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The charcutier's art

"If a housewife has but little time for cooking, she is able to rely upon the terrines and pâtés, the sausages, the hams and all the miscellaneous pork products of the charcutier to make a quick midday meal for her family or a first course for her lunch party." - Elizabeth David

This is part two of my lucky dip choice of book - Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery by Jane Grigson. The very mention of the word charcuterie brought back so many nostalgic memories for me, so I thought I would do a post on French charcuteries, their evolution and what we have here in comparison.

Charcuterie, in a regulated sort of way, seems to date back to the Romans, and also to the Gauls who made wonderful hams. To cut a long story short on the history of charcuterie in France, initially there were three trades - the charcutier, the traiteur and the tripier. The charcutier dealt in cooked pork - he was not allowed to slaughter his own pigs or sell raw pork until the beginning of the seventeenth century. The tripier dealt with offal - the insides of any kind of animal which were made into various cooked 'delicacies' - such as tripe. The traiteur made ready cooked dishes. Initially that trade began because most people did not have much in the way of a kitchen, and now their main focus is probably on the time poor housewife. Eventually the three trades sort of merged - with the tripier disappearing altogether, after the revolution when lots of cooks who had worked for the aristocrats found themselves with no job. Now you sometimes get the charcutier combined with the traiteur or the butcher and the charcutier has taken over dealing with the offal. Although a lot of people seem to think that the charcutier deals only with pork this is not true. He will have pâtés, terrines, sausages and all manner of other things made from every animal. It more than likely depends on what part of the country you are in.

Depending on the size of the village, every village with shops in France will have either a dedicated charcutier or a combined charcutier/traiteur/butcher. In my youth I spent my summers in a village on the Loire near Orléans called Meung-sur-Loire and it was here that I first tasted what we in Australia would call salami from the charcutierie. The French, however, call it saucisson and it is actually not the same as salami.

It is drier it seems to me, harder, chewier and mostly comes in sausages that are covered in powdery white stuff. When we had it for lunch at the Coutant's little apartment in the Mairie, it was served with butter and baguette, but not in the way you would think. A tiny piece of butter was placed on the slice of saucisson and you ate this whilst alternating with a bit of baguette. I think there would have been cornichons as well. Beautiful French butter, and wonderful saucisson. To me it has a slightly musty taste, which is altogether different from salami - it's very French. I don't think I have found anything similar here as yet, although I have no doubt that it is out there.

And not only do you get them at the charcutieries of course - you also get them in markets. I guess that most saucissons are indeed made from pork, but you can also get them from wild boar - like the ones in the third picture above. Wild boar is a big thing in France - they love to hunt and eat them. Why they don't do that here I have no idea.

There are still thousands, of specialist charcutiers in France, handcrafting their goods,

but these days, of course people mostly buy their charcuterie from the supermarkets and hypermarkets. And yes, alas, a lot of is sliced and packaged, but even in the hypermarkets they have huge charcuterie sections where a lovely lady will serve you - a taste here, a taste there and a bit of information about what it is and where it comes from.

It's one of the first places we visit when we go to France, to buy up big on saucisson and ham terrine and pâté, for our patio lunches and picnics, not to mention the pickles and olives and other condiments that you serve with them. And when it comes to terrines, rillettes and the like they are definitely not all made of pork. Indeed one lady in one of the hypermarkets when asked what the terrine de campagne was made from said it was duck - and that most of the terrines and pâtés were. But you often get rabbit, and turkey as well. Then there are all those other things like the brawn and the blood sausages, and the various things created from offal.

The pig is an amazing animal.

"It could be said that European civilisation - and Chinese civilisation too - has been founded on the pig. Easily domesticated, omnivorous household and village scavenger, clearer of scrub and undergrowth, devourer of forest acorns, yet content with a sty - and delightful when cooked or cured, from his snout to his tail. ... The one thing you can't do with a pig is to drive him in herds over vast distances." Jane Grigson

But the pig of today is very different from his ancestors. In fact the modern pig is a merger of the small, fat Chinese pig, and the long, lean pig of Europe, bred in the late eighteenth century in England. I don't think England has any wild boar/pigs any more - but there are plenty in Europe and here. And I have no doubt that that eighteenth century hybrid has been further developed until we get the extremely lean, and delicious pork of today. Alas they are also very intelligent, and really rather cute in a way, and I try not to think too much about that.

Back in 1960 Elizabeth David complained that in England there was nothing like a charcuterie. I'm willing to bet that is not the case these days. Here in Australia we have the delicatessen, or sometimes posh salumerie, but they are not really the same as a charcuterie because they tend to have a pan European focus with the emphasis on the Italian. And they don't do terrines in the same way. Over there in France, even in the hypermarkets they have terrines in large, homely looking earthenware or ceramic dishes, from which the lady will cut you a chunk. Terrines here tend to come pre-packed in tiny plastic containers and they are more like pâtés than terrines. You can make your own of course, and I have. It's another one of those things you think is hugely difficult but is actually pretty easy.

But the traiteur side of the business is becoming a big thing. You can now buy quiche and various ready-made dishes and salads in your local supermarket, and there are - or rather were - lots of small businesses popping up all over the place specialising in such things. I wonder whether they will return after all this COVID19 thing. We might indeed have to learn to make terrine - we can learn from YouTube these days - but I doubt we shall be learning to make our own saucisson or ham.

So thank you Jane Grigson for teaching me so much about the pig and the history of charcuterie. Thank you also for bringing back so many happy memories, both from my youth, and my more recent adventures in France.

As I said it's a bit of a learned book. Her chapter on Fresh Pork cookery is very short and tucked away in the middle of the book, but it does contain some delicious recipes. Most of the book is dedicated to the charcuterie things though.

Also as a side benefit, as I was flicking through my various French cookery books looking for pictures I was tempted by several delicious looking dishes here and there. I really must go back to cooking from an actual recipe. I get a bit tired of inventing Ok but not wonderful dishes from what's in my fridge. What I should do is see what I've got and then hunt for a recipe - and simultaneously reinstate the one special meal per week routine, whereby I cook something I have never cooked before.


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