Imported Meat Continues its Surge

With the continued popularity of charcuterie boards, imported meats have remained at the forefront.

thin slices of prosciutto with mixed olives on wooden cutting board
Hannah Howard

Unlike bologna or domestic ham, imported meats from Prosciutto di Parma to Jamon Serrano to chorizo are enjoying new cache in the deli department and beyond. With the serious popularity of charcuterie boards, cured European meats are having a moment in the spotlight.

Which is not to say these products are new or trendy; they’ve been made for countless generations with time-honored recipes that have been slowly perfected as they’ve been passed down. Many of these cured meats are protected by PDO or other stringent regulations that ensure production methods follow specific standards in designated geographic regions.

Sausage recipes date to before the golden age of ancient Greece, and cured meats have been made for over 2000 years in Italy, France and beyond. These products were born of necessity, not luxury—a way to preserve a fresh catch through a long winter (or a long journey). These ancient preserved and cured meats are celebrated today by a food world enamored with both tradition and innovation.

According to Chicago-based Nielsen Perishables Group, dollar and volume growth from the specialty deli meat segment account for $200 million of the $9 billion meat and deli counter business in the U.S. Chicago-based IRI reported sales of “charcuterie types of packaged lunch meats” reached $561 million in 2019, up 8.1% from the previous year, and sales of “charcuterie types of packaged meat snacks/meals” were up 6.5% totaling $378 million. Charcuterie is resonating like never before.

Our country makes incredible cured meats, but when it comes to the original, Europe is the source. “We mainly import products known for their origin,” says Claas Abraham, CEO and president of Abraham of North America, Inc. For example, “If you want to buy a real Champagne, buy one from France. Great sparkling wine is made in California, but it’s not Champagne. The same goes for our bratwurst brats—the original still comes from Germany.”

Importing meats is no easy feat. “I’ve been importing meat for 23 years, and it’s one of the most difficult products to import,” says Abraham, who adds that the only thing more difficult to import is medicine. Starting with the facility in Europe, “every shipment and container is inspected by the USDA,” Abraham explains. “It’s a whole lot of work and paperwork.” Ultimately, it’s worth it for the tradition, flavor, excitement and sales these products bring.

Types of Imported Meats

A complete list would be impossible here, but these are a few popular cured meats.

Prosciutto: This is sometimes called the King of Ham, and for good reason. The recipe from Italy has changed very little over the generations, with no additives—just sea salt, air and time. Prosciutto starts out as the hind pig leg, which is then trimmed, salted, hung and allowed to dry for several months or even years. Its rich flavors are perfect for pairing with sweet cantaloupe and fresh basil.

Since prosciutto is just pork and salt, the many nuances in flavor, texture and marbling stem from the hog’s breeding and raising, climate, technique and the duration of aging. Prosciutto di Parma DOP is a highly sought after variety of cured pork made in Parma, a town in the heart of Emilia-Romagna, and its production is closely monitored by the Consorzio di Prosciutto di Parma. It must be aged for at least 20 months.

Salami: From spicy to sweet, salami from Italian Genoa Salami to Tuscany’s fennel-scented finocchiona to Southern Italian soppressata are diverse and delicious. These hard, shelf-stable, fat-marbled logs are usually crafted with pork, but may be made with beef, cinghiale (wild boar) or even goose. The meat fillings are finely chopped and often enhanced with additional fat. The mixture is then salted, seasoned with spices and aromatics, and sometimes also with wine. Finally, it’s stuffed into casings traditionally made from natural animal membranes, like intestines and bladders, then hung to cure, ferment and dry. These salamis are ideal for sandwiches, homemade pizza and cheeseboards.

Chorizo: Pimentón and plenty of garlic gives this Spanish classic its smoky, spicy flavor and lovely rusty orange color. Rich chorizo is best served thinly sliced, and makes the ideal accompaniment to cheese, olives, nuts and a glass of Spanish wine or sherry. It’s also an essential ingredient in dishes like cod, paella and breakfast tacos.

Jamón: Spanish for ham, jamón is a jewel of Spanish cuisine. Jamón Serrano is literally ‘’ham of the mountains,’’ a Spanish classic bursting with incredible depth of flavor. Fine ham legs are salted for two weeks, then dried in the fresh mountain air for over a year, during which time the meat acquires a rich and complex flavor and a silky yet firm texture.

Jamón Ibérico, sometimes known as ‘pata negra’ or ‘Jabugo,’ Ibérico is the name of the famous breed of black pig indigenous to Spain and a beloved delicacy. Packed with complexity, each bite has many layers of flavor and a silky smooth texture. It’s the ideal combination of breed, rearing, feed, climate, knowledge and natural curing.

Brätwurst: This hearty sausage’s name comes from the Old High German Brätwurst, from brät, finely chopped meat, and wurst, sausage. “Perfectly good brats are made in the U.S., but the original still comes from Germany,” explains Abraham. “We are the only importers if you’re looking for an authentic brat, made in Bavaria in a USDA-certified facility with original, fresh ingredients.” Simmered in beer with caramelized onions, bratwurst is a traditional German meal for Oktoberfest feasts.

Bresaola: Originally from Valtellina, a valley in the Alps of northern Italy’s Lombardy region, bresaola is lean, tender beef that has been air-dried and salted. Made from top round, it has a dark red, nearly purple hue and a rich sweetness. It’s traditionally eaten as antipasto, sliced paper-thin, drizzled in olive oil and served with arugula, fresh ground black pepper and perhaps some Parmigiano Reggiano.

Mortadella: An emulsified sausage from Bologna, Italy, this meat is crafted with cured pork with least 15% pork fat cubes, whole or chopped pistachios and spiced with black pepper and myrtle berries. Mortadella has a smooth, nearly creamy texture and is a common ingredient in a sandwich or stirred into to scrambled eggs.

What’s Old Is New Again

Each of these meats has its own story, but these share a theme: all have been made for a long time. When it comes to this category, celebrating tradition is a better bet than reaching for novelty. “I can create different flavors, I can say that we use antibiotic-free or organic ingredients, which we always have,” says Abraham.

Which is not to say the category hasn’t branched out into new flavors, from spinach mozzarella to jalapeño cheese brats, flavors that “you’d never find in Germany,” Abraham clarifies. But at the end of the day, he’s selling a long-established product, and “the most traditional flavors are our continuous bestsellers and consumer favorites.”

Imported meats are ideal for the consumer who wants to know where their meat is coming from. Since American shoppers care more than ever about healthy and natural foods, cured meats with no added nitrates and reduced sodium perform well, as do meats free of antibiotics, hormones and GMOs. Brands emphasize the use of grass-fed, sustainably-raised, local and heritage meat in their products.

Customers are getting more excited about specialty meats and their traditional accompaniments, so leaning into Old World culinary heritage is a great place to start. Channel a tapas bar in Madrid and cross merchandise chorizo with Manchego cheese, marcona almonds and membrillo (sweet-tart quince paste). Group prosciutto with fresh figs or melon. All of these meats pair well with cheese, crusty bread, crackers and dried fruits for an easy yet impressive charcuterie board.

Creating a Destination

When it comes to imported meats, creating a destination for consumers can spark interest and excitement. These meats are most often shelf-stable, which makes for excellent cross merchandising opportunities.

Slicing and presenting specialty meats beautifully is a deli art and a way to set apart your department. Proper merchandising will boost sales, as will approachable recipes, plenty of serving suggestions, and generous tastes (a silky, melt-in-your-mouth slice of prosciutto speaks for itself).

Delis might consider creating signature charcuterie kits that feature imported meats, cheeses, whole grain mustards and jams that customers can easily assemble and enjoy at home or simple sandwiches featuring these products.Engagement and education can welcome customers into a category that can feel intimidating. Demoing is challenging during the time of COVID, but recipe cards, online classes and pairing ideas can help engage and inspire your shoppers to embrace and explore the delicious world of imported meat. DB


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