Bragging that he can make bacon from mutton during a night of revelry with friends, was what started Neil Jewell from Franschhoek on the road to becoming a master charcuterier.

“I was completely taken by surprise when friends started ordering mutton bacon from me the next day! I could not even remember that I had made that daft claim. It shows you what can happen when the red wine is good and the company better!

“I did make some bacon from mutton and it did not turn out too poorly, but I soon realised that I needed to hone my skills and became interested in charcuterie in order to make good bacon,” says Neil.

Pace of life

Neil, who hails from London, is a qualified chef with no formal training as a butcher. He headed for South Africa after the pace of life as a chef in London took its toll.

“The hours are extremely long and the working conditions are rigorous. There is no time for family life and I hardly ever saw daylight. I became anaemic looking and realised I needed some sunlight,” he comments with a wry smile.

About 16 years ago Neil started working at the farm Môreson, at the restaurant Bread and Wine which was originally established to augment the wine-tasting of the farm.

Derived from the French word for flesh (chair) and cooked (cuit), the term ‘charcuterie’ came to designate the shops of the 15th-century France that sold products of the pig – including offal.

Highly esteemed charcuteriers

The charcuteriers of the time were, when the first guilds were formed, highly esteemed, but were not allowed to sell raw pork, so they created all sorts of dishes to be sold in the cooked or pickled format,  including pâtés, bacon, rillettes, sausages, terrines and hams.

Their methods included dry curing, brine curing, smoking, fermentation and cooking to preserve the humble pig.

“We started making our own bacon and the business has grown from a humble beginning to where we are today. I break down every pig carcass and believe that the artisanal touch is what makes my business great. I don’t want to be a factory and I don’t want to sell to supermarkets. I have created a brand that I am proud of and which customers know contains no negative additives.”

Neil Jewell’s curing room with a variety of products from his charcuterie range.

Neil has found a ready market in Franschhoek, renowned as a food lovers’ paradise, and supplies a number of deli’s, restaurants and private clients in Cape Town with a wide range of charcuterie products. Currently the charcuterie part of the restaurant processes about 1,5 tons of pork per month. He is passionate about the variety of sausages, including chorizo, salamis and a great variety of curiously named spicy dry-cured sausages, bacons and hams that he makes.

“The most important ingredient in charcuterie is the meat. Happy, carefree pigs with natural roaming space and a stress-free background make the best bacon and ham. I source mine locally and know that they have had a happy childhood,” Neil comments.

The right equipment

Charcuterie is an art that is enhanced by experience and experimentation, but in order to be successful the right equipment is essential. Climatic conditions similar to those of Europe need to be simulated in order to cure the products that may require up to twelve months maturing.

“My advice to first-timers is to experiment with home-made equipment at the beginning. An old Coca-Cola fridge is not a bad place to start, but you have to be able to control the humidity, airflow and temperature in order for the curing process to be successful. Old draughty outbuildings have also been known to work, but the ideal humidity for curing is between 60 to 80% (measured with a hygrometer), while the correct temperature varies between 10 and 18⁰C.

While dry curing is the action of the salt on meat, a process well-known to South African palates, fermentation is all about acidity. This form of curing refers to making salami. It involves deliberately keeping coarsely ground meat at room temperature for a specific amount of time to encourage the growth of certain bacteria.

High acidity the key

The pH of the meat is very important and high acidity is the key. An acidity of 4,9 is necessary in order for the white blooms to appear on the outside of the salami to enhance and protect it. Hot weather and meat are not good bedfellows and if the humidity, temperature and airflow cannot be controlled, the bad bacteria will grow and destroy the products.

Nitrates and nitrites are used in addition to salt to cure the meats and to prevent botulism, so if it’s done according to prescription, the products are safe. Cold smoking enhances the flavour and hot smoking cooks the cured product.

Charcuterie is a somewhat new taste sensation for South African palates, but people are becoming well-travelled and have acquired the tastes for the prosciutto, chorizo, Parma, salami and Carpaccio flavours associated with the product.

It is a niche market and newcomers to the trade need to know that it’s a process that requires a lengthy curing period before cash flow is generated.

Lengthy curing period

“It is also an expensive product given the fact that there is a weight loss of 33% of the raw product. Some hams also require a lengthy curing period, so the mathematics must make sense. It is not cost-effective to run a large curing room on an uneconomic range or volume of products.

“But you can make a handsome profit, because 80kg of raw product should deliver 41kg of saleable products. At R400p/kg this is good money.

“Once clients have tasted dry cured bacon, they never go back to mass-produced and brine-injected bacon. The flavour is incomparable and consumers are happy to pay the extra bit,” Neil concludes.

Some tips for starting a business:
  • Acquire the knowledge needed to manage the process. Two excellent books on the subject are Charcuterie and Salumi by Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn.
  • Attend a course on charcuterie offered by Neil Jewell at the restaurant Bread and Wine in Franschhoek to fine-tune your knowledge. Consult his website for information.
  • Do market research to find out what the demand for your product is. Be aware that many charcuterie products are imported from Europe at very competitive prices.
  • Be aware that the fermented flavour of some of the products is unfamiliar to the South African palate and would require some product promotion.
  • Be aware that it fits into a niche market and that it may be wise to offer the product in conjunction with another product until you become well established.
  • Make sure that you have access to happy, stress-free pigs at porker age with an ideal weight of 100kg.
  • Charcuterie can be adapted to accommodate mutton and game, but the pH of pork is ideal for the product. – Linda Henderson

For more information on charcuterie, contact Neil Jewell at breadandwine@moreson.co.za, +27 21 876 3692 or +27 21 876 3055.