Curing and Smoking at The School of Artisan Food

Given the number of posts I’ve written so far this year, I don’t really have the nerve to hold myself out as a food blogger anymore. Not that my passion for food, or writing, has waned at all. It’s just that my job offers another outlet for all this passion and, well, that pays and this doesn’t! So, when The School of Artisan Food invited me to one of their courses in return for a post, I was pretty chuffed. I mean The School of Artisan Food is pretty damn well respected around these parts.

Situated in the heart of Sherwood Forest on the Welbeck Estate in North Nottinghamshire, The School of Artisan Food has been operating since 2009. Not only does the School offer courses for the home cook and food lover, there are a number of professional courses and the School also offers a one-year Advanced Diploma in baking. Such quality of training demands suitably impressive tutors and courses are taught by some of the most skilled and experienced artisan producers and practitioners in the UK, Europe and beyond. Sounds amazing, yes? Well, on top of all this, you can add the fact that the School is a registered charity and a not-for-profit institution that offers bursaries to diploma students who might not otherwise be able to afford the training (the School raises the money for these bursaries by charging full price for its short courses).

The School gave me the choice of any of the day courses and I chose Curing and Smoking. Cheesemaking, Brewing and Pickling also took my fancy, but with my love of meat, I figured that Curing and Smoking would teach me skills that I would be motivated to use at home, and the experience would be something that I could share with customers at work.

So, a couple of Saturdays ago I set out to the School in Welbeck. It was such a gorgeous day and I needed to stop off at work first, which kind of worked for me as it meant my route avoided the motorway and I could enjoy some rural driving instead. Once at the School, I parked up and took a bit of a wander. The location is simply stunning; incredibly serene.

The course was led by expert butchers and charcutiers, Rich Summers and Chris Moorby. With decades of experience between them, Rich and Chris are friendly, knowledgeable and, above all else, passionate about their subject. They quickly gained my respect and I’m incredibly envious of their experience in the world of butchery.

The day was split into two parts. The first being the ‘tech’ side of things, the second being the practical. And it was the ‘tech’ session that, for me, really set this course apart from previous courses I’ve been on as it gave Rich and Chris the opportunity to really demonstrate their knowledge and passion for butchery and charcuterie. Taking us through a quick overview of the theory behind curing and smoking, Rich and Chris went through every aspect of producing charcuterie – from choosing your breed, to slaughter, to the finished product. And I was pleased to find that the pair share the same values as me when it comes to high welfare. Not only do they acknowledge that happy and healthy animals taste better, ethical farming sits better with their consciences too.

Onto the practical and Rich started with a bit of butchery. Out came a side of a pig which he broke down into sections, explaining which each part could be used for in charcuterie, and how to get the best value for money out of each cut. I hadn’t realised that there would actually be any butchery involved in the course, and it was good to see Rich work through the different cuts.

Then followed quite a quick paced hands-on session, starting with a bit of sausage making. Using a mix of fatty and lean pork, along with some beef, and some spices, we made horseshoe shaped sausages for hot smoking in the courtyard. We also made ham hock, salt beef and ox tongue terrine which, after a spell in the blast chiller, was shared amongst us all at the end of the day along with a selection of other treats including the hot smoked sausages, some salt beef, chorizo and duck prosciutto.

Before being let loose on projects of our own, we were sent for lunch. And we were advised to eat well because we had a busy afternoon ahead of us. With freshly made curry, bhajis, bombay potatoes and more, including cheese and crackers for dessert, we didn’t need telling twice. Delicious.

Back on it and we moved onto guanciale, which is a favourite of mine as I love a good carbonara. It’s a very traditional Italian style of bacon. Made from the jowl of the pig it’s similar to pancetta, but much fattier. And it’s something that I’ve wanted to make for quite some time, but the recipes always put me off. They often called for the meat to be hung in a dry cellar, and well, that don’t sit well with my OCD. So, it was pleasing to learn that this guanciale would sit quite nicely, curing away, in the bottom of my fridge. The only drying I would need to do would be for a couple of days, again in the fridge (neither Chris nor Rich are interested in messing about with food safety – something they made a point of right at the start of the day). And, because it was hands-on, we each got the chance to take the cheek and jowl off a pig’s head ourselves. Once trimmed, we added the curing mixture which included sugar, salt and a few herbs and spices of our choice (no, I can’t remember which spices I went for). We then vac-packed them to keep them nice and contained as they cure.

Moving onto pancetta we each took a piece of belly pork, removed the bones and the rind. Yes, part of me did want to leave the rind on, but I had to remind myself that I was making pancetta, not old fashioned streaky. This time we cured the pork in sugar and salt but no spices – so that we could see the difference the spices made to the flavours of the meat. Again, this will cure for up to a week, then I will dry it for a few days in the fridge.

Salt beef came next and we added an organic curing salt which included a measured quantity of sodium nitrite. This helps preserves the meat and keeps out any nasties, whilst giving the meat the nice pink colour we associate with cured meats. Once cured, the salt beef will need to be simmered in water for a couple of hours, chilled and then, like pastrami, sliced for sandwiches.

Finally we set about making duck prosciutto. We rubbed an organic curing salt into the flesh and skin of a duck breast then sat it in a tub full of salt where it would need to cure for 24 hours. After 24 hours we’d need to rinse the salt off and rub it with a spice mix before wrapping in muslin and hanging it to air dry in the fridge. In terms of food safety this one is the one we need to be most careful about as we wouldn’t be cooking it, but we were sent home with strict instructions to wipe off any white or green mould, to throw the breast away if we see any red mould and not to eat any of it until it had lost at least 35% of its weight – at which point it will have cured all the way through.

We rounded off the day with a few nibbles including the terrine and hot smoked sausage we’d made earlier and Rich and Chris encouraged us to divvy everything up between us so that we could take it home to enjoy that night – because everything else was going to take at least a week to cure/air dry!

And that is the beauty of this course; I’ll continue learning for weeks to come. In fact, I’ve already taken my pancetta and guanciale out of their cures to start air drying in the fridge. I’ve also cooked the salt beef and, because I wanted to serve it up as pastrami, I rolled the meat in some black pepper and coriander seeds before slicing.

And, I’m pleased to report that it turned out pretty damn fine! The cure had worked all the way through the meat ensuring it was that lovely pink colour we expect from cured meat and the spices added great flavour. I’d definitely try it again – maybe with brisket next time. In fact, with a recipe book and recommendations for website stores that sell all the equipment I need, including the curing salts, I like to think I’ll be trying a few things again.

For me, a real meat lover, this course was perfect. There was a nice balance between the theory and practical side of curing and I genuinely feel confident enough to try it at home (assuming nothing terrible happens to the pancetta, guanciale or prosciutto that’s currently sat in my fridge). But, just as my learning hasn’t stopped on leaving the School, Rich and Chris share their contact details with all students in case they have any queries in future.

And, if Chris and Rich’s passion for their subject is anything to go by, I’m certain the School’s other courses will be just as good. Take a look at them here.

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