In Italy, when it comes to food all things are sacred and nothing is wasted. In this respect, salume seems its own class of food. Ah, before I go any further, I must take a moment to introduce you to but one of the many intricacies of the Italian language – lest you think my fingers simply fumbled across the keyboard. Salume (class singular), salumi (class plural), salame (sausage singular), and salami (sausage plural) are all the ways one refers to this exquisite food. And, now onto the story that frames Italians wonderful ability to cherish all things edible.
A few nights ago I had dinner with some friends at il Contadino, Azienda Agrituristica, just outside of Reggio Emilia. Il Contadino was once a fully functioning farm. The proprietor, Guglielmo Punghellini, and his sons, who still raise pigs, opened a restaurant in half of the old farmhouse. The food – è buonissimo – is prepared with only local slow food. It is no surprise that the slow food movement originated in Piedmont Italy in 1986. But I digress…
The jewel of il Contadino is the salame made from their pigs and which won a gold medal – suspended from Guglielmo’s neck. In the U.S. the same medal would, no doubt, be worn as a brand mark. Not so in Italy, where humility and pride seem to live side by side. Here the gold medal functions more like a wedding band worn by a man who married the most beautiful woman in the village.
The process of making salume is the ultimate in slow food – and of course very Italian. As they say, “Of the pig, nothing is wasted.” There are endless naturally cured varieties: salame, prosciutto, speck, culatello, coppa, pancetta, mortadella, ciccioli… The flavor and texture within each variety varies widely by region and even city. Most begin with locally raised pigs – very local in this case. The salume is cured at room temperature, preferably in darkness, air-drying to cause fermentation. When it is cured, the white powdery covering (mold or flour) becomes nearly airtight, preventing photo-oxidation. When it goes to market, and that too will most likely be local, the salume will be sold in shops specializing in multiple varieties. Of course, these shops that will never be open at midday when the very civilized Italians –shopkeepers included – are having lunch with family and/or friends.
Here’s the inside story. My friend’s father grew up in this house. Guglielmo who was a friend of his father greeted us, took our order, and served us – and everyone else in the restaurant. He also gave us a tour of the curing rooms, while one of his sons prepared the food. But, of course, the father should give the tour. It would be no other way. Remember the symbolic association of the gold medal as a wedding band? Now think of us as the distant cousins coming to meet the beautiful bride. So up the back stairs we went for a tour of the old family home – now the curing rooms – one of which had been the bedroom of my friend’s aunt! Behold the scent of garlic, a hint of pepper and succulent ripening pork with a ceiling of dangling jewels all lit by a single bare bulb.
Recall my comment about a gold medal worn as a brand mark, in the U.S. Now, here’s an interesting branding twist. As the FDA regulates meat and most Italian salumi do not meet its standards, with few acceptations, most cannot be imported – such a pity. However, in San Francisco in the 1960s a group of Italian immigrants, each with a family history as salumi makers, trademarked the name “Italian Salami” for salame made in the U.S.
All photographs copyright: Jean Grow