Why Irish charcuterie is on the rise
Enthusiasts across the country are experimenting with pork, beef and even buffalo meat
Chef Rob Krawczyk of Brabazon restaurant at Tankardstown House, Slane, Co Meath, pictured in his smokehouse. Photograph: Barry Cronin
The French have charcuterie, the Spanish embutidos and the Italians affettati misti. But we don’t yet seem to have a name for a uniquely Irish selection of cured meats. That might have to change, as there has been a big increase in interest in producing salami and air-dried meats here.
Chefs such as Rob Krawczyk at Brabazon restaurant at Tankardstown House in Slane and Ciaran Sweeney at Forest & Marcy in Dublin, are making their own selections in-house and offering all-Irish charcuterie plates. Small artisan producers are proliferating, butchers are branching out into this area, and smallholders and keen home cooks are having a go too.
Colum Lanigan Ryan is food director at La Rousse Foods in Dublin, which supplies gourmet ingredients to restaurants and hotels. He estimates that the company’s cured charcuterie sales amount to €1.5 million annually, most of the 60,000kg coming from France, Italy and Spain. But that is set to change.
The company now has several new Irish producers on its books, and the reaction from chefs to homegrown cured meats has been overwhelmingly positive.
Lanigan Ryan believes Irish charcuterie can hold its own against imports. He puts this down to the expertise brought to the revival of meat curing by people such as Olivier Beaujouan of On The Wild Side in Kerry, Antonio Princigallo, working with Irish butcher Rick Higgins at Forage & Cure, and Frank Krawczyk, father of chef Rob Krawczyk – who bring with them knowledge and experience gleaned in countries with long traditions in this field.
It’s not entirely a new development though. Frank Krawczyk set up West Cork Salamis in the late 1990s. Fingal Ferguson has been making Gubbeen chorizo and salami in west Cork for 20 years, and Oughterard butcher James McGeough, who supplied 36,000 slices of air-dried lamb to the Ryder Cup at the K Club in 2006, began to study the process in Germany 30 years ago. “My dad thought I was crazy. When I told him you eat it raw, he nearly died,” says McGeough, whose Connemara Fine Foods products have been served in Irish embassies all over the world.
Frank Krawczyk’s interest in making charcuterie is tied to his Polish ancestry. He first learned to make cured smoked sausages from a book belonging to his grandmother. Rob continues the family tradition and at Brabazon, where he is head chef, diners begin their meal with a plate of charcuterie served with bread and butter, all three elements made in-house. “At the moment I am serving some pancetta, cured duck breast, gin and juniper salami and coppa. I change them around, depending on what I have made,” says Rob.
“The pancetta is pork belly that I salt, spice and air-dry. The duck is with chilli and fennel, left in salt for two days before being cleaned off and air-dried for two weeks. The salamis, with different flavours and spices, take around three weeks. They are cold-smoked for eight hours, then another eight hours the following day, then air-dried in natural casings.”
House-cured charcuterie is also on offer at Forest & Marcy, where head chef Ciaran Sweeney offers a selection from bresaola, cured for a week in juniper and thyme and hung for up to two months; duck hams, brined with orange and anise herbs and spices and hung to dry for up to three weeks; corned beef tongue smoked in-house; rillette of pork neck and mustard; home-made black pudding, coppa and saucisson sec.
Surprisingly, it has proved to be a bit of a slow seller. “Honestly, not as many people have chosen our charcuterie board as I would have expected,” Sweeney says. “Maybe it’s to do with people’s perception of charcuterie in Ireland, they are usually generic, bought-in meats that are served without passion or imagination. However, the guests that have chosen our charcuterie have been absolutely blown away and sometimes find it hard to fathom how we produce such exciting pieces here.”
Both chefs are enthusiastic about their home-cured products. “We are always looking for something unique to do in the kitchen. It is great to be able to make humble ingredients into something amazing. We can all shave truffle and cook foie gras . . . ” says Krawczyk.
“There is a new wave of Irish chefs who are becoming more creative and confident in their abilities, due to movements like Food on the Edge, and the Lit Fest in Ballymaloe,” says Sweeney, whose groundbreaking menu addition deserves to be just as popular as his fermented potato bread, bacon and cabbage.
But it’s not just chefs and food producers who are exploring the possibilities of making charcuterie here. Smallholder and food industry professional Margaret Griffin, who rears pigs in Moynalty, Co Meath, is trying her hand at air-drying hams, possibly the toughest challenge of all, as the humid climate is not ideal for air-drying meat.
“I decided to air-dry two hams from my last batch of pigs, killed in May,” Griffin says. “I did the Pig in a Day course at Kilkenny School of Food with Stephen Lamb from River Cottage and used his method, pus loads of advice from other pig-rearing smallholders via Twitter. Some of the advice was terrible, but I approached it with the attitude that I would learn from my mistakes, and I have done.” Air-drying a full ham isn’t for the fainthearted. “I think I’m over the hump now. The hams, all going well, should be ready around Christmas,” Griffin says.
Rob Krawczyk is also working on air-drying hams. “As I don’t have a temperature-controlled curing room, the biggest problem is the moisture and the differing temperatures through the seasons. It was a lot of trial and error, but I was lucky because my dad was able to help me.”
Frank Krawczyk is recognised as a pioneer in the making of charcuterie in Ireland. He knows all about the challenges involved in curing and air-drying meat here, and not just the climatic ones. “Possibly the most debilitating factor that meets anyone with a desire to produce uniquely Irish charcuterie is the harsh regulatory regime to be found in this State, compared to much of Europe . . . there seems to be an antiseptic/antibiotic bias here, where we should really be focused on pro-biotic production methods.”
Terroir is important to Krawczyk, who believes in “making products that have a sense of place and are not simply a replication of those made in their country or region of origin”. He advises that beginners should “start with a very basic salami or bacon, from which to learn the uniqueness of the environment in which it is being produced”, and also to “research the science behind the process and learn to understand its purpose”.
Ciaran Duggan, who works in the technology sector, built his own pizza oven, wants to try roasting a whole lamb asado style (if he can persuade his friend to let him dig a hole in his garden), and has just bought a mincer attachment for his food processor so he can make salami. In other words, he is a typical hobbyist meat smoker and curer.
His first forays have been with bresaola and duck ham (he made the Tim Hayward recipe, link below), and recommends adding more herbs and spices, but sticking with the salt content). “I travel a lot for work, so these don’t require a lot of work to prepare or maintain,” he says.
“My friends call them my meat babies. When going out, it’s all I would talk about, and I’d show pictures of them, so in some ways they are my babies. I saw Fallon & Byrne selling boar shoulder, so I might try and make boar salami next.”
There is no doubt that Irish charcuterie is on an upwards trajectory. Several people I spoke to likened the increasing popularity of the product to the early days of the farmhouse cheese movement. “There was a time when the vast majority of our cheese sales were cheeses from abroad. Today, over 65 per cent of our artisan cheese sales are Irish produced cheeses. I hope to be able to say something similar in terms of Irish charcuterie in the near future,” says Lanigan Ryan of La Rousse.
The sustainable salami maker:
Eavaun Carmody has built up a herd of nearly 600 Dexter cattle at Killenure Castle in Co Tipperary, producing salami, chorizo and beef jerky
Eavaun Carmody isn’t your typical lady of the manor, or castle in this case. In 2007 the former antiques dealer and restorer and her family moved from inner-city Dublin to Killenure Castle, a 450-year-old turreted castle with a period house attached, in Dundrum, Co Tipperary.
Once the extensive renovations were completed and a network of local contacts established, through both the work on the property and subsequent art events and exhibitions she organised in order to open up the house to the local community, Carmody needed another project.
“I found out about the story of the Dexter cow, did a bit of research, and decided someone had to try and revive it properly in the area where it came from,” she says, describing her mission to reintroduce the Dexter, one of three native Irish breeds still in production, sometimes known as “the poor man’s cow” because of its compact size.
“I got my first Dexters three years ago and used to sell the meat at events that we have here. We’ve just under 600 now,” she says.
Her grass-fed herd are slaughtered locally and the 21-day matured carcasses are sent to La Rousse Foods, which breaks them down and supplies the rich, “old fashioned- tasting ” meat to restaurants.
Sustainability is a cornerstone of Carmody’s ethos at Killenure Dexter Gourmet, so it’s no surprise to learn that Carmody has just launched a range of charcuterie.
“I think if you’re going to slaughter an animal, in order to justify its slaughter you should show it some respect by trying to use everything you can,” she says. The Killenure Dexter salami and chorizo – “with 20 per cent pork fat in it to give it that creamy texture” – and air-dried beef jerky are made by French chef, pork butcher and charcuterie specialist Olivier Beaujouan on the Dingle peninsula.
“We meet him in the Milk Market in Limerick every Saturday and we give him the beef and he brings it back to his workshop and he makes the charcuterie for us,” Carmody says. “I was trying to show other farmers that you don’t just have to bring your animals into the usual factories, that there are other routes for you to go, that you could make products out of your meat, even if it’s not a rare breed like Dexter.”
She describes her move into the charcuterie business as being “a combination of the historical narrative of the Dexter with the historical curing process – it’s how people would have cured their meats years ago, so that’s why I went that route. Also, there was very little charcuterie in Ireland and I thought it was an untapped market.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Carmody sends her hides to a tannery outside Florence and is in the research phase of a handbag manufacturing business. “We harvest the horn and the bone too, and we’re going to render down the bone into bone ash to make bone china later on when we get the numbers up,” she says.
The slow curers:
For Forage & Cure in Sutton, it is not about speed – some meats will take up to two years
In the north Dublin seaside suburb of Sutton, there’s a shop where you can buy a cappucino and sandwich stuffed with artisan salami, served by a charming Italian, before taking a few further steps and having your steaks cut to order by a knowledgeable Irish man.
There’s been a Higgins butchers at Sutton Cross for generations, but three years ago, when Rick Higgins took over the shop formerly run by his uncle, he had big plans. He knew from the outset that his beef would be broken down in-house and stored in ageing chambers behind glass panels, on the shop floor. He knew, too, that he wanted to sell only free-range pork, but to do so, he would have to come up with a use for the whole carcass.
Higgins teamed up with Italian friend Antonio Princigallo, who runs Il Piacere coffee shop at the front of the butcher’s, to start a cured meat business, and Forage & Cure is the result. “It’s new territory, and the interest is incredible,” says Higgins. The pair are making a range of salamis using fresh shoulder, belly and leg pork, with spices and sea salt, as well as coppa, pancetta, soppressata and a type of bresaola (the name has EU Protected Designation of Origin applying to it, so they are trying to come up with a name for their Irish version). Nduja, the southern Italian spicy, spreadable salami, is being trialled, and there’s a fearsome looking fermented ox tongue drying in the chill cabinet, which Higgins read about being made in Australia.
They also worked with SuperValu Food Academy on a range of three small, boxed salamis for supermarket shelves. The maturation time for these is 30-40 days, but it’s a full 90 days to bring one of their lovingly tended large salamis to maturation.
Airflow, temperature and humidity at the factory in Dublin 12 is controlled by machinery purchased in Italy, but it’s still a labour intensive job. “We are there every day, to touch them, to smell them,” says Princigallo.
Princigallo provided the links, through his family in Puglia, to the notoriously secretive Italian cured meat industry. Higgins spent two weeks working in a variety of specialist pork butchers in Barcelona and two months training in Puglia, plus countless visits back and forth. The pair now have a substantial haul of salami (finocchiona with fennel seeds and another with walnuts), as well as coppa (90-day cured pork shoulder), and bresaola (cured and dried topside), maturing in their factory, as well as whole legs that will take between 12 and 24 months, having been hand massaged with salt that is changed every three weeks over four months.
“We’ve a huge amount of stock over in the factory, most of it not ready till the end of September. The last time we produced coppa, we did 550kg, salami 400kg, bresaola, 350kg. When we started to do the large salamis in natural skins, we weren’t expecting the fantastic reaction we got to them,” Higgins says. Now, chefs are getting their names on them even before they’re ready, and specialist food shops including Fallon & Byrne and Lotts & Co are also interested.
“We also have a lot of Italians buying salamis and taking them over to Italy with them,” Higgins says. “They’re giving us feedback and that’s really valuable.”
When asked if their product is as good as what he can buy in Italy, Princigallo is adamant. “They’re better,” he says, and for an Italian who first learned to make salami with his mother 30 years ago, that’s high praise.
The new smokehouse:
Fingal Ferguson's decades of experience have led to Our Piggy Co: ‘What we have now is a dream come true’
Fingal Ferguson has been making bacon and salami since he was a teenager, having caught the smoking and curing bug when he used to bring his mother’s Gubbeen cheeses to Chris Jepson in Goleen to be smoked. What began as a hobby developed into a business. Now he makes about 50 different pork and bacon products, using traditional methods. His salami and chorizo can stand alongside any continental variety and shine.
He has just built a new smokehouse at the family farm near Schull in west Cork. “Everything that we’ve learned over the past 15 years has gone into this new building, layout and structure wise, so what we have now is a dream come true,” he says. “It’s a place that can work with sourcing the local pigs, doing the butchering and making a series of different products – because charcuterie is about making a range of products. You have to use all of the pig and to do it properly is important.”
Ferguson is currently processing 16-18 pigs a week and has set up Our Piggy Co-Op (ourpiggyco-op.com), a venture to encourage local farmers to rear pigs to supply the smokehouse as he cannot rear enough to keep up with demand for his products. Strict criteria are applied and premiums are paid for particular breeds, rearing methods and specific diets.
“There’s a large amount of commercial pork available in Ireland and there’s a small amount of outdoor reared. The more people get involved in this group, the more creativity, different breeds, more versatility in the raw materials we will have. Even down to breeding – a Saddleback, Tamworth, Duroc, Large White, Middle White, Gloucester – all these different breeds of pig are fantastic. They take a bit longer to rear, but you are rewarded with flavour and quality. Anything that takes longer to produce will nearly always reward you with flavour.”
Ferguson welcomes the explosion of interest in Ireland in making charcuterie and likens it to the early days of the Irish farmhouse cheese industry with which his family is synonymous. “People are travelling more, the Irish palate is changing, but also, the Irish are very curious people. If you look at the shopping basket of a normal Irish person, it’s staple, staple, staple – something they’ve never had before, because they’re curious. There’s always going to be that weird and wonderful thing in the fridge.”
“I’m always making different things. There’s always R&D going on in our lives, because both for myself and the family and the staff at Gubbeen, those things drive us on. It’s the bit of discussion, the bit of fun, shaking the tree.”
Ferguson says he learned his trade “at the school of hard knocks” and would be the first to admit that making charcuterie is challenging and requires patience.
“It’s about taking the hard knocks and learning why things chop and change. All the salamis follow exactly the same template of how they’re made, texture, spices, processes. We tell people exactly how to make it in the book [Gubbeen: The Story of a Working Farm and its Foods], but if they make it, it will taste completely different from ours. “Terroir, flora and fauna come into it,” he adds. “Our curing rooms are saturated with our moulds and our blooms, our pigs are on the coast, so they have salt air.”
And it’s all about those pigs, in the end. “Simply put, the pig is a fascinating animal to turn into a variety of things because it’s so adaptable. It cures, it takes spices. Our chorizo is very sassy, it’s quite strong, it’s a big flavour. People can reflect themselves in their curing.”