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May 11 / scott.campbell

Charcuterie @ 186 mph

Were we the first ones to ever use a water activity meter to test regional delicacies on a train from Lyon to Cologne? I think, yes. Will we be the last? I think, again, yes.

While in Lyon on business, our colleague Laurent took us to Halle de Lyon to sample some of the local cuisine. As Lyon is considered the center of French gastronomie, Halle de Lyon reeked of fine food. It contained lots of different food vendors, most specializing in one area – produce, cheeses, meat, etc. We made our way to the meat vendor, and saw this:

mass quantities of charcuterie. Some regional favorites include Rosette, Jesus Sec, and Saucission Lyon, so we bought a little of each. At the cheese stall, we saw this:

It also looked good, so we bought some Tarentais (a type of goat cheese), Pave du Nord, and Comte (both from cow’s milk). Then, we left town for another business appointment in Germany with these products in tow. While on the train, another colleague, Carlos, pulled the Pawkit out and his bag and we started taking readings. The Pawkit (a battery-operated water activity meter) isn’t that accurate compared to our benchtop Aqualab 4TE, but it’s good enough to know about where our samples fall. Here are the results:

Jesus Sec – 0.86 aw
Saucisson Lyon – 0.82 aw
Rosette – 0.92 aw
Tarentais – 0.94 aw
Pave du Nord – 0.95 aw
Comte – 0.90 aw

All were rather high, which isn’t surprising. The Rosette, which looked like this:


showed a particularly high water activity level. After being cut, it won’t be safe to store this product at room temperature. The Jesus Sec:


and the Saucission Lyon:


tasted much saltier than the Rosette, which may account for the difference in water activity (salt is the best reducer of water activity). The Rosette was my favorite, though. I didn’t taste much in the way of acid from fermentation, making me wonder if any of these sausages are fermented, or if they are just salted and dried. The Saucission Lyon is made of both pork and beef, and was the saltiest of all the varieties we tasted.

Like the sausage, the cheese was delicious. We started with the Tartenais –


not sure if the name is a coincidence, but it was tart, rich and creamy. Seemed almost dessert-like, but without any sweetness. Pave du Nord:


has a mild bitterness that was pleasing, but I didn’t like it as much as the Tartenais. The Comte:


sported a crumbly mouth feel consistent with its lower water activity and advanced age (2+ years). Its sharpness reminded me of strong Parmesan or Swiss cheese, and it also was very good. We hope to share an update from Italy. In the meantime, we’ll keep wondering if we now hold the record for the fastest (300 km/h) water activity reading ever made.

2 Comments

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  1. Stooxie / May 12 2011

    Perhaps you are also seeing the difference between commercial sold US sausage (which you purchased for you “Holy Salumi” blog entry) and European sausages. The USDA is overly conservative which any good cook/chef/hobbyist/foodie knows. The fact that the sausages you bought in the US were all completely hard and had a Aw of .75 or less is indication of USDA pressure. A good Genoa salami, etc, is not going to be the low, hence they are refrigerated in the US. They don’t have to be, though.

    Europe is much less squeamish about such things so they will allow products that have much more water activity. Think about it this way: the dry curing/fermentation process makes the product stable over TIME but that doesn’t mean the product is unsafe to eat at other points along that time scale. This, of course, assumes good practices, but again, it highlights the difference between US based products and European. Also note that no matter how “hand made” or “artisan” a commercial sausage may be it will still be subject to the strictest USDA requirements and that will never be the same as what you or I can do by ourselves.

    BTW, I’d love to buy a PawKit but is it really $1,600?? Plenty of home producers would buy one but that kind of coin can only be shelled out by a commercial producer.

    I love that you are doing this, btw. I’ve been wanting such measurements for ages but, due to above sentence, have been unable to get them.

    • scott.campbell / May 13 2011

      Stooxie – thanks for your kind comments. You’re both knowledgable and articulate. You’re right about the Pawkit price – for the home cook, it’s too expensive. I remember being reluctant to drop $100 on a Thermapen for my home cooking, so the Pawkit is in a totally different range. As you guessed, commercial producers are the customers for this instrument. Water activity is still a very niche application, so units like the Pawkit aren’t produced in quantities that would allow us to lower the price.

      Thanks also for your thoughts on the mold – I ultimately came to the same conclusion as you: the sausages needed to be innoculated with mold, and humidit had to be higher.

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