Medieval Charcuterie Makes a Comeback
A historical snapshot of an old-world tradition with a new world spin
By Ryan Jay
As culinary enthusiasts grow increasingly savvy, so do their palates and expectations, keeping chefs on their toes to reinvent compelling menus, some dishes of which are revivals of old-world traditions – like the charcuterie platter.
Originating more than 3,000 years ago, the term ‘charcuterie’ comes from the French words meaning ‘cooked flesh.’ A ‘charcutier’ refers to a ‘pork butcher.’ Strabo, the famous Greek philosopher and geographer, in the first century AD wrote about the importation of salted meat from Gaul – a region in Western Europe that now is France, Luxembourg, Belgium and parts of Switzerland, Northern Italy, the Netherlands and Germany.
After the European plague of 1348, the commoner’s diet contained a much higher proportion of protein, and butchers had to find ways to increase the shelf life of meat – at a time when modern refrigeration didn’t exist. As with most things, charcuterie was an invention mothered by need.
The Artistry of Charcuterie
Like skilled painters with palettes of many hues, each chef’s charcuterie platter features a different combination of components and techniques. After all, variety is the spice of life. These days, a charcuterie platter may contain not only salt-preserved pork meats, but also any number of artisanal dishes, like dried fruits, imported cheeses and craft breads. Let’s take a look at the history of four frequent charcuterie platter elements: Parma ham prosciutto, soppressata, cheddar cheese and the baguette.
Parma Ham Prosciutto
The term Prosciutto stems from the Etruscan Po river valley in 5 B.C., where pork legs preserved by salt were traded with Greeks and Italians. The pig legs, from a very limited lineage of pigs, were salted and hung to dry, then oiled and left to age for a total of several months. The environment and conditions in Parma make it the ideal location for processing the finest hams since Roman times.
In order to be branded with the official mark of the Parma Crown, it’s Consorzio law that the Prosciutto must be made in certain geographical hillside boundaries. The pigs must be fed a limited list of cereal grains and whey created from the making of Parmiano-Reggiano cheese. The pigs must not be younger than nine months old and must weigh at least 140 kgs. A well trained salt master cures the meat with only authentic sea salt to preserve the sweet and tender nature of the ham. To keep the exterior from drying too rapidly, the Parma Prosciutto receives an application of lard blended with salt in a process called “greasing.” Once the greased hams age to sevens months old, they are moved to a cellar with reduced light and air. The hams hang on a special rack for a minimum of 12 months and sometimes as long as 36 months before being sent to market. The result is a tender, slightly sweet and salty lean ham that will melt in your mouth.
Soppressata refers to pressed Italian salami made of pork. The best quality soppressata salami is made only from a pig’s thigh or ham sections. Recipes differ, but often include nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon for sweetness, and garlic, coriander, black pepper, cayenne pepper, basil, rosemary, oregano and fennel for the savory side. Some butchers even add red wine.
Soppressata starts with hand-cut ground meat that is cooked with spices. It is then mixed with cubes of lard and salt and pushed into bags made of jute. The butcher shapes the jute bags into long sausages and presses them between two sheets of linen, wooden planks and heavy stones to remove any oxygen that could spoil the meat. The salami gets hung for three to five months to cure before it is smoked. For added shelf life, some butchers store soppressata in terracotta jars of olive oil.
Bad weather in 1778 led to a bread shortage in France, causing a price spike and mass starvation. Peasants revolted and demanded bread. Eventually, the gov- ernment allowed more bakers to bake and mandated they prepare ‘pain d’ eqalite’ (bread of equality.) When Napoleon took control of France, his regime created strict standards for bread making. He established a list of approved ingredients – a recipe of 75 percent wheat and 25 percent rye and bran. White flour was banned. The quality of mill flour was regulated, as was the mixing, kneading and aeration of dough. Napoleon also determined what shapes and sizes made for official ‘baguettes’ – which were baked in specially devised deck ovens that inserted steam into the dough. The steam caused dextrose to melt, which created a glazed look on the outer crust and a light, airy bread inside.
Long, thin loaves of French bread have been made since the days of Louis XIV, but the term ‘baguette’ wasn’t coined until 1920. Some say the baguette became especially popular in 1920 when a law stopped bakeries from opening prior to 4 a.m. The time restriction made it difficult to bake traditional French bread in time for breakfast. The skinny baguette, however, took less time and could be produced in time for morning breakfast. It has been popular worldwide ever since.
The Age of Cheddar Cheese
The earliest recorded date of cheese goes back to the 12th century in the Cheddar region of England. In 1170, ledgers show King Henry II purchased more than 10,000 pounds of cheddar cheese – the semi-hard, solid cheese made with cow’s milk that came in a color range of white to orange, with a mild to sharp taste. The natural color of cheddar cheese is pale yellow, but with the addition of annatto (a coloring agent) cheese producers can offer cheddar cheese with an orange tinge.
The sharpness of the cheddar flavor increases with age because ongoing growth of bacteria creates higher levels of enzymes. Cheddar cheese became an official product when Joseph Harding, a dairyman from Somerset, England, invented a mill that could mass produce it. His system included a ‘revolving cutter’ that automated curd cutting, while maintaining top hygienic control. He traveled from nation to nation to teach other dairymen how to make cheese. Today, history books call him the father of cheddar cheese.
What was previously a medieval food for the masses, charcuterie has evolved into a dish of choice for in-the-know foodies. If you order a charcuterie platter, be sure to ask the chef about the historic significance of the meats and other components. It will please the chef to know his research and planning was well worth the effort.