In the long list of culinary treasures from Italy, few can compete with cured meats – or salumi in Italian – for their magnificence. This might surprise many in the US when we think of our domestic, industrially produced cured meats with dubious ingredients and even more dubious flavor.
And yet, the glory of Italian salumi is unrivaled. There’s prosciutto di Parma with its unmatched texture and sweetness, partly the result of the terroir of the region and the whey fed to the pigs. There’s mortadella, which immediately calls to mind the luxurious cooking of Bologna. There’s guanciale, the cured jowl of a pig, and the Roman pasta sauces which depend on it. There’s lardo, cured back fat aged in the Carrara marble so prized by Michelangelo. And there are fermented, dried sausages – or salami in Italian – so countless in number and style.
It’s hard to believe now that for twenty years, from the late 1960s to the late 1980s, prosciutto was unable to be imported to the US. Until last year, most cured meats from Italy were also banned. Although this ban has now been lifted, it will take time before many of these artisan products arrive on our shelves, though I think a new and exciting day is coming.
But there’s also been a salumi renaissance at home. Leading the way is La Quercia, in Iowa, whose salumi are the only domestic products I’ve ever experienced which are as good as the Italian. In fact, their guanciale is better than any I’ve had in Italy. Just as exciting, there has been a renaissance in making salumi at home. With books such as Michael Ruhlman’s Salumi and Stanley Marianski’s The Art of Making Fermented Sausages, we now have excellent teachers for making our own salumi.
In early August I finally took the plunge, opting to make my own salami, assisted by a friend who had recently taken a sausage making class at the CIA. Making dried, fermented sausages – salami in Italian – begins just like making fresh sausage: meat (70%) and fat (30%) are ground and generously seasoned with salt and pepper, mixed with other ingredients such as wine, garlic, fennel, hot pepper, etc, and then stuffed into natural casings. What makes salami different is that it is also fermented and then dried with the addition of beneficial bacteria, just as in yogurt making or sourdough bread. After a brief period of fermentation at warm temperatures, the salami age for about six weeks at a cool temperature (about 60 degrees) with high humidity (about 70%). Because harmful molds are a danger at such humidity, salami are often inoculated with a harmless white mold to keep away the bad ones.
Creating these conditions for aging (which are also ideal for cheese incidentally) are the biggest challenge for making salami at home. For a relatively small investment, one can create a suitable space using an old refrigerator. At the farmhouse, though, we’ve been blessed with a naturally ideal basement with both ideal humidity and temperature.
Making salami reconnects one to a long tradition of home preservation of meats and vegetables. The satisfaction and pleasure of such work is great. Although we are not set up to produce salami commercially and can’t serve it at the restaurant, we expect it to become a regular part of our work at the farm and look forward to the pleasure of both making and eating Italian cured meats!