Remember the days when charcuterie was neon pink salami in vacuum packs, reconstituted turkey slices with added water, and there was always one bit of gristle or bone in every packet of ham? Of course meat is meat and it shouldn’t be perfect and exactly the same every time but the cold meats section in supermarkets certainly used to leave a lot to be desired. Roll on the start of this decade and stand up Mr Carluccio. Suddenly it was fashionable to sit in a restaurant surrounded by artisanal food. Whole salamis and chorizos hung like whiffy wind chimes and splendid legs of meat were showcased in fancy slicing contraptions.
Other restaurants soon followed suit and it’s now pretty standard for most Mediterranean-inspired restaurants to offer plates of charcuterie on their menus. Add to this chefs like Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson only using the choicest cured meats in their cooking (a straw poll of the number of people using pancetta in their cooking instead of bacon would give an indication of how far the Carluccio effect has spread) and hey presto, the UK population has metamorphosed from diners of the ham-and-two-white-slices kind into prosciutto-on-rye-kinda-gals-and-guys.
So much so that now Cantina Del Ponte, an Italian restaurant in Shad Thames overlooking London’s iconic Tower Bridge, is offering diners charcuterie masterclasses. Fortunately, it’s a pretty informal affair, no notepad and long attention span required. Instead diners are treated to a charcuterie platter inspired by a particular region; the main course also takes heed of the region’s cold meats. The idea is that diners will have the chance to try new cuts of meat and, as they eat them, discover a little more about the great variety. Being an oh-so-thorough student of food, however, I have already tried all of the meats on offer at Cantina Del Ponte over the coming months.
And now I share my education…
January at the Cantina Del Ponte restaurant brought the turn of North Italy, where diners feasted on meats with suitably lavish sounding names like Bresaola (salted, air-dried beef with a dry texture) and Prosciutto Veneto (a clear winner in the Northern Italian category thanks to its superb flavor, which hasn’t been enhanced with any herbs or preservatives, and it being produced by that rare breed: an Italian female butcher). Less glamorous-sounding were speck - which is an Italian kitchen staple - and the artery-busting Lardo. Charcuterie supremo Vittorio Maschio calls this ‘posh fat’ and while it can be eaten in thin slices, there’s only so much pork fat you can eat. Vittorio recommends wrapping slices of lardo around cooked steak so the fat melts into the cooked meat. Now, that does sound good.
From February the Thames-side Italian restaurant will be celebrating meats from the centre of Italy. Classico Parma Ham gets itself on the roll-call as well as wild boar salami, which is an absolute gem thanks to the almost floral aftertaste. Culatello, a deep red pig meat, aged for at least 10 months, is a divine new discovery; pink and processed Mortadella - which stuffs together minced pig shoulder, stomach and fat squares together - isn’t.
March will – no surprises here – focus its attention on southern Italian charcuterie. Although I ate Porchetta in fairly thin slices, the way to best enjoy this pale pink/white meat is in thicker slices in a sandwich, according to Vittorio. Nduja, an extremely soft salami, was quite spicy but despite this bite, its texture put me off. Spicy salami was reliable as expected, and last of all in my charcuterie odyssey was Soppressata, just in case diners fancy a bit more pork.
Vac-packed Parma ham will probably never taste as good again.
The charcuterie monthly menu costs £19.50 per person and as well as a meat platter, includes a main course, dessert and glass of wine.
Cantina Del Ponte restaurant also has a fab dining offer available from now until the end of February: 3 Courses and a Glass of Prosecco for only £22.95. Don’t forget that stunning view of Tower Bridge too though. That comes for free.