You could be forgiven for thinking that one piece of cured meat is similar to the next. Many countries claim that their cured meat is the best in the world but surely this is just a matter of taste? There are all manner of salami and dried meats on offer in supermarkets and delis, ranging in price from cheap pizza topping to a starter for exclusive dinner parties – so doesn’t it just come down to what you can afford?
In her 2015 book “Swallow This. Serving up the food industry’s darkest secrets” the investigative food writer Joanne Blythman highlights (amongst many things) that the traditional cured meats and salamis available to buy these days may not be quite as artisan as they may initially seem.
To quote from the book “…Transglutaminase is known in the trade as ‘meat glue’. It gets bits of meat or fish to stick together that wouldn’t otherwise do so. It gives manufacturers the properties they deem essential – juicy firmness, elasticity, viscosity and ‘thermo-stability’ (the meat retains these other qualities when heated), and so ‘facilitates the addition of water’. Transglutaminase has another benefit for meat processors: it reduces the traditional drying and maturing time needed for cured meats, such as salami, by up to 40 per cent. So it provides a nifty short cut for manufacturers of all types of charcuterie products sold on deli counters up and down the land.”
The text continues
“Conveniently for manufacturers the European Commission, doubtless under pressure from those same manufacturers, has classified transglutaminase as a processing aid rather than an ingredient, because ‘the end-product production process – normally the application of heat – inactivates enzymes or depletes the substrates, meaning that transglutaminase is not present in the final product’. So, with a little bit of semantic manipulation, transglutaminase is ‘clean label’ and it doesn’t have to be listed on the packaging. This means that irrespective of whether or not you shop for cooked meat and charcuterie in high- or low-end shops, there is no way you will ever know if it was made with the aid of transglutaminase. Equally, simply by reading the label, you won’t have a clue whether your salami or ham was cured the patient, traditional way, or speeded up by the use of this enzyme. However posh and artisan some cured meats might appear, in this respect their pedigree is a little hazy.”
Scary stuff indeed but what has all this got to do with travel? Well, one way to see if something is produced in a traditional way is to visit the producer. If they go a bit woolly when describing the process maybe there’s a supply of transglutaminase in the back room. Conversely, if someone talks with passion and actively wants to show you how it’s done then you should be on to a winner. And so it is with Switzerland’s Adrian Hirt. His small operation, AlpenHirt, is based in the picturesque Swiss mountain village of Tschiertschen and is really rather wonderful.
Having initially trained as a research chemist in the food industry Adrian saw at first-hand how increasing amounts of chemicals were being used to make food look and taste the same, providing uniformity regardless of other factors such as age of the animal when it was slaughtered (commercial beef cattle rarely get beyond two years old) and the quality of other ‘fillers’ that were included to keep costs down. He was also concerned with increasing levels of food allergies and so decided to turn his back on this ‘progress’ when considering his own cured meats. Active encouragement from the celebrated chef Anton Mosimann convinced him that he was doing the right thing and Alpenhirt was born. Adrian did have one small head start. His great grandfather (the face that appears on the logo) was renowned for his skills in preserving meats and the recipe was still in the family.
Eschewing the pure breed beef cattle he has again followed his forefathers and uses traditional Alpine cattle which are kept for both milk and meat. These he buys from neighbours as and when they want to sell them on. They have all enjoyed multiple summers grazing the higher protein grasses and flowers in the Alpine meadows and have reared several calves. This helps develop a much greater depth of flavour in the meat. Rather than then sending them off to Zurich for slaughter it is done locally and Adrian then butchers the meat himself.
Following the family tradition, the various cuts of meat are immersed in personally imported Italian red wine and the secret blend of herbs and spices, for six weeks. After this they are simply hung up in the air to dry for a minimum of six further weeks. Adrian is very proud that no part of the beast is wasted and AlpenHirt offer a range of products from a simple cured sausage (Bergsalsiz) to specific joints.
If traceability is important to you, each product carries a number that you can put into the Alpenhirt website which then brings up a picture of the cow you are about to eat, its breed, age and much more. It’s a lovely marriage of tradition and new technology. Each sausage or joint is also named after the cow that was heavily involved in its production. It certainly adds an extra element.
After all this, what does it taste like? With the cured sausages the first aroma is definitely of wine, closely followed by herbs. The meat is very tender with no hint of the cloying greasiness or chewiness of ‘traditional’ salamis. There is also no acidic saltiness, so often present in cured meat. I think it’s fair to say that you can just keep on eating it. The real ‘must try’ though is the meat, sliced wafer thin. Every piece of cured beef I’ve encountered up to now has been tough and chewy yet this is more akin to butter, but butter with a rich, deep flavour. It simply melts on your tongue and is an absolute pleasure to eat (and keep eating). To my mind at least, it is streets ahead of more famous cured meats from around the globe.
So how do you get your hands on the most exclusive, finest tasting, 100% natural charcuterie? That is more of a challenge if you don’t live in Switzerland. The products are not sold through supermarkets or any other large retailer. You can buy via the website but they hold no export licence. Our recommendation is fairly simple. Fly to Zurich and then use the excellent Swiss public transport to get to Tschiertschen (there are regular buses up to the village). Make sure you contact Adrian first to arrange a tasting (and to ensure he will definitely be in). He speaks excellent English. Take plenty of money with you too as you’ll walk away with bags full! Let’s face it, if Anton Mosimann recommends it, who are we to argue?
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