Natural charcuterie is possible

Within the theme “Natural is Possible,” we expanded the scope of this edition of Cheese to consider the importance of natural processes in the production of other products, and the third major conference of Cheese 2019 was devoted to Natural Charcuterie.

Just as with cheese, the primary issue is how to define “natural.” In the context of charcuterie, it is perhaps easiest to begin near the end, by considering the ingredients and substances that are added to meat in order to preserve it for long periods.

Traditionally, the only such ingredients available to producers were natural by default: salt, spices, herbs, and smoke (of course, these ingredients enhance flavor in addition to acting as preservatives). But in the 1970s, when cured meat production became truly industrialized, these natural ingredients were supplemented with—and, in some cases, replaced by—a number of other additives, including selected starters, colorants, caseinates, thickeners, and nitrates and nitrites.

Just like traditional or “natural” additives, these substances are important for preventing microbial contamination and improving flavor and texture. However, many people have begun to question the necessity of these ingredients, and there is particular concern over the use of nitrates and nitrites. The truth is that nitrates and nitrites are naturally-occurring substances present in many of the foods that we eat (especially green vegetables like spinach and celery) and produced in our bodies—their natural occurrence in salt is one of the main reasons that salt has been used as a preserving agent for thousands of years, in a wide range of foods. But when they are combined with other kinds of molecules such as amines, which are abundant in protein-rich foods like meat, nitrates and nitrites can transform into carcinogenic nitrosamine. High temperatures accelerate this process, so cooked cured meats like bacon are particularly problematic. The problem, therefore, is the quantities of additives that are used in cured meat production, as well as the quantity of cured meat that we consume.

Natural Charcuterie producers from Slow Food Presidia at Cheese 2019. Photo: Alessandro Vargiu / Paolo Properzi


Why does industrial production require the use of many substances that were not used traditionally? The answer lies in the quality of the raw materials—the meat—being used. When animals are raised in huge numbers and in enclosed spaces, they are prevented from engaging in natural behaviors and eating the foods that they have evolved to eat, and they are much more prone to disease and injury; they are forced to grow quickly and are routinely given hormones and antibiotics.

All of this is related to what we perceive as the “necessity” to eat large amounts of meat (cured or otherwise) on a regular basis. This system is nothing more than the mass production of an extremely low-quality raw material, which can only be made “safe” via the use of numerous additives and artificial substances. The solution, then, is much more complex than simply eliminating the use of nitrates and nitrites: Becoming “natural” requires that we look at the entire system of animal production, starting with how animals are raised.


Luca Garavaglia is a veterinarian who lives in the Italian region of Lombardy, where he raises Varzese Cattle and nero di Parma pigs, acts as the producers’ coordinator for the Varzese Cattle Slow Food Presidium, and makes cured meats. His farm and all of his products are completely organic, and he grows all of the feed for his animals.

Managing a closed system of this sort allows Garavaglia to oversee every aspect of production, from the lifestyle and diet of his animals to the preparation of cured meats.  This means that he can guarantee a high-quality raw material and, therefore, use fewer additives. His approach combines the use of traditional ingredients (salt, spices, and herbs) with the use of precise technology for controlling the temperature, humidity, and air circulation in the curing rooms.


Alcide Boullis is a young farmer from the French region of Brittany. He raises the rare western white pig (an Ark of Taste breed), in addition to local breeds of chickens and cattle, and all of his animals live on pasture. Brittany is responsible for 50% of French pork production, and is home to 5,700 pig farms and 15 slaughter facilities that employ 30,000 people. Boullis wants to find a way to transition to a cleaner and more equitable production system, but is also aware that this must be done responsibly, given the number of people rely on the mass production of pigs for their livelihood.

His personal approach has been to create a small-scale farming system where, similar to Luca Garavaglia, he can manage the entire production cycle. In a region where the average farm covers an area of 50-100 hectares, Boullis farms just 27 ha. He slaughters just one pig per week and has eight breeding sows. There are a total of just 138 western white sows, all in Brittany and neighboring parts of Normandy, and this breed is not suited for intensive production.

It takes about a year for each pig to reach slaughter weight, and Boullis’s pigs eat a mixture of seeds, grains, and legumes grown right on the farm. Boullis makes rillettes, sausages, and cooked hams, all without added nitrites. The hams are cooked until the interior reaches a temperature of 64 °C and, because no additives are used, they have a gray color. But this does not deter customers, who are more than happy to eat a gray ham because they know that it is natural and that the pigs are raised responsibly.


Jacopo Goracci of Tenuta di Paganico in Tuscany began his contribution to the conference with the question, “what is the correct way to raise animals?” His answer to this fundamentally ethical and ecological question is a very practical one: Aim to produce raw materials that are of a high enough quality that they don’t need to be altered. For Goracci, “quality is not a moment, it is a process”; it is something that must be considered and pursued at every step in the production cycle, and that is a proper response to and reflection of terroir, which Goracci thinks of as the combined effect of climate, soil, terrain (exposure, vegetation, gradient), and tradition.

To illustrate what a correct management system should look like, he pointed out the absurdity of, for example, pigs living in a small enclosure on bare earth, surrounded by green fields and forests patches. Such a scenario is obviously bad for the pigs and for the patch of land on which they’re kept: Pigs will not naturally strip an area of its vegetation, and will not dig for food unless they have no other option.

Goracci stressed the importance of providing animals access to an environment in which they can find the food that they need without destroying the landscape, and proposed that the best way to determine how many animals to put in a given area should be determined as follows: The amount of life below the soil in a given area should never be less than the amount of animal life (i.e. the number of kilograms of “meat on the hoof”) living above the soil. If such an approach is combined with attention to the specific needs of each animal breed, it is possible to create a truly sustainable, “natural” system that requires little intervention by the farmer and produces minimal waste.


Journalist and writer Stefano Liberti pointed out that most of the cured meat available on the market does not come from systems like those that Garavaglia, Boullis, and Goracci have created. The problem is numbers: How can we produce the quantity of product that consumers demand, given limited space in which to raise animals, grow the right feed, etc.? The answer is, we can’t.

Piero Sardo stressed that the only way to shift to a natural production system, which can yield natural cured meat, is to drastically reduce consumption; otherwise, extensive livestock farming will not be possible. We also need to look for smart ways to get more out of the extensive systems that are already in place, in order to create added value and reduce waste. Emilia Brezzo, of the Piemonte-based organization Agenform, suggested that we could start using the meat of dairy animals that are already raised extensively, for example in Alpine pastures.


Vittoria Fusari, a member of the Slow Food Cooks’ Alliance and a producer of natural charcuterie, says that we must begin by considering the health of human beings and therefore also the health of the animals on which we depend rather than the health of the meat industry. Just as producing high-quality raw materials limits the need for corrective measures like the use of additives in cured meats, creating closed-cycle systems that generate no waste and maintain healthy landscapes and small-scale economies limits the need for big industries like Bayer-Monsanto, which “are more interested in profiting from curing our illnesses than they are in feeding us healthy food in the first place.”

It’s easy to think, “that all sounds great, but it’s not realistic.” Unfortunately, however, the current reality is one that we cannot sustain, and which cannot sustain us, and it is propelling us toward total collapse.

Furthermore, suggesting and demanding that we return to—or innovate toward—natural methods of producing food, caring for animals and the land, and caring for each other is not naively idealistic. On the contrary, it is something that we know how to do from centuries of experience and ingenuity, and something that many people are doing as we speak.

Best of all, making this transition doesn’t mean that we have to give up the pleasure of great food; we can have our ham and eat it, too.

by Charles Barstow


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