A Potted History of Charcuterie

With a history dating back over 10,000 years, charcuterie, in some form, has been at the heart of food preservation - from brining and smoking, to fermenting and air-drying.

Although there is archaeological evidence for smoked, preserved meats going at least as far back as the Bronze Age, charcuterie, as we know it, began with the Romans who were the first people to lay down 'rules' relating to the processing of pork. Salted, and Proscuitto-style hams were well known across the Roman Empire and some of the best, along with sausages, were imported into Rome from Gaul (modern day France, Belgium and Germany). Pancetta was also an important part of a Roman Legionaries diet as dried foods were easily carried, kept well and provided the necessary energy.

The word Wurst (sausage) is first noted during the reign of the Emperor Charlemagne, at the turn of the ninth century, and in Alsace (on the French/German borders) sausages have been celebrated since the 13th century, as can be seen in their iconography.

It was, however, in 15th century France that the term 'Charcuterie' was first coined. At the time, there were strict laws in place to prevent the mixing of raw and cooked products, and the name, coming from Char (flesh) Cuite (cooked), was given to those meat products which were cooked, or air-dried. The Charcutier was forbidden to sell any raw meat, apart from pork fat, which could be rendered into lard. The first Charcutiers Guild was also formed in France, in the 15th century and is still in existence today.

In the Italian city-states during the latter Middle-Ages, and in addition to salamis and hams, Coppa, made from cured pork shoulder was first made. In 1661 Cardinal Faranese issued his "Notice and provision on the factory of mortadella and salami", a document which falls into line with the current specifications for Mortadella (PGI). The name Salumi comes from the latin salare (salt)

Whilst there are no natural meat fermentation cultures in the air in the United Kingdom, Britain had its own traditions which were based around smoking and brining. Vats of brine, live with cultures, were re-used, often being years, if not decades, old. Bacon was cured and smoked on great hooks set into the chimneys of cottages and farmhouses, and in upland areas Lamb, Mutton and Hogget were also preserved in this way. These products were often extremely salty, so were usually used as a base for soups and stews, with the addition of garden vegetables and pulses - the famed 'Potage' of old.

Many families kept a pig in their back yard, feeding it scraps and fattening it up until it was killed in late autumn to provide meat for the winter months. As in Europe, no part of the pig was wasted. Black Pudding and Hog's Puddings were made, tripe and liver enjoyed, in addition to potted pork, chine and brawn (made from boiled pig's head). The 18th century saw Bath Chaps arrive on the charcuterie scene. Named for the Somerset city of Bath these have enjoyed a bit of resurgence in the past few years and are made from the 'chap' or jowl of the pig. There are, of course, traditions of charcuterie right across the world from the Far-East to South America and all across continental Europe - from the dried Reindeer of the Scandinavian countries, to the spiced black puddings found in Crèole cookery and the Wurst and Biltong of South Africa, through to the Pastrami of New York. The traditions are very much alive today and, with technology continually evolving , charcuterie has a very bright future.