Friday, 6 July 2012

Superb saucisson - the Ginger Pig visits Mont Charvin

Mont Charvin is producing saucissons and cured meats in the Haute-Savoie, with the emphasis firmly placed on quality rather than quantity. Tim tasted their produce at a market in France, and was so impressed he had to find out more about them. He did, and you can now buy Mont Charvin charcuterie in our own Ginger Pig shops – and nowhere else in the U.K.

You can read the story of Mont Charvin below, but first a little saucisson of what we’ve got in our Hackney, Shepherd’s Bush and Moxon Street shops:

Saucisson artisanal traditionnel (with just salt, pepper and garlic)
Saucisson aux noisettes entières (with whole hazelnuts)
Saucisson aux cèpes (with ceps/porcini mushrooms)
Saucisson fines herbes (with herbs de Provence, basil and tarragon)
Saucisson campagnard (a large slicing cured sausage)
Coeur de jambon (outstanding cured ham)
Coppa (cured neck of pork)

They’re exceptionally well-made – high quality meat, the right amount of fat, all natural casings, and the precision spicing that comes from years of experience. They are richly savoury, and the texture is spot on; emulsified without blending into one indistinct texture, meat, fat and spice working together without getting lost. Really outstanding stuff.

The story

Establishing the business some 20 years ago wasn’t easy. They began producing cured meats using premium ingredients – with the price tag that accompanies – while consumers were starting to look to supermarkets for cheaper food. Mont Charvin stuck with it, and now distribute to retailers across the region, as well as exporting further afield (including coppa to Italy!). Owner Christian refused to sell to the Ginger Pig unless we went to visit him in the Savoie, to learn about his product and how it is made. Oh, if we must…

Christian spent 17 years as production manager before taking control of the business, which currently employs 16 members of staff. He has seen consumers flock to supermarkets in droves before gradually returning to the small independents again, in part driven by tourists’ enthusiasm for eating authentic local produce.  A number of local cheese-makers and charcuteriers have formed a cooperative to sell their produce in the area, which remains an independent enterprise despite attempts at buy-in from bigger chains. There used to be many more small producers in the area but most have either been swallowed by big business, or have tried to emulate the growth strategy of larger companies – with the subsequent drop in quality – and gone bust.

We arrive to meet Christian at his Annecy production unit, but our meeting is interrupted just a few minutes in when the whole business stops for a break at 9am – five hours after work begins each day. This tradition is strictly adhered to, and sees all 16 employees get together for coffee, local bread, a selection of their charcuterie and a ham made from rolled belly.  The work is very labour intensive and relatively unindustrialised, with only a few mechanised concessions to give greater control over the process, with no loss of tradition and quality; this morning break is crucial to keep everyone going.

Christian with the vacuum machine, which helps to produce a tight texture

The pork is from pigs reared outdoors, by small producers in the local area. Christian dreams of one day farming their own animals for production – to be fed on cereal and whey, the latter a by-product from local cheese producers – but for the time being will continue to buy from trusted local sources.

They take between one and two tonnes of pork each day, which is prepared by the local abattoir butchery to strict specifications. Bellies are taken of the bone but left in the piece, and shoulders are carefully boned, trimmed of any gristle and sinew and divided into separate muscles. For their cured pork loin  – “bacon”, as it is referred to in the region – they take only the boned out loins from female pigs for flavour and succulence. Sheets of meticulously trimmed back fat are brought to a very low temperature, so that they break into neat little chunks when cut rather than melting away into the mix. 

This fat is one of the key elements to the saucisson, and getting the right balance of fat to meat and the right ‘cut’ is crucial. Many producers add lactose for succulence and moisture, however Mont Charvin prefers to take heavier pigs – 110-130kg – with a greater percentage of fat to do this naturally. The meat for their saucisson must be cut with absolute precision – and never minced – to ensure that the end result has the right texture.

Christian mixes his own spices, as he doesn’t trust the companies making pre-mixed blends not to change their recipes. There’s a huge grinder for pepper, which has a number of different-sized grinds for the various recipes. Christian tells us that he can make 10 different sausages using the same ingredients, and it’s not until we taste a few that we really see what he means. We try three saucisson made only with pork, fat, garlic, salt and pepper and natural casings, but due to the different-sized chunks of meat, different ratios and varying grinds of pepper, we have three completely different products. It’s not just that one is more peppery than the other, or has larger chunks of fat, they really are very distinctive, and we wouldn’t have guessed they were from the same base ingredients.

Pepper grinder
Spice blends ready to go into the mix
A different coloured string for each saucisson
The freshly made sausages gradually make their way through a labyrinth of drying rooms, all at differing precise temperatures. From the production floor they go into a fridge to set for a day, before going straight into a room at 25C. The smell is, well, like you’d expect pork and garlic to smell as they’re starting to ferment, but it’s this first blast of warmth that helps to ensure the texture of the finish sausages. They go from here through a series of increasingly colder rooms, which – although monitored by a snazzy control room – Christian checks several times a day to make sure everything is right. Saucissons are dried for around three months and hams for six; Mont Charvin will say “until they are ready”.