Finding the Cure: VDG Salumi embraces the art of Italian meats
These days, hand-crafted cured meats are almost expected on a high-end grazing board, but when, at just 14 years old, Stuart Kirton started exploring the curing process in his parents’ basement, the art of salumi was still largely the domain of old school Italians.
Cured meat has always been the Calgary-based chef’s passion and in 2016, with the launch of VDG Salumi, he made it the focus of his career. Since then, the demand for quality, locally made charcuterie has only grown, and VDG has grown right along with it.
Stuart Kirton is no slouch when it comes to the world of food — he’s got a stack of culinary credentials and has worked at some very prestigious fine dining restaurants — and the call of salumi led him to Italy, where he studied the art of curing in Parma and Sicily.
Consumers are really smart and want to know where their products are coming from.
He started VDG slowly, selling his wares to other chefs through the backdoors of local restaurants. In 2017, the company graduated to making 165g salami boxes that were sold in a small selection of independent retail stores in Calgary. It’s been a nice cottage industry-style business — or at least it was until last year, when VDG seized the opportunity to shift into something much bigger by opening its own larger-scale production facility.
“Although the pandemic has been incredibly challenging for us and many other people, we grew from nine retail accounts to over 400 last year,” says Mikaela Kirton, VDG’s CEO and Director of Business and Finance Operations (she also happens to be Stuart Kirton’s wife). “And that’s strictly from us managing our operations and growing here in Alberta.”
The expansion has come at a good time. Not only has the demand for interesting artisanal charcuterie items grown around the world as people have demanded cured meats that go beyond your standard cold cuts or deli slices, but COVID-19 has meant that more people are taking the time to indulge in luxury food items as they lay low in their own homes. Albertans are getting used to a taste of the good stuff, so to speak, which means many of us are willing to splurge on a 165g cured sausage, slice it thin, and savour it with a glass of wine while binging on Netflix or video conferencing with friends.
There’s no point in scaling up unless the product is something people want, and VDG’s products have proven to be pretty irresistible to cured meat lovers. The fat speckled sausages just look delicious, and VDG is now selling a range of sliced products — including prosciutto, guanciale, and deli pepperoni, and specialty items like orange red wine and fennel salami and grass-fed beef calabrese — as well as those little boxed salamis in varieties like pistachio, tartufo (truffle), and finocchiona (fennel).
VDG is also innovative in the way it does business, with a legitimate mandate to give back to local communities. The company is undergoing the process to become a Certified B Corporation, meaning that it will be obligated to consider the wellbeing of its staff, community, customers, suppliers, and the environment, when making business decisions (other Certified B Corporations include Ben and Jerry’s and Klean Kanteen). They’ve also partnered with Mealshare, with meals donated when customers make purchases on the VDG website, and are also involved with various volunteer endeavours with more partnerships with non-profits on the way this year.
Naturally, this dedication also extends to VDG’s actual product — they also do well by local ranchers, using pork from Bear and the Flower and grass-fed beef from Gemstone Cattle Company. Every sausage is GMO-free and gluten-free, not just because that’s what customers are looking for, but because that’s how Stuart has always wanted to craft his products.
“Our ingredient list is incredibly simple,” Mikaela says. “Consumers are really smart and want to know where their product is coming from. They’re challenging brands to be transparent and to have authentic ingredients. A lot of meat products have come out with statements that they no longer use fillers, but we’ve never had any of that to begin with.”
VDG is holding all of these values close to heart as they’ve expanded. The company’s products are now not just available through the vdgsalumi.com website, but also at a wide range of independent grocery stores and health food markets, Italian specialty stores, cheese shops, Loblaw’s City Markets, Co-op Stores (excluding Calgary), Fresen Bros., and Blush Lane locations throughout Alberta. Mikaela says that she’s finding that Albertans in all corners of the province are coming to appreciate the craftsmanship and sense of tradition that drew Stuart to meat curing in the first place.
“We're really about moments and taking the time to enjoy your food and talk to your family and talk about the meat, talk about what you're eating, talk about where it came from,” she says. “When you go to Italy or, you know, you experienced food from different cultures, that's really what it's about.