A Story Of Two Great Men
Two Great Men
Charlie Crowther from Glen Oakes pastured pork farm and Neil Jewell, head chef at Bread and Wine on Moreson wine estate.
Copyright for all the photographs featured in this post: Jan Zammit
Arguably the most charismatic, textured and inspired charcuterie in South Africa is the final product that results from an inspired relationship between two great men in the Hemel en Aarde and Franschhoek region.
Catching up with Charlie Crowther from Glen Oakes Pastured Pork Farm and Neil Jewell, head chef at Bread and Wine on the Moreson Wine Estate.
After just returning from another whirlwind trip to Cape Town, I’m left with the same feeling of pressure that I always feel once I’ve had peak food and farm experiences.
The pressure is about writing in such a way that I get you to feel what I did so that you truly connect to the nourishing beauty of the food and farmers I’m standing for and back with everything I have. To capture it in such a way that you really understand the value of what you’re eating. It is a searing desire for you to feel the soul of the farmer as much as I do. To convey to you the essence of who they are because it’s their philosophy of farming that we are seeking knowing that it is in the food that we get from them.
When it comes to the Jewel and Co charcuterie, it is two great food heroes that I speak of and I burn to convey how unique this fare is.
The magic that occurs when one of the best pastured pork farmers in the country meets one of the most passionate charcuterie chefs in a relationship where both recognize the synergistic value of their part in the end product, arguably the most charismatic, textured and inspired charcuterie available in the country.
The exceptional character of this charcuterie doesn’t come as any surprise once you’ve met Neil and Charlie. It is a reflection of the brilliance and generosity of passion common, outstandingly so, in both these authentic characters, as real as the food they create.
It always strikes me when I visit them, how similar they are.
Where Charlie is humble, Neil is too, they both spend more time talking about how the other is more important than accepting praise for themselves. Where Charlie is kind, Neil is too, these two souls show a loyalty towards people like them who live a life designed around passion and principles that affects me every and every time I encounter it.
It’s another outstanding characteristic of both of them. They go where their hearts direct them and they stand for and behind other people who do the same.
Where Charlie is outstandingly generous with his energy, so is Neil, to spend time with these two is to be undeniably affected in an entirely positive and whole hearted way.
Where Charlie is passionate about raising pigs in a humane authentic free-range outdoor existence, so is Neil. When Charlie speaks of Neil he does so with such fondness, only mirrored by how Neil speaks of Charlie.
These men respect each other’s work as much as they trust one another because they live life according to the same values.
No small talk around these men, they talk about things that matter and it results in the finest charcuterie I have ever tasted coming from the most lovingly tendered pigs, all nurtured by their love for conscious life and love.
There is little exaggeration here, I battle to find the words to describe what happens in my mouth when I taste this.
How to describe complex but not demanding, full bodied character that is gentle still, an all round experience of subtle and bold character both occurring in synergy, their opposition resulting in a whole balanced flavor rather than contrast.
I cannot help but expand this metaphor – it is much like a description of who Charlie and Neil are as people to me.
The resultant charcuterie from this story of provenance between a great farmer and chef reminds me that when I find good farms rearing animals largely on their natural diet, I consistently find this – food that bears no resemblance to it’s more widely known assembly line counterpart.
How do you characterize authenticity?
An explanation for another day but my deepest point is that the energy of the authenticity of Charlie which carries through to how he farms pigs, transmuted through the authenticity of Neil’s passion for charcuterie and provenance, results in exceptional charcuterie.
It isn’t comparable to factory charcuterie. It is not the same food at all.
How do you even compare hand crafted charcuterie, hung and cured for days and months lovingly tendered by a chef who takes such pleasure in his craft, to a factory line version that uses artificial flavors, colorants and preservatives to compensate for the lack of the artful tradition and patience required to produce real charcuterie.
You can’t and this is why I cannot agree with any demonization of any whole food group. I can’t tell you whether something is healthy or not until you describe firstly the farm behind it, what the animals are eating, how they are being treated and then how it is being processed.
Where we are used to charcuterie being demanding, we’re tasting the chemicals added to make up for the fact that the full flavor and complexity hasn’t been reached by patience, curing and hanging.
Never mind a good chef who utterly is in love with the process of his craft as much as Charlie loves rearing pigs in the beautiful setting he does.
Charcuterie colored by natural paprika, cannot and is not the same food at all as salami with artificial colorants and flavoring to mimic the flavors of natural smoking and using the right herbs that occurs with traditional charcuterie making. Pork from conventional piggeries that has them living out insanely cruel lives in cages that restrict their movement and that largely contains a diet of GM feed only, antibiotics and growth promoters cannot and is not the same as pigs raised outdoors in a relaxed environment that gives them the freedom to live true to their nature with the predominant input of their diet coming off the land.
Charcuterie is not meant to be demanding, from a salt, sugar or spice perspective which sadly is what we’re used to.
I’ll never forget the first time I met Neil at Bread and Wine. It was the first time I had travelled from Charlie’s farm through to Neil.
Neil had sent a platter of charcuterie outside to Charlie and I who were sitting under dappled sunshine in beautiful Franschoek talking about food. Afterwards Neil asked me afterwards, so, what do you think? The first thing that had struck me that sounded so simple but was the best expression of what I had experienced, was ‘it’s about the pork, not the spicing’.
He smiled and said ‘Organic Emporium will have some of this next week’.
Good charcuterie should be about the character of the pork, which can never be divorced from the terroir of the region the pigs are raised on and the quality of life it has had as much as the final hand that crafts it into something of value.
That’s Neil’s magic, that he stands firmly committed to the craft and is responsible for taking us back to learning about the art of real charcuterie while steadfastly reminding us that you cannot go wrong if you cure pork from a good farmer that has raised the pigs well.
Neil has never failed to support Charlie in this regard. Where other chefs have criticized the price, Neil has stood by Charlie’s philosophy to not increase volumes on the farm to drive down the price, to keep the numbers right for this kind of farming and to stand by the price repercussions so that we don’t achieve cost efficiency which is the foundation of conventional farming at the cost of the pigs quality of life. That is what you pay for.
We need to not ever forget that when we want cheaper meat, we are asking for the price efficiency to be made up by reducing the quality of the animal’s life.
We cannot get away from facing this fact or running from it.
There is magic from the beginning of the start of this story right up until the end where you pick a packet off the shelf.
The real life story starts in the Hemel en Aarde Valley where Charlie Crowther farms pigs in one of the most inspiring and beautiful free range pig environments I have found on my travels.
Set deep in the midst of the valley, a gentle farm unfolds amongst green blanketed rolling hills, scattered through-out are pigs who have never known confinement, grazing on fields that are a sight for sore city eyes, the brilliance of growth and nature’s hand of flourishing foliage softly under all foot.
Charlie Crowther has always had a great love of pigs. As you enter his beautiful farmhouse, there is a photograph of him as a child holding a pig that he always fondly refers to. It is for me clearly the first sign of what was to always be his fate, a life with the welfare and rearing of pigs delicately woven into the fabric of his existence.
Pigs are reared on this farm in large open grassy fields, much of their diet comes off the land in the form of clover and lucerne. A supplement feed is given three tmes a week to top them up with the nutrients they can’t get from the grasses alone. The supplement feed is not GM free yet, the availability of non-GM versions still an issue in that valley as in much of the country.
Mothers and piglets stay together, weaning is stress-free, no castration happens on this farm or tail docking because Charlie can’t bear it. It makes things difficult though without castrating males, you have un-told ongoing pregnancies so he has to manage that by raising males and females separately.
This isn’t possible on all farms, each farm has it’s own context that the farmer has to work around, Charlie has enough land to separate them so that he can get away from castrating. Yet, still he has some troubles with males breaking out and impregnating females that they aren’t supposed to be spending quality time with, but they manage it.
Charcuterie requires an older pig with specific marbling so they have to stay on land grazing and get to a larger and fatter weight than what would be feasible for pigs being used for fresh cuts and I thought much about that. I wondered whether charcuterie isn’t a better way then to honor a pig’s life, considering it allows them to be reared for longer.
The pigs are raised here until they are ready for slaughter. The carcasses are then loaded into Charlie’s van where he, weekly does the beautiful drive between 2 valleys down the mountains into the Franschoek Valley.
The van travels to the back door of the Bread and Wine kitchens at Moreson Wine Estate where Charlie and Neil meet. Neil comes out, always in his chef’s garb, always with a mouthful to say, always with spirit, energy and chatter as is his way and to walk into that kitchen in the morning is to find Neil busy with something. Always busy and inspired, ever excited to talk about food and always ready to drive you insane with his ideas he shares as he walks you around his kitchen making you salivate as he shows you what next delicacy he is making.
While I was there on my last visit, I almost lost my mind listening to his plans for some pork ribs that were going to be cooked in a seafood stock he was making and it goes on like that while you’re there, you half go cross eyed with pleasure with the things he excitedly wants you to taste.
He delights in seeing you get pleasure out of his great passion – food and connection.
While chatting about life, love and everything else we got onto tasting some new lines he has for us that includes a chicken soft sort of pate roll that he will be making into the future with chickens from Charlie.
This was the second peak taste experience I have had in my mouth. I call a peak taste experience, an experience where what you are tasting exceeds what you ever thought possible or had experienced before.
It’s a sensory rush of almost painful pleasure. The first time I felt this and knew I had exceeded any prior memory of what I knew possible was tasting an organic truffle butter from Tuscany at Tuttofood in Milan this year and then it happened again in Neil’s kitchen this week with his chicken pate and a new juniper ham he is making.
Time with Neil is rich, fully textured, alive and meaningful conversation because this is who Neil is and you have the same experience with Charlie on his farm with his gorgeous bubbly wife and the talk about their animals which is a key feature of any visit. To go from one to the other and then taste charcuterie born out of this relationship is sacred territory for me, what I wake up to serve every day, really, people like them.
He is utterly devoted to making great food and letting us have the best of the charcuterie he can make with Charlie’s pigs and it’s as much a result of his passion and steadfast commitment to Charlie’s ethics as it is his commitment to his own life philosophy, living what you love and doing it for heart, and meaning, over money and materialistic advantage.
What made this trip, this time, even more special was that I had a photographer, Jan Zammit with me who has an equal passion, for capturing the most incredible stories of humanity through the lens of a camera and his special ability to ‘see’ the world and people in a particularly real way.
I knew he would be able to capture the essence of these men in photographs because he’s another great man who lives to capture the essence of what it is to be human. This is a photographer who spent time recently in Mongolia living with a reindeer community, pastoral nomads who live separated from society in the mountains moving reindeer to new pastures with their entire lives revolving around this.
Who better to ‘see’ the beauty of these men and capture it. When I saw the photographs, I just smiled.
The Charlie and Neil I have tried to describe, is there – it’s in the photographs.
The charcuterie that Neil sends us for now has been the signature pork belly bacon, Walters Ham, Herb Smoked Pork Loin, Italian Squashed Salami, Spanish Cured Pork Loin, Spaish Style Salami, Saucisson Sec and Pinotage and Fennel Seed Salami.
Shortly, 2 new salami varieties and 1 new ham – juniper ham – cured with junipers – will be coming to the store from Neil.
The one is a Hungarian style salami flavored with paprika and the other a more table style salami, just salami without a tone other than the pork.
Witnessing Neil adding his unique signature to the respect given for the lives of pigs under Charlie’s hand by turning this pork into something beautiful, is an almost indescribable feeling.
I bear witness to the magic of connection between two great men who care so much about what they do that they are responsible for a superior food experience that has honored everybody in the chain of bringing it to the table.
Witness to providence and connection in the cycle of real nourishment.
Onwards and Upwards with the Jozi Real Food (R)evolution.
Standing to your right to connect to nourishment from South Africa’s most sustainable farms.