If you were to ask somebody what the defining dish of Italian cuisine is, the chances are that he or she would say pizza. And they would be wrong. While pizzas can be an art form in Italy – especially in Naples – they are not a defining characteristic of Italian food. Ban the pizza and much – if not nearly everything – of what we think of as Italian cuisine would be largely unaffected.
The correct answer is probably pasta, which is to Italians what dal-roti is to North Indians, the sort of staple that is central to everyday eating.
But as much as I appreciate the central role played by pasta in the Italian menu, the truth is that because I try and avoid gluten these days, I rarely have too much pasta.
In my highly individualistic (and probably inaccurate) opinion, the defining dish of Italian cuisine is salami. Now, salami – in the sense of a cured meat – is not a peculiarly Italian dish. The French have a whole range of charcuterie (as in cured meats) that are outstanding. The German make their Black Forest ham and some kinds of sausage. The Spanish make the world’s best ham and gave us chorizo, the spiced sausage whose fame has spread across the world. The Portuguese make their own Chorizo though they add vinegar to the meat; a trick copied by their former subjects, the Goans in their chorise. Even the Hungarians have their own kind of salamis, usually with heavy doses of paprika added.
Pasta is to Italians what dal-roti is to North Indians. (Unsplash)
But I think of Italian salami as being the defining element of their cuisine (now that I have excluded pasta) because it is the one Italian ingredients that crops up again and again, both as a dish on its own and as an ingredient in some of the country’s most famous recipes.
The first thing to remember about Italian salami is the confusion over the name. If you are talking about the category as a whole or about a variety of cured meats, you should use the term ‘salumi’. If you are talking about a single sausage then you should use ‘salame’. But, outside of Italy, we use the more globally understood term ‘salami’ for both, a single sausage or many varieties. It is not correct but it makes life easier.
The other thing to remember is that Italians are purely regional. Modern Italy is an ancient civilisation but a new country, created by merging many local Kingdoms and city-states, each with its own cuisine and dialect. So what we regard as Italian food is comprised of various regional specialties.
In France, a lot of chauvinism surrounds local wines. In the old days, it was hard to find the wines of Bordeaux in Burgundy for instance and even today, all good French wine must carry a certificate of origin, stating which region it comes from.
The Italians have tried to do this with their wine but with less success than the French. However they can be even pickier than the French when it comes to the origin of some of their foods.
Their cheeses are protected by law. You cannot make Parmigiano Reggiano outside of a clearly defined region. If you make it elsewhere in Italy then you can’t use the name. So it is with Parma ham. Ham from outside the region cannot be called ‘Parma’. And even in Parma, you can only make the ham from pigs that have grown up eating the whey left over from the production of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.
This is as true of lardo, a cured meat made from back fat from the hog in Colonnata. This is so popular that 9 million kg are sold each year in Italy alone. But the total production of lardo in Colonnata is only 200,000 kg. The rest of it comes from elsewhere, leading to battles and disputes over authenticity.
It is the same with Culatello, a kind of ham (from the back leg of the hog) that is cured and salted for two years in the Emilia-Romagna region (where Parma ham also originates). It is an artisanal cold meat that can properly only be made in that region.
The more you learn about the various kinds of Italian salami, the more complicated it gets. What seem like just salamis made to different recipes turn out to be distinguished not just by origin but also by the part of the pig they come from.
Guanciale comes from the jowl of the hog and is essential for such dishes as Spaghetti Carbonara. Copa comes from a muscle that starts behind the ear. Spalla can only come from the shoulder. Lardo – one of my favourites — comes, as we have seen, from the back fat. Lonza is the cured loin. Pancetta, which we sometimes call Italian bacon, is actually a specific cut from the belly. Prosciutto is ham from the back leg. And if a product is just called ‘salami’ then it is probably made up of many kinds of pork cuts, drawn from pigs all over Italy.
The growth of the global meat industry has encouraged us to be sceptical of the specific classifications that Italians insist on. Surely you can make salami from anything? And even if it does matter which part of the pig you use, why is the regional origin so important? Why can’t you make these salamis/sausages anywhere? And indeed, the vast majority of salami sold all around the world is made in factories by producers who don’t give a damn about the origin of the meat.
Which is fair enough : of course, you can make Italian-style salami anywhere in the world. And if you are careful, it won’t be bad. But it will never, ever taste like the real thing for two reasons.
The first is the breed of pig. You can make good salami from many breeds of hog but to make salami that tastes anything like the Italian version, you need the same breeds, fed on the same diet as the original Italian pigs.
The parallel is with wine. If you were to plant the same grapes and make a wine in exactly the same way as say, Chateau Margaux, your wine would still taste nothing like Chateau Margaux — unless your grapes had been grown in the region of Margaux.
Salami is about fermentation. In that sense, it is a lot like sour-dough bread. Good sour dough depends on the action of bacteria on the dough to ferment the bread. Salami is created by the fermentation of meat by bacteria. The early salami- makers did not know what bacteria were but they knew that if they salted ground meat, it would change its character and taste profile over time.
Now that we understand what bacteria and fungi are, we recognise that the atmosphere in each location has different bacteria and moulds. If you make dahi in say, New York, it will not taste like dahi does in Delhi because the micro-organisms in the air are different.
So like wine and cheese (both products that improve over time) salami and ham depend not just on their territorial origins but on the bacteria and fungi that are in the air as they mature.
Does all of this really matter?
I reckon it does.
In most restaurants all over the world, chefs will want to cook all the starters themselves. Italy is the only country I know of where even Michelin starred chefs will buy salami from great artisanal producers and put it on the menu as a first course without interfering with it. Even the great Massimo Bottura, chef-owner of what is often regarded as the world’s best restaurant, Osteria Francescana, will serve a plate of artisanal salami as a first course. It is a little like great French restaurants and the cheese course. The chef will have had nothing to do with the cheese. But he will serve the best cheese made by expert artisans, just as Italian chefs will with salami.
Does this mean that all other salami is no good? Far from it. Over the last three decades, whenever I have travelled to the West, I have always tried the local salamis and if I have found some that I like, I have loaded my suitcase with samples and have brought them back.
My broad conclusions are that the Spanish make the best ham (Jamon Iberico) but that it is hard to find in India. (Jamon Serrano which is less good, turns up in the shops here.) The French are better at sausages than they are at ham and salami. German salami is good but one dimensional. The Portuguese make great chorizo but you have to be lucky to get anything else of great quality. The best American producers make excellent replicas of European salami but I am unimpressed by the domestic American ham and bacon tradition.
Only the Italians know how to make salamis that always delight. A little pancetta will elevate most dishes that it is added to. There is something wonderful about a thin slice of lardo on good bread. As the lardo rises to room temperature it begins to melt, leaking into the pores of the bread. It only needs to be seasoned with a little basil or (if you are lucky) some black truffle. A salami piccante (hot and spicy) cut into dices and used as the basis of any stew makes a fool proof base. A typical Italian sausage (like Cotechino) with lentils can make a delicious winter supper. And if you have your breakfast fried eggs with some Parma ham, you will start your morning with a gourmet experience.
The best part of most cured meats is that they are made without the use of any heat. In an era where everything goes in the pan, the oven, or even the microwave, it is good to eat meat, cooked only by the micro-organisms in the air.
First Published: Oct 31, 2018 10:43 IST