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Cut & dried: Italian salumi (part two)

In the second of two posts on Italian salumi, Ed Smith takes a look at some lesser-known regions and varieties


If you wanted to put together a varied Italian salumi platter, you could fill it, very, very easily, with crowd-pleasers from Emilia Romagna, Tuscany and Lombardy: a coppa, some prosciutto or culatello, a couple of salami – a Toscana and a Milano, perhaps – and some mortadella. It would be a perfectly good meat board. World class, in fact (there’s more on those meats in last month’s post). Yet it wouldn’t represent the full scope of Italian salumi in either geography or style.

Normally I’d recommend that a selection of cured meats should be limited to five. But the only option here is to call for a much larger board and fill in the gaps.

The other bits

Two key regions of salume production represented at the Market are South Tyrol, or Alto Adige – a mountainous province in northeast Italy, bordered by Austria and Switzerland – and Calabria, which is all the way down at the opposite end of the country, in the southwestern ‘toe’. The styles and flavours of products in these regions are completely different to each other, and indeed to the regions explored last time. In part, this can be explained by their terroir and the other foods of each area.

Further, we didn’t have space in the previous post to discuss perhaps my favourite element of this theme: the fatty bits, so I’ll touch on that now. Not least because it’s relevant to a couple of Calabria’s specialities.

The fatty bits

Fat is a vital component of cured meats. Think of the marbling running through a piece of coppa (or jamon Iberico, for that matter); of the chunks of varying proportions distributed through salamis, or of that ribbon of fat running over the top of a silk sheet of prosciutto ham or loin. Those bits are not there as something to be torn off and left on the edge of the plate. They provide a luscious texture, carry and enhance the qualities of the meats round your mouth, and have a flavour all of their own.

With that in mind, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that there’s a whole genre of salume that’s basically just salted and cured fat. When it comes to lardo, guanciale, many pancetta, nduja and even pressed head (a brawn-like item called gelatina, coppa di testa and soppressata, depending where you are in Italy), fat is not the supporting act but the star.

The king of this genre is lardo di Colonnata: blocks of back fat taken from above the loin, salted and laid for months in marble boxes in a Tuscan hamlet. Unless you’ve a slicer of your own, buy it in thin strips and keep it very cold. Remove the lardo from its paper while still cold, but then wait until it’s at room temperature to relish it as antipasti, as you would any other salume, or lay it over warm green vegetables, potatoes and so on to enjoy the best salty seasoning of them all.

Look out too for guanciale and (proper) pancetta. Contrary to once-popular belief, pancetta is not the same as bacon. Instead, the kind you’ll find at The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand and Gastronomica is fully cured and ready to eat (again, slice thinly), though you can cook with it if you wish. Alternatively, consider cooking with guanciale instead – The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand has a couple of options, one of which is the base ingredient for a proper carbonara.

Calabrian salumi

Continuing the lardy theme, nduja, which is probably the best-known type of Calabrian salume, is also a celebration of the fattier side of things. It’s also something that represents the area that it comes from, as it’s effectively a paste that consists of around 50 per cent pork fat and 50 per cent Calabrian chilli. The fat will have come both from the back of heavy pigs, but also the trim of bellies and shoulders (so there’ll be a few scrapings of meat in there), and, wow, it’s delicious.

De Calabria is the place to head for nduja. Theirs is both truly authentic and of a fantastic quality. You’ll see the fresh chilli is unevenly chopped (a sure sign of an artisan product!) and has infused the product with a flame-red colour. Spread it on biscuits or bread and drizzle with honey. Or use it in your cooking: under the skin of a roast chicken, stirred through a pasta sauce, in the middle of arancini or croquettes, or fry your eggs in a good chunk of it. There’s a recipe for eggs in purgatory linked to this piece, which makes for the kind of brunch that really wakes you up.

Do talk with the guys at De Calabria, though, as you’ll find they’ve a few other bits of salumi to offer – their nduja producer is also the farmer of the pigs, so makes use of all of the beast. There’s a chilli-spiced capocollo, chilli-spiced pancetta, chilli-spiced salame (soppressata), and a totally-porky, nose-to-tail pressed head terrine known in Calabria as gelatina. All fantastic.

Alpine salumi

If fresh, locally-grown chilli defines the cured meats produced in Calabria, then the ingredient that arguably defines and certainly makes meats from the South Tyrol stand out is smoke.

The reason for this, I’d posit, is that as we move north and uphill, the environment was (is) no longer suited to air-drying meats. Once up in the Dolomites (and then into Austria, Germany and into Scandinavia), the Romans and other early curers couldn’t simply leave a ham or neck muscle in a cave and return seven months later to collect the basis of their sublime meat platter, as they might have done in Tuscany. They found, however, that if you cold-smoke the meat once salted, then the bacteria that makes meat inhospitable for eating and storing could still be defeated. Smoke is now a key flavour of Alpine meats. Originally it would have been a necessity, too.

Next time you’re at the Market, visit Alpine Deli and have a chat with owner Thea, as you taste and buy her super products. The standout meat is speck Alto Adige. In one sense this is the same as prosciutto, but only in that it’s a ham made from the back leg of a pig. It’s also very different to those meats from Parma and San Danielle we discussed last time. In South Tyrol, the ham is de-boned before it is cured and dried. It’s also smoked over oak (again, before drying). Actually, there’s another similarity with the prosciuttos: speck is delicious sliced very thinly and savoured on a meat board. Thea tells me she also enjoys cooking with it – cubed in pasta sauces, or as a component of Alpine bread dumplings.

When you speak to Thea, you’ll notice that her Italian accent is, well, German. Most Italians from this province speak German rather than Italian and in many senses, we should consider the cuisine of that area as ‘Alpine’ (rather than Italian or Austrian). Other cured meat products that are distinct to the wider region are her ‘chimney sausages’ – small salamis that, originally, would’ve been smoked somewhere high up the chimneys of Alpine smallholders – and her venison bresaola, which of course reflects the fact that the mountainous terrain of the area is better suited to roaming deer than cattle farms.

See Ed’s recipe for eggs in purgatory.