Throughout my life people have asked me this question: "if you were to have your last meal on Earth, what would be it be?" My answer has remained the same, a study in muted consistency: a large platter of charcuterie alongside a medley of Corsican goat cheeses, crusty French baguettes and washed down by as many bottles of Château Pétrus as I could possibly drink...I mean, if it is indeed the last supper, who's worrying about a spot of indigestion coupled with a hangover?
According to my trusty Larousse encyclopedia, the etymology of charcuterie is from "chair cuit", which roughly translated, becomes "cooked flesh". Since refrigeration and freezing is relatively modern, the need to preserve meat to be stored for later use was invented, like all good things, out of necessity. Whilst fish was salted and marinated, meat was cured, smoked, dried, brined, hung in darkness and subjected to many shapes and form, from the majestic salami to the humble sausage; the rustic pâté cooked with lard to the exquisitely delightful andouille; the wondrous rillettes to the delicately perfumed Jambon de Bayonne. And much, much more.
If I had the time (and the inclination) I would write a whole book about cold cuts and their origins: this is the abbreviated version, the Shakespeare of Saussisson, as it were, in three small acts.
Ancient literature often speaks of the sausage, whether in Homer's Odyssey (700 BC) or in the poet Aristophanes (425 BC) and in the writings of that other, less known, poet Phéricrate (420 BC). Around the early Roman empire, among the Indo-Germanic people, we find the beginnings of the terrine as minced meat combined with the stomachs and viscera of their animals was cooked with blood and fat. Gruesome but tasty, no doubt, and highly portable.
Further reading in my Larousse, significant testimony arrives from the archeological site of Forcello (500 B.C.), in the province of Mantua, where 50,000 pieces of animal bones, of which 60% from pigs, were found. Their study revealed that they belonged to pigs of approximately two or three years of age and that practically no bones of the rear legs were present. It was probably then that the concept of of charcuterie products was born.
Before the nobility encroached on people lives, animals were reared exclusively to meet the requirements of the family. In Etruscan times the first forms of non-nomadic breeding had started to develop. A few centuries later, the Romans, who were no slouches when it came to pickling and curing, gave us a multitude of meat products, focusing on pork legs from which raw, smoked & cooked hams were born and became one of the most precious product obtained from the porcine and the main event in innumerable social and celebratory occasions. Then came the glorious salami: the origin of the word salami comes from the Italian "salare" meaning to salt. Roman soldiers were often paid with salt, (hence the word salary which also comes from "salare"). Originally salami was just made from pork but more recently other meats including beef and turkey have been used.
And here's the health benefit: - Hallelujah, there is one! - because salami is fermented it contains lactic acid bacteria which can help maintain a healthy digestive system.
My salami rules: it should be cut thick; in fact it should be thick enough to be able to stand on its edge. All it requires is a some crusty bread, and good hard cheeses like pecorino which goes well with a number of dry-cured salamis. There are (and no one has ever attempted to count) hundreds if not thousands of types of salamis so listing becomes impossible. Personally, when I can get it, I would buy the Rosette from Lyon, or the Milano, from Milan, both outstanding in quality and taste though lately I have been able to purchase a pure pork salami laced with hazelnuts from Auvergne. Some German salamis are also notable for their well balanced use of spices.
However, the real charcuterie, as we know it, took off during the dark ages as meat became scarce (the real reason, of course, has more to do with that dastard nobility & rich merchants who would commandeer premium meats, leaving off-cuts & offal to the peasantry and the less fortunate), ways of using the entire animal - including head, feet & tail - were adopted into the poor man's culinary repertoire giving us oddities like stuffed pig trotters, cured pig tail, head cheese (fromage de tête) tripailles (not for the faint-hearted) and even stuffed duck necks. And much more. The expression "I've killed the pig" meant a sudden affluence in the household as the entire animal, including hair, would find its way into the kitchen, a pragmatic lesson learned throughout times of war and famine (does anyone remember reading about meat restriction during WW2?)
During the late 1400s and into the 1500s, the French government had to maintain a strict separation between fisheries, slaughterhouses, butchers and charcuteries as food related illnesses and diseases were becoming an epidemic. The newly legislated government regulations kept the slaughtering of animals and fresh fish catches away from meat markets and ultimately kept the processing of raw meat from the butchers. Abattoirs became de rigueur. For the well-read on food regulations, you might be tempted to draw a parallel to the current Chinese food processing which is in the midst of a complete overhaul of their food safety systems.
If we were to make a chart about which particular item of charcuterie would be the most popular, I would imagine the sausage sitting at the top of the pops. Apart from ham & bacon which may attempt to topple the "banger," over the centuries, the composition of the sausage has been greatly refined and diversified to include choice meat, including wild game. In the Middle Ages, it is mentioned both in cookbooks and in some literary writings. Later, many descriptions written in the late fifteenth century and the beginning of the sixteenth century tell us that the consumer could afford a variety of increasingly rich pieces of meat and that at the same time, the sausage became the charcuterie item of choice.
Before the discovery of nitrates and nitrites by German chemists around 1900, curing was done with unrefined salt and saltpeter. In Germany for instance, the German butchers developed a special skill in the art of making sausages of all varieties, shapes and forms, limited only by their imagination. Pork appeared very often in the main composition but I found descriptions in old books which suggest that other components were used, like lard, cured ham, venison & wild game, all sorts of spices and some even included dried barley, I guess to give the sausage a softer edge.
Writing about this subject has made me very hungry. I have to stop and repair to my own table. Please add your favorite item(s) of charcuterie in the comments. The next Tales will be about traditional dishes served in the French countryside. Expect recipes about ragoûts, potée Auvergnate, couscous (apparently it is the most popular dish served in French households), fondue Savoyarde etc.
As summer is upon us, my time is limited and the Tales will be not as regular as I would like to, so check regularly in the Environmental Foodies group for the latest postings. Or subscribe. It's all good.