Salumi and Salame
How my time in an Italian “transformation room” forever changed this Oscar Mayer-raised kid
In middle school, I went through a phase during which I would only eat the lunch that my mother packed for me if it contained a salami sandwich, slathered with French’s mustard. Little did I know then that the Oscar Meyer lunch meat that I so thoroughly enjoyed had ancient roots in Italian cuisine. I also had no clue then that, twenty years later, I’d find myself working on a Tuscan farm hoisting a pig onto a table that, hours before, I had seen stun-gunned and bled out, tossed around a hair-removal chamber, all in preparation for making salumi—the original lunch meat that Oscar Meyer faintly resembles.
During my ten months on a Tuscan farm, I took part in preparing salumi. Upon hearing this term for the first time, I thought I’d been pronouncing salami wrong my entire life. I learned quickly that salumi, in Italian, refers to a rather large family of preserved meat products. And that the salame that I knew and loved was just one of a plethora of cured pork products, a sister to such delicious delicacies as lardo, guanciale, and—the king of cured pork— prosciutto.
Traditionally, the slaughter and salumi-making season begins only when the temperatures drop low enough to prevent spoilage. So, after the aforementioned early morning visit to the slaughterhouse on a chilly Monday in late autumn, we—the farm’s livestock manager, head butcher, and myself—unloaded each carcass into the Sala di Transformazione to begin its “transformation” into an array of preserved goods that would keep our bones warm with fat in the cold winter months to come.
Rispetto became a familiar word over the course of that day and week. It means respect—for the animal, the farmer, the land upon which both live, and the traditions of one’s ancestors. The process I witnessed illustrated the great respect that “whole animal butchery” encompasses, as all but the hair (and even some of those found their way in) is used in some way or another.
Only a couple of hours after returning from the slaughterhouse, we had begun to prepare the first products to be consumed. These “cooked salumi” products comprised heads, skin, bones, and offals boiled with a blend of warm spices, which resulted in a flavourful and gelatinous conglomeration called Sopressata Toscana—or “head cheese,” as we know it. We put the fat in another pot and rendered it down for lard (for cooking and baking) as well as ciccioli (bits of crispy meat for incorporating into bread). Buristo, a form of blood sausage, made use of the coagulated blood, as well as the stomach and intestinal linings that I had cleaned of the unctious remnants of the pig’s last few meals, just hours earlier.
Moving on, we ground meat, alternating it with fat, and mixed both with garlic, wine, and varying spices for preparing different salame—some small, some large, some mild, and some with spice. Slabs of pure white fat from the animal’s back was rubbed with juniper and rosemary, then brined for making lardo, which would be ready to eat three months later. The cheek became gotino (otherwise known as “guanciale”), and the belly made rigatino (or “pancetta”)—two more products that would cure for several months. Lastly, we prepared the legs for—you surely know this one—prosciutto, and began the lengthy two-year-long cure. The prosciutto requires careful supervision and the application of a part-flour-part-fat mixture called strutto, which helps to slow the rate of drying.
The cantina, or “cellar,” of the farm’s 12th-century castle is where I spent a great deal of time in the months that followed, as it serves as the curing and storage room for the salumi. There, where the fermentation of pork had been conducted for hundreds of years, the temperature and humidity remains consistent throughout the year.
After four long days of this “transformation,” we reaped the rewards of our work at the weekly farmers’ market, where locals shopped for traditional regional products. Prosciutto that had aged for two years was hand-sliced to order, while parents taught their children that sausage is best eaten raw, like a lollipop, when it is so fresh after slaughter.
Needless to say, my tastebuds are now forever dissatisfied with Oscar Meyer’s rendition of this Italian food tradition, and I plan to treat my newborn son to a sausage-pop next time we find ourselves at a market in Italy.
Sarah Terpstra is co-owner, with her husband Christopher, of Toronto-based fresh pasta company Alimentari Foods. She studied nutrition at New York University and trained as a chef at the Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan, focusing on cooking with healthful, locally-sourced ingredients. Her column on Italian food and wine culture will appear here every six weeks.