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Cut and dried: Italian salumi

Categories: Expert guidance

Ed Smith explores the history and tradition behind Europe’s regional cured meats. In the first of two posts on Italian ‘salumi’, Ed takes a look at some of the country’s best-known cuts

In Britain, most of us refer to cured meat as ‘charcuterie’, which is the French word for meaty things (more on them in a few months’ time). In the context of European cuisine, however, there’s a strong argument that it’s the (Roman) Italians who originated, perfected and codified the craft of cured, air-dried meats—and so perhaps we should refer to sliced hams, belly meats, back fat and sausages as they do: ‘salumi’.

Sadly we’d need the word count of a chunky book to go into comprehensive detail about the when, why, how and what of salumi. But we do have this and next month’s posts to talk a little about Italian meats, and in particular those that we can find at the Market. Next month I’ll write a little about cured meats from the extremities—from the very north and south of the country, and from the nose, tail and fatty bits of a pig. In this post, however, we’re more about ‘mainstream’ meats, and in particular a handful of famed ones from areas of Italy that are notorious for their production of salumi: Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Lombardy.

Where in particular and why does it happen here?
I once spoke with a British charcutier who said there wasn’t much he could learn from an Italian about curing because if he followed their instruction, leaving his meats to dry in caves set into the hills in Monmouthshire, he’d end up with mouldy meat. Italians—and particularly those in this belt of northern Italy—on the other hand, are blessed with a particular environment, with just the right humidity, heat, and wind flow, that means the cuts of meat they cure with salt are turned into delicious salumi. There is, of course, plenty of science to it. Much of the commercial production is now done in highly controlled factory format, but for sure the Italian curing tradition stems from having the right environment for farming pigs and for curing and air drying the meat once the animal is slaughtered.

Break it down
Italian butchery has evolved to ensure all parts of a pig can be cured. As mentioned in my first post on the essentials of cured meat, this is because the original purpose of curing was to preserve meat as a protein source in times when refrigeration and freezing were not an option. A good example of this is that, whereas traditional English and American butchers would remove the shoulder of a pig, Italians ‘harvest’ a muscle known as the ‘coppa' or ‘capocollo’ from the top of the neck so it can be cured in one cylindrical piece, rather than slicing through it.

Other defined parts of a pig—the loin, belly, and the back leg or ham—are separated for curing into ‘lonza', ‘pancetta’, and ‘prosciutto’ (though in Zibello in Emilia Romagna, the ham is separated into ‘culatello’ and ‘fiocco’ as the air is too humid to successfully cure a whole leg). The remainder, including much of the fat, is minced to make sausages—which of course are known as ‘salami’.

At a very basic level, that’s it: a pig is broken down into its consttuent parts, salted, fermented and air dried over a period of time, and you end up with either a muscle meat or a salami to slice.

Variety comes from the breed of the pig, its diet, the terroir and atmosphere of the relevant area. Indeed, in Italy, many (most?) meats are labelled to reflect either the specific regionality of the product (IGP—Indication of Geographic Protection) or that the salumi has been produced, processed, and packaged in a specific geographical zone and according to tradition (DOP—Protected Designation of Origin).

In focus: prosciutto
A good example of how the same cut of meat can be a different product depending on regional variations is Italian cured ham, or ‘prosciutto’. You can explore this in real time at Borough Market by comparing prosciutto di Parma and prosciutto di San Daniele at The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand.

Parma ham, from Emilia Romagna, is the highest profile air dried Italian meat. Though it is ultimately sliced into thin sheets, you will see it at the stall, hung still in guitar-shaped thigh form. The legs are salted, then larded and hung to dry for up to 18 months. As a result, the flavour is deep, nutty, salty, slightly musty, and there’s masses of umami.

Though there are stipulations as to where pigs used to make Parma ham must be farmed, not all Parma ham is created equal. As owner Philip Crouch explained to me, one crucial difference is that the top, reserve grade producers get first choice of the hams after slaughter, choosing them on the basis of age, fat ratio and size. Further, industrial grade Parma hams are often made from pork that has been frozen, which seems to yield a lesser quality product. From Philip’s experience it’s important to have a good relationship with the producer, and over time has built a trust that ensures a consistently good quality product.

An alternative is prosciutto di San Daniele. It’s the same piece of meat, but Italians will tell you that the taste is different: sweeter, softer, more delicate. Perhaps because the drying (or maturation) time is shorter—around 13 months. Though the pigs can be from one of 10 regions, the ultimate production of the hams must be within a relatively small area in the commune Friuli in Udine, north-west Italy. It has a unique microclimate which is influenced, it’s suggested, by salty winds blown in from the Adriatic. Philip’s producer’s family has been producing the meat for hundreds of years, and “there’s an alchemy and experience and skill that they have in spades” that comes through in the eating experience.

Don’t take the tasting notes as definitive, though—try them both for yourself when next at Borough Market.

The rest of your Italian salumi platter
Other salumi stars available at the Market include:

—Salame finocchiona: a sausage of finely ground pork belly, black pepper, chianti and fennel seeds.

—Salame Toscana: a sausage of relatively coarsely ground pork and large cubes of back fat, plus black pepper and red wine, sometimes garlic too.

—Salame Milanese: finely ground pork shoulder, with flecks of fat obvious throughout. Often quite large, yielding wide slices.

—Mortadella: a large sausage made of finely ground pork meat, blended (or ‘emulsified’) with a specific ratio of fat and spices, and cooked. True mortadella is from Bologna, the capital of Emilia Romagna, and should be very thinly sliced.

—Coppa (or capocollo): a cylindrical muscle from the hard-working shoulders of a pig, so it’s dark and intensely flavoured, and marbled with intramuscular fat. Should be thinly sliced by machine. Coppa is a common cut across Italy—variation comes from the breed of pig and spicing in the cure. A number of IGP and DOPs exist, for example coppa di Piacentino and coppa di Parma, which must be made from pigs reared in those specific regions, be bagged in a pig or beef casting, and dried for at least 60 days.

—Lonza or lombo: cured pork loin (picture the larger part of back bacon or a pork chop). The leanest cut of salumi, though Italians leave a larger amount of back fat on the muscle than the Spanish do with their ‘lomo’. Must be sliced thinly.

—Pancetta: the belly of a pig. Can be left as one flat piece of fatty pork or rolled (‘arrotolata’). Often flavoured with lots of herbs and though it can be and often is cooked, in contrast to British bacon, pancetta is fully cured and if sliced thinly, ready to eat.

Where to shop for Italian salumi at Borough Market
Alpine Deli sells air dried and smoked sausages and sliced meats from the northern Italian province of South Tyrol, including the famed speck; Bianca Mora has a concise selection of very pure and unadulterated cured pork from Emilia Romagna; De Calabria focuses on Calabrian specialities, including nduja and coppa di testa; at Gastronomica you’ll find a wide spread of cured meats from across Italy (look out for their Tuscan finocchiona salami); The Ham and Cheese Company has a focused selection of salami (alongside French and Basque options); while The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand stocks all the classics, sliced to order.

Next month’s post will continue the Italian salumi theme, taking a look at products from both geographical and meaty extremities—speck from northern Italy, nduja and pressed head from the south, lardo di colonnata, gaunciale, and the (non-pork) bresaola.