by Marla Gulley Roncaglia, Italian Cuisine Expert for the Menuism Italian Food Blog
Photos by Marla Gulley Roncaglia
Necessity is the mother of invention, and so the tradition of salting, smoking and air drying was born from the necessity of conserving meat for long periods of time after the slaughter of animals raised for food. Cured meats, or salumi in Italian, is the general name for this type of meat preservation and has been a staple of the Italian diet for well over two thousand years. Most people are familiar with the spicy salami of southern Italy that Americans know as pepperoni, and the prosciutto crudo of Parma, fondly called Parma ham in the States, but those are merely an introduction. There are countless variations developed and perfected through the ages; the vast amount beyond these two most familiar cured meat specialties are well worth searching out and exploring what the salumeria, or Italian delicatessen, has on offer.
Italian salumi is the ancient general term for all preserved meats and the equivalent of the French term charcuterie. Salumi fall under two categories: 1) one that is produced from a whole cut of meat, usually a shoulder or thigh, and 2) a casing filled with ground or chopped meat, fat, herbs and spices.
The filled variety of casings are named salame in general and are divided into uncooked and cooked varieties. These are generally referred to as salame, salami and salsiccia. All salumi varieties range from the mildly delicate flavors of northern Italy to the fiery, pepper-laced southern specialties. Some are spreadable, others firm and perfect for slicing thin, or paper thin, which is the preferred way of eating prosciutto crudo, as it is believed to bring out the full range of flavors to the forefront of your palate. Most are eaten without further preparation other than slicing, while others require some cooking. Pork is by far the meat of choice for this type of preservation, but you will find beef and wild game, such as wild boar, deer, mountain goat and occasionally donkey, horse, goat, and sheep. The pork of Umbria was highly prized during the Roman times for its flavor and the skill of its butchers -- in particular, the butchers of the small town of Norcia, Umbria. Butchers that specialize in producing pork salumi are referred to as Norcini.
Below you will find a sampling of the various styles of salumi from all over Italy that are worth discovering, although this is just a small sampling of the possibilities of Italian cured meats on offer. Sadly, many of these specialties are no longer able to be imported into the U.S., but you can be sure that ferreting out some of these unusual and difficult-to-find cured meat specialties is worth the effort. When you do find them, whether in the States or in their native Italian homeland, do make sure to savor them. This is not a definitive list, but does cover a wide range of variety to give you an idea of what to be on the lookout for.
Whole cured meats, mostly pork
Prosciutto Crudo di Parma is the most widely known and star of the cured meat world. It is the symbol of the town of Parma of the Emilia Romanga region and referred to in America as Parma ham. It is aged around 10-12 months, round in shape and delicately flavored with a hint of sweetness. Prosciutto di San Daniele, from the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region, is considered to be sweeter than Parma ham, aged 15-18 months, and recognizable when whole as it always has the hoof still attached. Prosciutto di Cinghiale, of Tuscany and Lazio, technically is pork, even though it is indeed wild boar. It generally has the hairy bristle and hoof still on and is an intensely flavorful ham. Culatello di Zibello, of Emilia-Romagna, is the delicately flavored center cut of pork thighs. It is aged in well-ventilated rooms between 10 months to a year, after having been rubbed with wine and pepper.
Speck, from Trentino-Alto Adige region, is distinctive for its smoky flavor. Speck is made of pork thighs that are smoked, dry salted and aged 5-6 months. Lardo di Saint Arnad, of the Val d'Aosta region, is a solid creamy textured slab of lard. It is best served when sliced thin and served on top of dark whole grain bread with a drizzle of honey. Pancetta, from almost all regions of Italy, is considered to be Italian bacon. It is from the pig's belly and cut into rectangles or rolled up and tied. It is smoked or not, and can be served uncooked or cooked. Guanciale, from Lazio, is the tender meat from the cheek and throat of the pig. Less fatty than pancetta, it is salted and rubbed with pepper before aging. Bresaola, usually from Valtellina in Lombardy, is a lean cut of quality beef that has been salted, spiced, and hung to air dry. Mocetta, mainly from the Aosta region, is usually an air-dried cut of wild game, such as deer, goat and wild boar.
Air dried, smoked or salted salami, predominately pork
Coppa, a specialty of Piacenza in Emilia-Romagna, is made from the upper part of the pig's neck. Dry salted and stuffed into casings with a variety of spices, it is then air dried for about 6 months. Capocollo, from Basilicata/Apulia/Umbria/Calabria, is the meat from the neck and shoulder, generously spiced before placing in a pork bladder and either conserved in olive oil or smoked. Cacciatorino hails from the Piedmont region and is a small salami that is thought to have been created for the hunters to take along with them while hunting for an easy snack. Finocchiona, from Tuscany, is large in diameter. This salami has been liberally spiced with wild fennel seeds and aged from 6 months to 1 year.
Salami Piccante, mainly from Calabria, is what most people know as pepperoni, though this name does not exist in Italy. It is a pork salami liberally spiced with hot and milder red peppers known as peperoni and peperoncino, which is where the American misnomer comes from. Salami piccante can come in a variety of shapes, usually long, curved loops, and in a variety of strengths of fieriness. Salsiccia salame, from Calabria, is another fiery pork salami often aged merely one month and usually braided. 'Nduja, from Calabria, is a softer, spreadable salami that is made of pork, lard, liver, and a tremendous amount of spicy red peppers that give it its characteristic red color. It is aged up to 1 year. 'Nduja is used as an antipasto spread and in pasta sauces, as well as heated in a terracotta bowl and dipped into like a fondue.
Soppressata, from Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Calabria. This salami contains lean pork cuts with fat, and is hand-cut rather than ground, preferably from the small black varieties of Italian pigs. It is spiced with ground sweet red pepper, then stuffed into casings and pressed under a weight giving its characteristic flattened shape and name.
Mortadella di Bologna, from Emilia-Romagna, is the real baloney, whose recipe was created during the Middle Ages and features pork with large lardons throughout the mixture. Sometimes pistachios and garlic are added for flavor.
Salsiccia Crud di Bra, from Piedmont, is a spicy sausage that is eaten raw, sautéed or grilled. Boccaccio di Marciano, of Umbria, is a fennel-rich sausage that is hearth dried and usually grilled. Luggage Salsiccia, found throughout all of Italy, is a long sausage that is not divided and sold by length. It tends to be mild in the north and spicier in the south. Lucanica, from Basilicata, is a Luganega sausage that is flavored with fennel seeds, as well as sweet, spicy and black pepper. This sausage's name and reputation goes back to ancient Roman times and was highly praised by Cicero. Salsiccia di Rionero, from Molise, is a fennel-flavored sausage conserved under a layer of fat. Cotechino, from Lombardy/Emilia-Romagna, is Cremona's famous rich pork sausage. The traditional recipe includes vanilla and is boiled for hours and served with lentils on New Years Eve to bring good fortune in the New Year. This tradition has been adopted throughout all of Italy. Mostardella, from Liguria and Piedmont, is a blood sausage best cooked in thick slices with sautéed onions. Sanguinaccio, from Calabria and Compangnia, is a sweet blood pudding with pine nuts, spices, and (sometimes) raisins.
Some raw, but most are cooked before serving
Marla Gulley Roncaglia is an American expat living in the Italian Alps. Marla is an accomplished pastry chef, and a master at high-altitude baking. She and her husband Fabrizio (who has also worked as a chef) teach Italian cooking classes and run a bed and breakfast named Bella Baita ("beautiful mountain house"), where they are active supporters of the slow food movement.