What I'm Looking for - John Gower - Head Judge British Charcuterie Awards
I am asked this month to put into words what I’m looking for when sampling or, as in this case, judging for British Charcuterie Live Awards. It raises some interesting questions.
Clearly, there are no set criteria for what makes the perfect cured meat as there is a huge range of different products that are quite deliberately different from one another. Of course, the whole matter of what’s enjoyable to eat is highly subjective in any case
To make the point, what I’m describing is specifically British Charcuterie. As we make our way as a sector, we must surely be looking to develop certain traits and characteristics that define what we do, rather than just seeking to mimic continental styles. What I look for is a sequential list of elements that work together…
First and foremost is the Quality of the Meat. The confirmation should be appealing, with good fat characteristics. These are important to the carrying and delivery of flavour that result in it shining through in the finished product. This is the key. Good ingredients make good product - the quality of the meat is fundamental. This is also why adding flavours that are too aggressive or unsubtle can cover up the quality of the meat - and so detracting from my enjoyment.
Next comes the Care, Skill and Craft with which the product has been made. The skill of the Farmer shines through in my first point but here is where the skill and craft of the Maker comes in. It may be the bind in a salami, created by an understanding of not just the mixing and stuffing but also how salt works on proteins and how myosin helps lock in moisture and thus improve the mouth feel of the finished product.
It could be the delicate, uniform drying from edge to edge of a sliced whole muscle product ensuring that no ‘case hardening’ has occurred with edges becoming dry and tough (a result of being allowed to dry out too quickly so forming a crust which then obstructs the drying of the interior).
It can even be or the texture of a pate, how it is mixed or the heat with which it is cooked to ensure a consistent finish.
Ultimately, good charcuterie is all about the Care, Attention to Detail and Hard Learned Confidence that sets apart a truly great product from one that just technically complies with its definition. You cannot make the best charcuterie without top quality meat but you can make that great meat into a poor product - that’s a real tragedy!
Lastly, I look for some Imagination, Flair or (even) Novelty, provided it’s done right. One of my favourite products from the 2018 British Charcuterie Live Awards was a chocolate and chilli salami. It ticked every box jumping out as wonderfully made, delicious and also had that little element of fun in the flavours. I think I have an idea how the makers created it, if I’m right then I also tip my hat to their confidence and imagination to do something actually quite simple in order to achieve an absolutely stunning result.
Flair needs to work with the product and not exist just for its own sake. It must enhance not overtake in a showy way. Understanding of seasonings and flavours is clearly key but to be led somewhere a little unexpected and somewhere ultimately satisfying and enjoyable makes a winner.
In fact, I think that element of pleasant surprise is what all of our judges felt was present in the real standout products of the 2018 British Charcuterie Live Awards. These discoveries are indeed what I look forward to when judging.