In 2000, Jan Jacob and Anja Baak upped sticks and moved from the Netherlands to Scotland after being offered the opportunity to manage a country estate. Inspired by the landscape and the abundance of wild deer, they determined to create charcuterie using the venison that was so readily available.
Locavore spoke to them about their move, the emergence of UK charcuterie, and the dangers of conflating all ‘processed’ meats.
How did Great Glen Charcuterie come about?
We moved to Scotland in 2000 when Jan Jacob was offered a job as an estate manager. We had three little girls under five at the time, and had been dreaming about leaving the busy Netherlands for a while. When we got the offer we did not need to think about it for long. Part of Jan Jacob’s job was the management of wild deer, and he fell in love with the wonderful venison.
In early 2000 there was not much demand for venison, and the estates got a low price for the meat. He wanted to add value, and extend the shelf life to be able to market the meat to a wider area. Jan Jacob started experimenting with different cuts of meat, and soon made the first charcuterie products. In 2003 Great Glen Charcuterie was born.
For the first few years Anja was not really involved in the business as she was full time looking after their growing family. When the youngest of their six children started school she got involved full time and they have been running the business together since 2010.
Are your recipes and products influenced by your Dutch background?
Jan Jacob always loved the dried sausages he had in the Netherlands as a child, and wanted to create something with venison. As venison is a very lean meat this proved a bit of a challenge, but after much experimenting he came up with a great recipe.
When you started out, British charcuterie was still a relatively niche market. What were the challenges of starting up? And how is the market for your products today?
It certainly was a challenge when we started in 2003. Salami was something you would buy in a supermarket, and customers were not really prepared to pay more for a quality product made in the UK.
Using venison in the charcuterie was another challenge; venison was not as mainstream as it is today, and for a lot of people a venison salami was a step too far! But as soon as customers tasted the products they were won over and loved it. We did lots of sampling in the early days, and it was very encouraging when we started to win awards for our charcuterie. This really helped to showcase our products, and the market grew.
From where do you source your venison?
We source our venison from the local area. Wild deer roam the hills in Scotland freely, and need to be managed to keep numbers at a sustainable level. Each estate will shoot a number of animals a year, and we buy from those estates. It is a great sustainable meat source. The deer eat heather, grass, and wild plants, and this results in a very lean and high in nutrition meat.
There has been quite a bit in the media recently about the health effects of ‘processed’ meats, especially around the use of preservatives such as nitrates. What are your thoughts on this?
To put all processed meats under the same banner and look for an answer on nitrates is a wrong perspective. I think a differentiation is required. Putting a hot dog made of rendered meat and a natural fermented salami under the same banner of processed meat?
Nitrate is being used in a broad spectrum of products, and even vegetables such as spinach can contain high concentrations of nitrates if fertilisers have been used in abundance.
It is far more a question of how it is used. Natural fermented products and industrial made products are a world apart. Like any other product, once industrialisation of the process takes place sacrifices have to be made, and integral parts of the original product are lost in the pursuit of efficiency and volume. Nitrate has been the substance that took the brunt of some research. A critical look at the whole spectrum of additives and production aids, that are currently used to speed up the production process, would probably contribute far more than only looking at the nitrate levels. Sulphite in wine and dried fruits is very similar story.
Statistics show that the French, who eat a large proportion of charcuterie, have puzzlingly good health. And I do think a natural fermented meat product has the potential to have benefits similar to sauerkraut and kimchi.
Can you describe the process you use to produce your salami and chorizo?
Natural fermentation and air drying are the key factors, a process that take time and dedication.
On your website you feature some recipes using your products. Do you have a favourite?
We use our charcuterie a lot in cooking, it is perfect for a quick meal – especially the chorizos. Our all-time favourite dish is a linguine with hand-dived scallops from the Isle of Mull and our chorizo; it is such a quick dish to throw together and very delicious. The ultimate fast food!
How important is sustainability to you? And does your thinking around sustainability affect other aspects of the business?
Sustainability is at the heart of what we do. The venison we use is a local wild-harvested product from the surrounding area. The deer roam freely in the Scottish hills, and with no natural predators in Scotland, the wild deer population has to be managed by man to keep the numbers at a sustainable level to protect the environment from overgrazing. Additionally, most of our spices are fair trade or organic.
Packaging is the one to watch out for, but we try to do our bit and consider all options with the least environmental impact possible and we are exploring new ways of packaging with the use of biodegradable materials. There is a lot happening in the packaging industry at the moment and good alternatives will be available in the not to distant future.
And energy use one we will tackle shortly, so we can reduce our consumption by being creative with the recovery of energy. This is something we are focusing on with the build of our new production unit.
You’ve won several awards for your produce. Can you tell us a bit more?
We won Best Charcuterie for our Green Pepper Salami in 2014 at the Great Taste Awards; this was such an exciting day. We had been making this product for a number of years and although customers loved it, to get this pat on the back from the food world was amazing. The Green Pepper Salami won another three Gold Stars again last year, and most of our other products have won one or two Great Taste Awards stars too.
The Green Pepper Salami was also awarded Best Product in the Delicious Magazine Awards, and the Venison Bresaola won Best Product in the Good Housekeeping Awards last year. We always try to improve our products, and only strive to produce the very best. Our Green Pepper Salami also featured on the menu at the World Expo 2015 in Milan, it was very exciting to have a our Salami in the hometown of the traditional Milano Salami.
Is venison a more challenging meat for charcuterie production than, say, pork?
It certainly is, working with a lean meat has its challenges. Many people said we would not be able to make a salami with 100% venison, and we would have to add pork. But this just spurred us on to find a way…
What are your hopes and fears for the future?
We are currently working on new premises. We have outgrown the Old Butchershop and are planning to build a new production unit this year. We see the market for British Charcuterie growing, which is very exciting. Customers do want to know where there food comes from and look for an authentic story. We love telling our story and connecting with our customers. We do want to continue to do so, which is why we want keep supplying the independent food sector.
Finally, why do you do what you do?
We are both real makers, and love making things. To make charcuterie and develop new recipes spurs us on. We have been able to grow our business slowly while trying to find enough time for our children.
For Great Glen Charcuterie’s website, click here.
Find them on Twitter here.