The art of 'salting', 'smoking' or 'air drying' meat in order to preserve it for months was the practical reason behind the birth of one of Italy's most recognisable culinary symbols, salami. The breathtaking range available in the salumerie, or delicatessens, in Italy’s big cities is also in evidence in many specialist food shops beyond its borders.
So what is it you are looking for? Perhaps a few slices of Parma ham or bresaola for antipasto, or some minty Sardinian blood sausage to add to a braise, or simply a few slices of Bologna's creamy mortadella for the children's lunchbreak sandwich box? One thing is certain: you won't leave empty handed, such are the seductive charms of those contrasting pink flesh tones and creamy white flashes of fat.
The Role of Pork in Italian Cured Meat
Pork is the major constituent of most cured meat and sausage, whether it be in the form of an entire leg, or chopped or minced, but beef also has its role to play, for example in the aforementioned Lombardian air-dried bresaola, as well as wild boar (look for prosciutto di cinghiale) from Tuscany.
What Makes the Different Flavours and Textures?
Whatever form in which the meat is processed, it is the salt married with the herbs and spices that provide that unforgettable aroma and taste. The choice of herbs and spices can also differentiate similar products from different regions, or even different towns or villages. In short, one Italian's idea of salami can be very different to another's.
Pancetta, or cured meat from the pig's belly, is one of the more universal products found throughout Italy. It equates to what northern Europeans would refer to as bacon, and is sold both in flat blocks and rolls, and while most recipes such as amatriciana pasta sauce call for the unsmoked variety, smoked, or affumicata, cuts are available. Naturally, regional variations exist, for example in Lazio where the meat is derived from the black pigs reared in the Lepini mountains.
Parma Ham, Prosciutto and Zampone
In contrast to pancetta, Parma ham, or Prosciutto di Parma to give it its official regal title, should only be eaten raw; such are its delicate and much celebrated flavours. Its reputation is zealously defended by a consortium formed to oversee both quality and production, which can take about 14 months to produce an individual ham, the loss of water that results from the drying process concentrating the flavour. Such is the renown of the ham that it is now available ready sliced in many supermarkets. Despite the efforts of modern packaging in helping to prevent the slices losing flavour once they are detached from the ham, it is advisable to buy freshly sliced to guarantee optimum fragrance and taste. From the same region of Emilia Romagna comes a more earthy pork product. Zampone is made from ground pig's meat which is encased in a hoof. The same mixture can be found inside a rind of snout and jowl, in which case it is called cotechino. Both originate from the town of Modena, south of Parma and are cooked in a similar fashion, namely boiled for several hours, sliced and served on a bed of lentils.