It is becoming increasingly rare to enter a cafe, bar or restaurant – or supermarket for that matter – without being met by at least a small selection of charcuterie snacks for your delectation.
Whether it is prominent on the main menu or proudly sitting on the counter, artisan products of this kind have seen something of a rush in recent years. The question some food producers and wining/dining establishments may be pondering is why such treats have suddenly entered the national consciousness – what heady cocktail of social, economic and political factors combined to create this whirlwind?
Before delving to the heart of the matter it is worth defining what is meant by charcuterie – they are essentially the sort of prepared meats that you might see hanging in a French butcher’s window or in jars along the counter. Salamis, pates, jerky or biltong, pork scratchings, sausages; these are meat-based treats that usually do not require much – if any – preparation and can be served up and eaten before you can say ‘chorizo’.
While the thrust of this feature is about the increasing popularity of these strictly meaty treats, the reasons why they have come to the fore and the trends that have played a part in the background also apply to other non-meat products. As a result, items such as vegetable snacks, fruit juices and artisan beers will also be discussed – essentially items that have helped bars and restaurants differentiate themselves from the pack.
The quest for a USP (unique selling proposition) is not a new concept – businesses have been trying to show what they do differently since the dawn of capitalism, but perhaps what has changed somewhat is the sheer volume of choice that the modern consumer has in front of them. Every bar and restaurant is competing with many more alternatives than ever before, either because a road has simply filled with such (eg. take your pick from certain streets in London) or due to the relative ease with which the modern consumer can move around (to other towns or cities).
Where once perhaps shops would aim to stock big-name brands as these were known to be of the best quality, nowadays there are plenty of ubiquitous brands whose presence actually suggests at best a lack of imagination on the part of the shop, or at worst a disregard for their menu. Major names often chime with words like ‘production line’ and ‘soulless’. These are the opposite of the quest for differentiation.
So how have shops combatted this? Globalisation plays a significant role, both in terms of attitudes and inspiration. The modern consumer is generally well-travelled, so they are more likely to know what specialist meats such as lomo or biltong actually are – with the result that they may be willing to pay for this type of exotic treat, rather than dismissing it because of a lack of knowledge. Furthermore, awareness of what is out there can mean people are actively on the look-out for something new when they go out. Intriguing names, rare ingredients, startling combinations: these are real drivers of sales.
Equally, the ongoing melding of cultures that globalisation prompts means that when business owners are looking for their point of differentiation, they may actually draw inspiration from trips to places where charcuterie snacks are commonplace – for example, the Med or Africa.
While increasingly globalised world plays a major role, so too does the growing importance of localisation. For a variety of reasons it is now widely agreed to be a ‘good thing’ to buy local, organic and ethical – again, flying in the face of conventional international brand power. Issues such as a reduced carbon footprint (due to reduced transportation), local economic strength (supporting local food producers) and regional identity have arguably become more pronounced in the 21st century. The popularity of artisan beers and local ales is testament to this point, while the increasing culinary knowledge among consumers hints at a greater interest in the impact of their purchase.
There are countless examples of this. So many specialist terms for meat have entered the mainstream lexicon; for example, you will be hard pushed to find someone who does not know what Aberdeen Angus is (a breed of cattle) and this trend is likely continue well into the future. Soon, the concept of Pata Negra (an acclaimed form of Spanish serrano ham) could be as normal in Britain as corned beef!
Artisan foods – the image
One final point worth mentioning relates to the image of artisan foods and drinks: there is a very real result to them often being locally produced, homemade, homegrown, homecooked and very definitely not the chocolate and crisps that are so routinely savaged for their health outcomes in the press. Essentially, they come off looking healthy. A chocolate brownie produced by a little old lady in West Sussex is not likely to have less sugar in it than a branded version, yet the understanding is that it is ‘real’ food.
Sugar is naturally not a common problem for meats – for preserved meat the issue would probably be more about salt. Yet the view is that such foods may be healthier than crisps or other alternatives; a combination of seeming healthy and being convenient to pick up and eat on the go is truly winning. This wonderful image that artisan products benefit from bodes well for the future of this niche sector, so consumers can expect to see bars, cafes and restaurants stocking an increasingly diverse range of charcuterie over the coming years.