I have a real ‘thing’ for delis; you know a vaguely irrational adoration bordering on obsession. A deli is the absolute epitome of culinarianism. Of course, I have a deep set admiration for butchers, bakers (less so for candle stick makers), cheese mongers and the myriad of other ‘mongers’ you care to mention, but, for me, a delicatessen trumps them all.
In a deli you can be absolutely sure that each and every item in there is worthy of its place. You just know that there is not a single item on the shelves or in the fridge that is freeloading and hanging on to the coattails of its counterparts. Every slice of salami, every wedge of cheese, every loaf of bread deserves to be there and has been hand chosen after the owner has tasted, tested and compared hundreds of other contenders.
In a deli, quality is king. The delicatessen owner knows that his or her reputation hangs by the sheerest gossamer thread and as such they have to adopt a perfectionist’s attitude. To be fair, if they weren’t utterly passionate about charcuterie and cheese and sourdough bread, they probably wouldn’t have opened a deli in the first place and as such take extreme pleasure in stocking only the finest produce from the best suppliers.
As one who enjoys talking about food to any who care to reciprocate, I know that a suitable conversation can be virtually guaranteed in an independent deli. Within seconds of a smiled greeting, the conversation will almost invariably turn to seasonality or provenance or the benefits of raw milk cheeses over the pasteurised variety.
And they know so much. It’s all very well knowing the vague area from which a specific air dried ham originates but knowing the name of the farmer’s secret illicit lover? I’d fully expect them to be able to tell me the particular grass that a particular sheep has feasted on to make milk for a particular cheese but knowing the shepherd’s mother’s favourite wine? Wowee.
OK, OK, maybe I exaggerate slightly, but only slightly. Seriously, these are the places to go if you need any culinary advice at all. Not only will they be able to sell you the ideal cold cuts to serve as a light lunch in June but also the right pickles and wine to go with them. They’ll be able to put together a cheeseboard of such complexity and excellence that you’ll doubtless be rendered speechless by its sheer perfection. And you’ll be able to pick up some suitably artisan oatcakes to go with the cheese.
This isn’t about showing off, or one-upmanship. It’s about approaching food in the same manner as you would art or music or repairing a car. It’s great to fumble around by yourself for a while but sometimes it’s best to reign in the services of an expert, someone who does this for a living because it is what they love and is what they are fucking good at (please excuse the expletive but I really do feel very passionately about this).
There are a few notable delis that I try to frequent when time, location and budget allow. La Fromagerie in London I’ve written about before, ditto the Cheshire Smokehouse. The Cambridge Cheese Co. is now my closest and certainly the best that I know of for miles. Finally, there is Barbakan, just south of Manchester city centre which we paid a visit to a couple of days ago.
As well as some of their famous bread we picked up some Polish kabanos, a small packet of chorizos and a healthy chunk of Italian lardo, cured pig back fat from Tuscany.
Most exciting, though, was the presence of this season’s first Vacherin Mont D’Or, in its distinctive round, wooden box, a sure, and tasty, sign that we are truly into autumn. This seasonal cheese is produced on the Swiss-French border using only milk from Montbéliard and Simmentaler breeds who graze on the lush summer grass of Franche-Comté. It is a real treat and I try to buy at least two or three during the winter months for special occasions. Using the well-known adage ‘if it grows together, it goes together’ as a point of reference, you could do a lot worse than cracking open a bottle of soft Burgundy to go with it. Hardly the healthiest way to end a meal but certainly one that should bring warmth and smiles to any cold and miserable winter night.