If you’re at all familiar with what I do, you will know that I am passionate about good quality food.This tends to mean minimally processed, wholesome and natural. However, there is a process that was developed thousands of years ago to preserve foods from spoiling, that actually enhances the nutritional benefits and digestibility of food. It’s called Fermentation and it is this ancient art (the science of which is called Zymology) that determines the critical difference between a processed meat and a cured meat – curing being a form of fermentation.
The process of fermentation is found in many foods: chocolate, tea, coffee, olives, cheese, yogurt, kefir, wine, beer, vinegar, sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha, tempeh, miso, fish sauce and, yes, traditional salamis, pepperoni, chorizo, pancetta and many more hams and other deliciously tasty, deeply coloured, complex flavoured charcuterie, often pork based but not always.
Fermenting, or curing of meats (and fish), requires a process to halt the growth of nasty bacteria that cause food to spoil: salt (brining) being the classic method as salt draws out moisture from the food, so the bacteria can’t survive – the salt also draws moisture out of the actual bacteria too – eeek! Spices as well as salt can be added, depending on the end product, and then a special bacteria will be injected to inoculate the meat, just as a starter culture is used for yogurt, kefir, kombucha etc.
Then time does the rest, developing flavour, texture and all-round goodness, and this is the BIG difference between modern processed meats, where the process is quick and un-natural. Nitrates and nitrites artificially enhance flavour and maintain a pinkness that we have come to think of as fresh and good quality whereas well-cured meats can be almost deep purple in colour, showing age and natural flavour development. Cured meats have a dry texture and an intense, tangy flavour – that’s
the fermentation. All fermented foods should have a tang, like sour dough bread does in a way modern bread does not, as the beneficial bacteria that do the fermenting, ‘eat’ up natural sugars presntbin the food. Also, like good dark chocolate, great charcuterie packs a flavour punch that makes scoffing loads of it pretty impossible.
These are great artisan foods that should be eaten with reverence and deligh not feared as unhealthy and naughty. Processed meat has none of the beneficial qualities of a cured meat: they contain man-made chemicals for colour; preservatives to extend shelf-life; many have a very low percentage meat content, which begs the question, what else is in there and hence, consuming too much does appear to increase risk of heart disease.
This is not the same with cured meats – they get better with age naturally. Think of ‘plastic’ cheese in a tube or a triangle or the shiny, slimy stuff that is sold to put in burger buns – it’s obvious there’s nothing good about these ‘cheeses’. The same goes for perfectly square or round slices of bright pink ham, mushy, pink sausages and other such cheap, highly processed meat products wheresas aged, traditionally made cheeses and charcuterie are not only ok, but good for you.
I am not a food snob, I just want there to be some clarity around which foods are healthy and which foods are not. To lump all cheeses together or to put processed and cured meats in the same ‘deadly’ category, is a nonsense and causes confusion and the denial of these really top quality foods.
I am passionate about this, not only because I love that these ancient arts of preserving foods add a whole host of beneficial microbes to our gut. I love to eat great food and the pleasure and nourishment that comes from eating great food, generally leads people to source and stick to more of the good and less of the bad. Eat less but get better quality.
Meanwhile, I am in Mallorca and I watched in wonder as all the locals picked up their weekly stash of bacteria-ridden loveliness at the local market – a sight to behold and the copious tasters I gladly accepted. Beyond delicious ?