At our September 11th dinner, a friend and regular guest at the restaurant left us with a delightful gift: a few packages of homemade bacon. Though a history professor by day, this woman clearly has a second life and a second passion. Making cured meats of any kind, whether bacon, prosciutto, lardo, or any other such beautiful product, is a labor of love. It’s an area we have yet to explore firsthand, though it pulls us magnetically, and we hope to get there some day. We were amazed a year ago to discover La Quercia, an heirloom pig and cured meat business run by an Iowa farmer trained in Italy. At DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia I was told I had to try a domestic prosciutto as good as the Italian one from Parma. With great skepticism I accepted, but once I had tasted the first bite of La Quercia’s prosciutto, and then guanciale, and then lardo, I knew I had stumbled upon an unbelievable treasure.
As is so often the case in English, we have no words to do these products justice. “Cured meats” is sterile and not the least bit up for the task. The Italians have salumi and the French charcuterie, which seems to be the word most often used in English these days by those who know better.
When I ponder these things, my mind is drawn back to time in Italy, as it so often is. Outside of Cremona we were staying at an estate producing cheeses, breads, and salumi. In the cantina where we cleaned the cheeses by hand would hang lovely provolone cheeses side by side with salumi of various sorts. We were told of how in former times the whole estate would gather in the courtyard of the manor house for the pig butchering, and therefore salumi producing, day. We marveled, and still do, at how these things are second nature in Italy. Every farmer makes his own wine. Every farmer makes his own salumi for his family. In America we can’t even import half the good stuff, protected as we are by a government which thinks it knows better. As so often happens in democracy, we eliminate both the best and the worst in people and are simply left with mediocrity.
And so we return gratefully to our friend the history professor and her wonderful passion for producing a hand-crafted, lovingly produced food which ties us back to generations which have come before. Making charcuterie is as “slow” as “slow food” gets, a meticulous process which rewards patience, observation, and care. If only we all made our own bacon and prosciutto! Perhaps we’d be forced to slow down and live?