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Standard bearers: The Ham and Cheese Company

Categories: Behind the stalls

How mortandela encapsulates the philosophy behind The Ham and Cheese Company

Winter, and every Italian within driving distance of a mountain resort is going skiing—every Italian, that is, except for Massimo Corra in Trentino. At least that’s how it seems to this third generation butcher, whose famous mortandela is never more popular than at this time of year.

“Every year he complains that he doesn’t get to go skiing because he’s so busy making it,” Alison, co-founder of The Ham and Cheese Company smiles. Next to her at the stall, Massimo himself is chatting in voluble Italian to another trader. In a rare moment of downtime, he’s come to Borough Market to visit the only place in London that sells this most unusual piece of charcuterie.

The Ham and Cheese Company has been accredited by Slow Food for its approach to the sourcing of traditional artisan charcuterie and cheeses direct from small producers across Italy and France—and its approach chimes perfectly with Massimo’s.

Smoked meats
“For a time we sold a lot of Massimo’s other products, but we didn’t sell his mortandela. Yet he kept saying it is his most popular product and he sells more of that at his shop than anything else,” recalls Alison. Trentino, the area in Italy from which both mortandela and Massimo hail, is an alpine region in the Dolomites: beautiful, and at least as renowned for its smoked meats as for its skiing and cycling.

“Often salames, which are not aged for long, have a lot of seasoning and salt. But Trentino was not on a salt route, so historically they used smoke for preservation,” Alison explains. The majority of the stall’s smoked charcuterie, therefore, comes from Massimo, whose impressive speck Trentino is smoked as well as hung for 12 to 14 months—more than twice as long as commercial speck.

“Mortandela, on the other hand, is too small to really age—40 days is about the maximum, yet the simple addition of saltpeter means the sausage is rendered safe to eat within just a few days.” Saltpeter’s chemical name is potassium nitrate: it doesn’t sound very Slow Food-like, or indeed very edible, but the compound occurs naturally and has been used since the Middle Ages.

Massimo at the Ham and Cheese Co

Historic and natural
“With Slow Food and a lot of natural salame organisations, it is the only preservative allowed, because it is historic and natural,” says Alison. It is used in Massimo’s coppa trentina salame, and by another producer favoured by The Ham and Cheese Company: second generation makers Mauro and Chiaro Cassetta from Piedmont.

There, the damp climate means salames have historically been aged for shorter periods—and the brother and sister are keen to uphold traditions, even to the extent of using local wines in their products.

Mortandela is one of the few pieces of charcuterie that can be eaten “almost fresh”. In Trentino, the locals often fry slices lightly on both sides before eating it on toast. “Generally I think it is better as part of a charcuterie board, though, together with other small salames,” says Alison.

Pebble-like appearance
After all, its striking, pebble-like appearance is brought out best by the contrast with the more classic sausage shape of, say, Piedmont’s salame della rosa or cacciatorino al barolo. The mortandela, being contained not in the customary intestine lining but in the lacy fat of the stomach caul, is noticeably rounder and fatter by comparison.

Each mortandela is wrapped by hand by Massimo, as his father and grandfather did before him. It’s a practice which dates back centuries, to when it was traditional for local families to buy a suckling pig at the All Saints’ Fair in November.

When the pig was slaughtered, the deboned meat was used to make various charcuterie. The ham, belly, shoulder, heart and lungs were mixed with seasoning to make mortandela, then smoked in the caul before ageing.

Mortandela

Poor man’s salame
“It would have been like a poor man’s salame, really—a way of using cheaper cuts of meat and preserving them for a short while without salt.” Slow Food has raised the profile of products like mortandela, and transformed them into revered and highly exportable foods.

“Mortandela is not well-known over here, but the people who try it on the stall usually like it,” says Alison. It boasts a wintry flavour, thanks to being seasoned with cinnamon, garlic and clove, and smoked gently over beech wood and juniper berries, making the sausage deeply aromatic.

The products sold by The Ham and Cheese Company are desirable as much for their qualities of sustainability, authenticity and heritage as for their taste. In mortandela, as with the other ham and cheese on the stall, the Slow Food principles the stall abides by come into their own.

Exacting sourcing
Reared locally by a friend of Massimo, the pigs have space to roam and high welfare standards. It’s the sort of exacting sourcing which means each week, Massimo needs just five pigs for all his charcuterie. Large by nature, their fat and meat content is all the better for growing slowly: they live at least 11 months longer than pigs grown for industrial salame.

The result is meat that is better in ethical and environmental terms, as well as in flavour—and which, with Massimo’s son happily lined up to receive the baton, should continue as such for many years to come.