I'd been bumping into Jackie and Sarah from Marsh Pig Salami at farmers' markets and food fairs for a while and I'd tried their award-winning products and liked them.
Then I noticed a tweet from Jackie talking about their curing and smoking course. They had a curing and smoking course? I wanted to be on it.
A bit of wheedling and hint-dropping later and we had two places booked, a combination of Christmas and birthday presents from generous family members (though the alluring prospect of home cured and smoked bacon may have played a part in their decision-making).
It's the best birthday present I've had in years. We assembled at Marsh Pig HQ in Norfolk on a cold, bright February day to be greeted with hot tea and coffee and the promise of an imminent bacon bap. We put on our pinnies, rolled up our sleeves and made bacon, sausages and salami to take home.
In between feeding us breakfast and a generous lunch, Jackie also talked us through methods and recipes for pancetta, coppa, biltong and jerky, how to cold smoke and how to hot smoke, before sending us home with our goodies and a comprehensive recipe booklet.
It was an enormously informative and entertaining day and one of the best food courses I've been on. We were a motley crew: our friendly eight-person group included Matt the butcher and Nic, who sells Big Green Egg barbecues and smokers. The only other woman was Alix, who'd pedalled in from just up the road. Curing and smoking seems to be a Man Thing, so it was pleasing to have a woman instructor imparting her hard-earned wisdom.
It was a toss-up, she says, between charcuterie and cheese making and the charcuterie won. But she didn't get much help when she started out.
"In the cheese industry they share brilliantly. Some of that is because you can have two cow fields next door to each other and have the same recipe but the cheese will taste different, so they're happy to share methodology because they know you can't replicate their product.
"With charcuterie in the UK, because it's quite a young industry and it's hard to learn and expensive to get wrong, the attitude I got was very much 'not going to share it with you; I had to suffer and waste thousands of pounds so you will too.'
"I would say it was vertical, the learning curve. I hadn't appreciated the science of curing. I thought: 'I can balance flavours really well, I must be able to do it'. I got this fabulous curing machine, thought it was a magic box and discovered very, very quickly that it wasn't. I did an awful lot of reading but found the advice was completely contradictory, in ingredients, in timings and in temperatures."
So Jackie got stuck in and, through trial and error and by dint of a lot of 18 hour days and an £80 thousand outlay on equipment, she has forged a successful business. She only uses rare breed, free range, British meat. Free range because it's ethical and rare breed because she says it's slow-maturing and tastes better.
That commitment to quality has paid off. Two and a half years later the business is in profit and Marsh Pig Salami has made a name for itself.
"It's been well received, I think," says Jackie. "We got filmed by the BBC last year for James Martin's Home Comforts. That was really nice from a PR point of view and it was also quite a privilege to be on the BBC. We've started supplying Selfridges in London, Birmingham and Manchester and I've won a bursary from the BBC for the Good Food Show. Both years we've been trading we've put in for the Great Taste Awards and both years we've won a gold star, one for the garlic and black pepper salami and one for the coppa. I've entered again this year so who knows?"
We came home clutching our packages of bacon, sausages and salami. The salami is still curing but we smoked the bacon and tried both that and the sausages. The bacon in particular is a revelation.
I don't think we'll ever go back to buying shop-bought and it galvanised Him Outdoors into finishing our half-built cold smoker. So now, thanks to Jackie and Sarah, we'll be pigging out on our home-made products for years to come.