reasons. The killing is done quickly and there is no hanging about, and this abattoir is happy to keep for us the blood and all of the insides so we don’t waste anything. Not only we will be making charcuterie, but also black pudding, brawn, and liver pate.

When we left our pig we felt very excited about the next stage; stay and  tuned for the next blog where our pig will look very different.

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Pastrami and corned beef

Many years ago I visited New York and in a bar wanted sandwiches. Thinking of England I ordered two sandwiches, ham and pastrami on rye. The barman looked at me – “god bless your appetite sir”. Both came with two pieces of bread, sandwiching what looked like 6 inches of meat. Of course as a matter of principle I ate the lot, and the taste and quality of the meat stayed with me.

True pastrami is made with beef brisket, sadly no longer a cheap cut. I bought a piece of the 3 week hung Rushbury farm beef. The first task was to remove most of the fat, separating the brisket into the two pieces. The reason for the removal of the fat is to allow the brine to penetrate the meat. Pastrami is a form of salt beef, and the cure mixture has to be right. The right proportion of salt to water to meat. The rest of the brine ingredients include the usual suspects: peppercorns , garlic, bay. Once the brine has been boiled and cooled the meat sits in it for 3 weeks. During this time I checked it every few days. The brining is a preserving process so chemical reactions are taking place. After 2 weeks lots of fine particles of meat appeared to have dissolved into the brine, and small amounts of mould appeared on the surface. I took the meat out and washed it, boiled the brine and strained it through muslin. Everything smelled just fine.
Making the salt beef into pastrami means smoking the meat slowly for several hours. I decided at the last minute to use the smaller piece of brisket to make corned beef. The salt beef is simply simmered in boiling water for an hour per pound. Taking it out and tasting it is always so exciting. It looked and tasted nothing like the mushed up fatty stuff I knew from my youth; this was lean, textured and wonderfully tasty.
But this was just the side show. The main attraction had one more process before smoking. The salt beef is covered with a rub. I could tell you the exact ingredients for my rub , but then I would have to kill you. Crushed coriander seed, peppercorns, and paprika do play a part however. Covered in this dark gritty layer the meat is ready for the smoker.
Smoking is a whole other blog, but the key is to smoke at a low temperature for many hours. The meat has to reach 165 F inside,  then it is done. After 3 hours in the smoker it was not quite done so I finished it off wrapped in foil in the oven for another hour.
The meat is tender, smoky, only very slightly salty, and quite delicious.
I am no New Yorker but knew that Pastrami demanded rye bread, so baked a loaf later the same day.

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March meats

While we were waiting for the pig we warmed up with some ox tongue and Pastrami.

The ox tongue has all gone but we can make more to order.

Pastrami (thin sliced) is available at £4 for 200gm packs.

We also have jams and jellies from 2011. All of these cost £2 per jar and £1 is donated from each sale to a local charity. We have gooseberry jelly, redcurrant jelly, blackcurrant jelly as well as raspberry jam.

We will be transforming a 65kg of old spot pig into charcuterie in late March. Brawn, liver pate, black pudding and sausages will be on sale in April and the salami and chorizo follow in May.

Please let us know if you want to pre-order any of these.

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