Italy: A salute to salumi

November 23, 2018

We’ve just returned from a vacation that began in Venice, Italy, and ended in Athens, Greece. Along the way, we stopped to visit cities in Umbria, Croatia and Montenegro. As much as we enjoyed the shipboard meals, one of our most memorable lunches was in a small restaurant tucked into a side street in the town of Ancona, Italy.

We were drawn to the aromas wafting from the shop as well as the display of beautiful meats and cheeses. The name of the place was Bontà Delle Marche, which directly translates to “goodness of brands” and probably intends something more like “the best choices.” The sign on the front invites you to “come in, make a selection and take a seat.” 

As our server escorted us to a table upstairs, we ogled the jars of jams and flavored salts, bottles of olive oil and Balsamic vinegars. The decor was simple, a few pieces of artwork on the walls and well-stocked shelves of wine. The menu included traditional cooked dishes such as lasagne Bolognese and grilled vegetables, as well as cold platters of cured meats called salumi. 

Salumi are a staple of Italian cuisine, born of necessity and around since the time of the ancient Romans. The tradition of salting, smoking and air-drying meats was a practical way to preserve meat, primarily pork but also beef and lamb. There are two categories of salumi, ones that are taken from whole cuts of meat (for example, a thigh or shoulder) and those formed from meat that has been ground or minced and stuffed into casings. 

Of course, within these general types are vast variations in size, shape, texture, flavor and color. And, you can also find special types of salumi with signature regional characteristics or made from heirloom breeds. Salumi, like French charcuterie, is the broad category of cured meats, not to be confused with salami, which is a specific type.

Genoa Salami (the variety most often seen in the United States) is finely ground with tiny flecks of visible fat. Milano Salami is ground even finer, and Tuscan Salami tends to have larger chunks of fat. In Italy, there are as many variations of salami as there are regions of the country.

Prosciutto is a dry-cured ham aged for 12 to 18 months. Made from the leg of the pig, it is usually sliced very thin. Speck is a type of prosciutto with a very different, more robust flavor because it is smoked. Bresaola, one of the few cured meats made of beef, is very lean with almost no fat. Salted, spiced and air dried, bresaola is known for its deep red color.

For the variety of salumi in the photo, we sampled them in small bites to appreciate their different flavors and textures. Once we sorted out our favorites, we tried them on rustic bread spread with cipollini onion jam and topped with slices of cheese. You can re-create this display for your next dinner party or brunch with a selection of cured meats and cheese, a handful of arugula, olives and bread.

Another way to feature cured meat is with a traditional Italian pasta called spaghetti alla carbonara, which calls for guanciale. This specialty pork meat comes from the jowl of the pig and is notable for its robust flavor and high fat content. Purists insist on this rich ingredient for authentic carbonara and do not tolerate substitutions such as pancetta or bacon.

I’ve included a recipe for cipollini onion jam. You’ll want to make this a few days in advance to allow the flavors to mellow. I’ve also given you a version of carbonara featuring guanciale - if you can’t find it and need to substitute pancetta, I’ll never tell.

Cipollini Onion Jam

1 lb cipollini onions
3 T olive oil
1/3 C sherry
1/2 C water
2 T Balsamic vinegar
2 T sugar
1/2 C raisins

Peel and roughly chop the onions. Pour olive oil into a large skillet over medium low. Add the onions and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add sherry and cook until reduced, about 5 minutes. Add water, vinegar, sugar and raisins; stir to combine. Cook over very low heat for 90 minutes, stirring often. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 24 hours before serving. Bring to room temperature and serve with cured meats or roasted poultry.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara

1 lb dry spaghetti
4 eggs
6 oz guanciale
1/2 C grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 C grated Pecorino
salt & pepper, to taste

Bring 6 quarts salted water to a boil. Add spaghetti and cook to al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Reserve 1/2 C pasta water; drain. While pasta cooks, cut guanciale into cubes. Heat a skillet over medium and add meat. Cook until crisp and golden, about 3 minutes; remove from heat. In a small bowl, whisk together eggs and cheeses until smooth; set aside. Return pan with guanciale to medium heat and add 1/4 C pasta water. Add drained spaghetti and stir until liquid evaporates. Remove pan from heat and add egg mixture, stirring quickly into a sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Divide into 4 bowls and serve immediately.