I’m from Manchester and have been involved in food for many years. I work at River Cottage where we look to promote high welfare practises and champion the artisan. Curing and smoking food has been my passion for many years now. For me it is the beginning of cookery, born out of necessity and utilising elements of both science and sorcery fuelled by some straightforward traditional methods. We have always had great produce on this island but have never made much of how good we are at preserving it. Now, Britain is in artisanal resurgence and it is leading the way in a curing and smoking revolution. British charcuterie is back in business.
Of all the many new British charcuterie producers creating fantastic produce there is only one who can attest to being the original. Woodall’s have been making British charcuterie since 1828, a family business that has continued to make traditional hams and salamis over eight generations. I first came across Woodall’s a couple of years ago. I was at a function and was served a platter of cold meats. It was the sort of function that you don’t really expect to be knocked into a reverie of flavour by a slice of ham, but it happened. The slice of ham that I nonchalantly took from that platter was deliciously rich and sweet with a light smokiness that didn’t disguise the soft texture of the meat. It was subtle as well as completely engrossing. I quickly chased down the server who was moving through the room with the platter in order to try some more, only just managing to refrain from throwing women and children out of my way in order to get at it again. The second slice was even better.
We have this incurable habit at River Cottage of wanting to know everything about an ingredient. I have become passionate about all things high welfare and well sourced. I question everything because I want to be certain of provenance so that the choices I make with my food not only resonate with the seasons and high quality but also support the producers who go that extra distance to ensure everything is the best. When I asked the person who I had chased down where the ham was from, I was expecting a response of Spain or Italy. I was not expecting them to say that it was a Woodall’s Royale Ham made from British outdoor bred pork and cured in Manchester.
Here it was – the product that not only raised the bar when it came to quality but also spoke of home. Woodall’s were producing original British charcuterie products and had been doing for years.
I was intrigued as well as compelled to try and get closer to the source of these products. I wanted to see for myself how they were made and in particular how much artisan craft was still applied to the process. My reasons were both personal and professional – I wanted to know how it was possible to make such a good product on a commercial scale that didn’t denigrate the brand.
Within weeks of my initial contact with the Woodall’s team we all set off from Manchester to visit two of the farms near Hull where the Woodall’s charcuterie story begins. Everyone was very keen to reveal the whole journey and for good reason. In July last year, Woodall’s had been presented with the prestigious Good Pig Award at the Farm Animal Welfare Awards. Unlike other industry awards, this annual ceremony is organised by Compassion in World Farming, the world’s leading animal welfare organisation and benchmark of all good practice, traceability and quality for any farm to fork operation.
I have visited many farms in my time but I have never had a pig farmer explain to me, almost apologetically that the pigs would have been less muddy if it wasn’t for the recent downpour. The farms I saw were run with meticulous care and the pigs were outside with so much space, shelter and environmental enrichment that I swear they were smiling.
Even at the processing plant, the bit which epitomises the commercial element there was a welcome surprise to me. Yes, there is a great deal of machinery and quite a lot of noise with production on a large scale compared to what I’m used to but more than that there were teams of people all working with a common goal to monitor the quality all along the line. It felt a very human space where people got hands on applying cures and smokes and the machinery was there to help them make the best job of it. There was a spirit and a passion amongst the staff that showed they felt that their role was important and that what they were producing was top notch. I know how difficult that is to maintain but without question it was there to see all the way from the farm to the finished product.
Ultimately, I felt that there was a sensitivity to the produce and that this is the sort of business run by people who care.
The final and perhaps favourite part of my journey was back in Manchester where I was able to stand in the hanging and conditioning room of Woodall’s HQ. The inner sanctum of sweet-savoury-smoky deliciousness: the hallowed place where Woodall’s Cumbrian, Black Combe, Royale air dried hams hang alongside Smoked Pancetta. The place where every part of the process comes together in a combination of tradition, family recipes, artisan craft and careful commercial guidance.
In order to produce quality products, you have to have quality people in place to make sure that the integrity is intact. I was willing everything to be the best it could possibly be and I wasn’t disappointed.
The history, future and legacy of British charcuterie was in safe hands at Woodall’s Charcuterie where it all originated. It is a journey that I now want to go on with them.