In the eyes of the layman (and I include myself in this category), charcuterie looks like pure magic. Admittedly slow, drawn out magic, but trickery nonetheless.
It is a true artisanal craft that, done properly, illustrates beautifully the idea that cooking can be alchemy. With just a few extra ingredients (usually salt, booze and a few herbs) it is possible to transform the mundane into something truly sublime.
There are few simpler pleasures greater than eating a thin slice of cured meat – the fat melting like butter onto the tongue, filling the palate with rich, porcine flavours. A loaf of warm bread, some good oil or butter and a plate of cold cuts can make for a very happy time indeed.
Having tried making cooked charcuterie, in the form of rillettes and pâté, I felt it important to embrace the next logical step: curing.
Preserving meat using salt has a long and noble tradition. Prosciutto, pastrami, baccala, salt beef, herrings – all are made in the same way and use the dehydrating properties of salt to help extend the life of produce.
Bacon seemed like the ideal place to start, given how easy it is supposed to be to turn a slab of belly pork into dry-cured rashers but these plans were shelved after a revelatory moment at west London Sicilian deli, Vallebona.
Guanciale is cured pork jowl. Cheeky pancetta, if you will. Given my history of trying to turn pig’s heads into tasty treats, one taste of this face bacon was all that was needed to convince me it was worth trying to re-create.
Popular in Tuscany and Umbria, it can be used in place of pancetta in a whole raft of dishes or simply thinly sliced and enjoyed with a glass of something cold and alcoholic.
But whereas pancetta tends to be on the expensive side, because guanciale utilises a cut that is often thrown away, it is incredibly cheap, not to mention surprisingly easy to make.
In short, it is everything anyone could possibly desire from an item of charcuterie.
If that has done enough to whet your appetite for dipping an adventurous toe into the dark art of meat curing, here’s how to do it.
First procure yourself one or two pig’s noggins and remove the jowls starting below the chin and, keeping as close to the jawbone as possible, working your way up until just underneath the eye socket.
[If this is too much, you could just order them ready trimmed from your friendly neighbourhood butcher]
This is a dry curing process (as opposed to making a brine) so mix together 200g of fine sea salt and 200g of dark brown sugar and add 10 crushed peppercorns, a couple of crushed cloves, a small handful of very finely chopped rosemary and a pinch of saltpetre.
Rub this mixture into both sides of the cheeks then pour a thin layer of it into a plastic container (make sure it has a lid). Pack the cheeks in and cover with a little more of the cure mix. Pop the lid on the box then put it in the fridge for 24-48 hours.
Commence thumb twiddling.
When you next come back to them, the cheeks should be swimming in a liquid that feels a lot like wet sand. This is water that has leached out of the cheeks (see, they look a bit smaller). Pour this off, repeat the salting process, replace them in the box and leave for another five days.
After a week they should be ready for drying. Remove them from the salt, rub them with a dry cloth and attach some butcher’s string to the thin end. Hang them in a cool place (no warmer than 18 degrees) for three weeks and hope to Buddha that they don’t fall prey to many of the potential pitfalls that could destroy them.
Re-commence thumb-twiddling or alternatively keep your fingers crossed so darn tight it begins to hurt.
Results to follow soon. In the mean time, how about saying 'Hi' on Twitter?