Enjoyment of food at the pinnacle is what we are all striving for. With meat, slicing has a major role to play.
A cliche’d jolly London cabbie once looked at me in his rear view mirror and asked me “What you reckon on ’em ’Fick an’ ‘Fin then?” I didn’t understand his quaint argot. “Becks and Posh!” he explained to his slow-witted fare sitting in the back.
Take fine hams. The best Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele is best sliced as thin as air mail paper – and eaten as quickly after slicing. The piece you sample in the shop will always taste many times better than the slices you plate up at home – and better still if you have not refrigerated it and left overnight. Pre-sliced Parma is best avoided as its delicacy and sweet aroma will have long since departed as it sits for days and weeks in its gas-flushed coffin.
As my pal Antonio, the owner of the old established Gennaro’s Delicatessen (Lewisham, London) says: ”Best for all salumi is always freshly sliced and eaten as soon as possible. That’s why Italian shops are open six days a week, here and in Italy. Good restaurants and trattoria’s all have slicing machines in their kitchens.”
On-the-bone and Best not Pressed
When you can find it, always go for un-pressed Prosciutto Crudo cured on the bone – hams cured in big factories are for the most part de-boned and pressed for ease of storing and slicing. Un-pressed hams give you a rounder slice, more as Nature intended, rather than familiar oblong with its rounded corners. The heavier, strong German and Belgian cures like Black Forest and Ardennes also benefit from very thin machine slicing. The finest of all is the Berkel – often called the Ferrari of slicing machines. To slice on a Berkel is one of life’s great pleasures. Dutch in its original design and today a world brand as famous as the similarly aged Rolls-Royce.
Ordinary Jamon Serrano through to the superior Pata Negra, Iberico and Jabugo hams and even Pyrenean Bayonne all somehow eat better when hand cut with the grain – thin is still best, but only as thin as the skill of the carver is capable. Beware of the barman with a shaky hand and be ready to send back any ‘ration’ that has unpleasant, reesty fat.
Simpson’s-in-the-Strand has been famous since Victorian times for roast meat carved at the table from splendid silver domed trolleys. I once invited one of their head carvers, Paul Everly, to demonstrate his craft at one of my food workshops. He was clear that most meats benefit from thin slicing so the diner benefits from the full flavour and texture of the roast meat. In the Simpson’s dining rooms, only the roast beef was carved in thicker tranches – imagine an average sirloin steak from your butcher being sliced through into four and you get the Simpson’s gauge.
Finger Bowls not Bourgeois
Poultry and game breast meat is again best carved thinly, hence my tip that you always remove the wish bone before roasting. The legs and thighs you enjoy how you wish – and then finish the pleasure by picking up the near clean bones and eating with your fingers. Finger bowls aren’t for the bourgeoisie, they’re essential to the Blue Collar Gastronaut’s table.
Salami and saucisson also taste best when sliced thin and eaten immediately - freshly hand cut with a sharp blade is however better than thin cut and stored in the ‘fridge for a day or more. Again, avoid the pre-pack if you want the best flavour.
Most cheese is best eaten in thin slices – specially those cut from large pressed wheels like Gruyere, Emmental, Comte and, my favourite, Abondance. There’s no place outside a ploughed field for a hunk of cheese.
Those cut from a smaller round like a slice of cake should always be cut across the slice from rind to centre, never downwards – this way everyone enjoys the range of the Roquefort’s magnificent flavour.
Time and again I have tried to get one English supermarket to stop cutting the Roquefort through the centre like a Victoria sponge about the be filled with cream and jam. Their answer is always, that’s how they tell us to slice it.
Struggling as the Astounded Customer looks on
No worse than watching the same company’s staff struggle to cut a Parmesan wheel with a long two handled knife, rather than the stubby, pointed item designed exclusively for the job a two centuries or more ago. Parmesan and Grana Padano are the exceptions to the rule of slicing - and are best enjoyed at table in broken morsels, better still if topped with well aged real Balsamic (beware of fake, caramelised versions) and fresh ground black pepper.
With cheese, the point I make is that how it’s cut is essential to you enjoying a fine cheese at its very best. See it as honouring the cheese-maker’s craft.
Where is all this post leading? First invest in a good carving knife and steel – and sharpen the blade each time before using, always wiping it clean of microscopic shards before using. Teach yourself the physiology of the joint or bird you are about to carve (Time Life Good Cook series, once again, have the best easy to follow instructions in their various meat and poultry titles).
Second, if affordable, acquire a small slicing machine such as you’ll find in homes across mainland Europe where they know best how to enjoy cured meats – remembering to clean it every time it’s used, so consider ease of cleaning before you buy. The blade quality and a thickness control are also considerations for you to best enjoy this equipment.
The Verdict: Thick or Thin?
Thick or thin? For me it’s mostly thin, but sitting here now I understandably yearn for a plate of Simpson’s rare roast sirloin carved off the bone – and keeping alive the tradition of tipping the carver. It was sixpence in my grandfather’s day. Now a pound coin is an acceptable, if surprising thank you as the courtesy has largely died away. A shame, given it used to ensure he came back to offer you a second helping.