Bring home the bacon – Curing & Smoking at The School of Artisan Food

The topic of food is one which I never get bored of as there are always new recipes to discover, new places to try and new skills to be learnt.  When I was invited to try a course at The School of Artisan Food in Welbeck, I jumped at the chance.

I’ve heard a lot about their courses. I was keen to try something which would push me out of my culinary comfort zone.

There are a wide range of courses you can do from beginners to advanced, these include ice-cream making, traditional cheese making to foraging and wild food cookery. If you are looking to hone your professional food skills there are more in-depth courses where you can master artisan bread or the craft of patisserie.

I decided to go for the 1 day course on curing and smoking as it’s an area I know little about and I have never really done any at home before. I have eaten a fair amount of charcuterie and cured meats so to understand the work that goes into to making a decent product really appealed to me.

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On a beautiful sunny Sunday I took the 40 minute drive from Sheffield to Welbeck and I was impressed on arrival by the vast and beautiful estate buildings. There’s also a farm shop on site which I didn’t get to go to on this occasion as the course was 9-5, so I will have to make a return visit for that.

The course kicked off with coffee and tea as well as pastries and other breakfast type snacks to get us energised for the day. Then we got to meet our teachers, experienced butchers Chris Moorby & Rich Summers who were going to provide us with a selection of curing and smoking skills that we could take away and use at home. It was a small group (I was the only female) so we had plenty of opportunities to ask questions, it was positively encouraged so we got what we needed from the course.

Chris and Rich set the scene by running through the history of smoking and curing as these techniques go back thousands of years. In the present day, they are making a comeback and now we have the advantage of knowing more about the science and what happens to meat when it is cured in sugar and salt or hot or cold smoked. Most importantly, we have an awareness on the whole topic of food safety and how to produce a product which isn’t going to make anyone who eats it sick or kill them!

Meat is the main ingredient and for that reason quality is important, according to Chris and Rich you can’t make decent charcuterie or cured meats if the animal is not from good stock and if it hasn’t been well looked after. This covers the life of the animal from how it is kept, what it is fed on and to killing it in the most humane way to minimise levels of stress. The follow up is an vital, how the animal is managed from slaughter to the finished product you will buy from a butcher.

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Pigs were our focus for the day and Rich broke down a side of pig to show where the cuts are, what you can do with each…ribs for a BBQ to trim for sausages. I got a chance to get hands on to mix some mince with seasoning to make sausage filling. We each got to make our own sausages using traditional casings, it is trickier than it looks to make a sausage, I discovered! These were placed in the hot smoker outside for the rest of the day to cook and enhance  the flavour, ready for us to take home.

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Sausages after smoking

After a break for lunch, we cracked on with some more practical work and a few volunteers helped to make a terrine by preparing cured tongue (peeling the skin of it), shredding it and mixing it together with ham hock. This was pressed into moulds, topped with gelatine and placed in the blast chiller for us to try later.

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Tongues for terrine

Chris showed off his knife skills to remove the cheeks from a pig’s head, a few swift incisions here and there and there it was. We got to do the same, again it was not that straightforward, it is something which takes years of practice. Nothing to do with my left-handed lack of dexterity, I am sure.

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We were making an Italian cured meat, guanciale, a type of bacon using pig’s cheek. This was to be cured in a 50/50 mix of salt and sugar together with herbs of our choice, I went for juniper, thyme and bay.  The whole thing was placed in a plastic bag and vacuum packed so it could be stored in the fridge to cure, before being ready to cook. It was amazing to think that just a few ingredients could transform the meat.

We went through similar to cure belly pork to make pancetta, we boned it out and removed the skin, then a cure of salt and sugar was rubbed in. This is now in my fridge, together with salt beef which is made from using a silverside cut which is rubbed in curing salt and left to cure before cooking. The result is similar to pastrami, so mine will be enjoyed cold with pickles or in a New York style sandwich with cheese and sauerkraut on rye.

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I nearly forgot, we also made duck breast prosciutto by curing it in salt initially and then a dry rub of mixed spices was added the next day (our homework).

During the day, we got through a lot of a meat, I think you get that picture and we got to taste a bit of everything as Chris and Rich had prepared some earlier. The table was heaving with cuts of sausage, beef, pancetta, terrine and prosciutto.

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Curing and smoking was a fun and informative course, the teaching was informal and you felt comfortable to ask questions or for help when you struggled to bone your pig’s head! I have more of an appreciation now for the work that goes into making quality cured and smoked goods, as well as more knowledge and confidence to try out smoking and curing at home. On that topic, you get plenty to take home which will keep you going for a while.

Take a look at the School’s  catalogue of courses online and see if there’s something you fancy trying.

The School of Artisan Food
Lower Motor Yard
S80 3LR