Like any good American kid, I grew up eating floppy baloney on white bread. And like any uninspired Manhattan office worker, I ambled down to the nearest deli and got slices of salami — hot pink and encased in branded, shrink-wrap plastic that the sandwich guy would peel back to measure out my portion. It was salty and tasted fine between sliced bread with a handful of shredded iceberg lettuce, or at least it seemed that way from inside my cubicle. Then I moved to Europe.
Across the plaza from my apartment in Madrid was a butcher. In the window were long, powdery sausages and waxy pork hindquarters hung with the black hoof pointing up at the ceiling, a stilettoed come-hither for the hungry. I heeded its call.
An obvious foreigner in a neighborhood of octogenarians, José, the garrulous, old charcutero, took it upon himself to introduce me to his repertoire of cured meats, cutting off paper thin slices and passing them over the counter along with a squirt from the wineskin. In this way I grew to love fuet, a humble sausage, thin and chewy, coated in floury dust. I was taught to appreciate jamón, the whole preserved leg on the bone. I started with the economical variety, then moved on to a fine jamón serrano, and finally jamón iberico de bellota, from the Black Iberian Pig. Fed on acorns, its meat was a deep purple, rich, earthy, and marbled with fat. I ate morcilla, blood sausage mixed with rice or sweet potatoes, until I was ill. I kept lomo, the mild, cured whole pork loin, always stocked in my refrigerator. And I still dream about chorizo, dry and deep red, with spots of fat stained with paprika.
Back in America, fear of the prospect of eating salami that tasted more of salt than meat was enough to make me resign myself to never eating sausage outside of Europe again. Luckily, I’d moved to California where the food-obsessed gather, and it did not take long to stumble into Boccalone‘s salumeria in San Francisco’s Ferry Building. In the tiny storefront hung meats that rivaled the taste and complexity of my beloved charcuteria in Madrid. Boccalone represents a growing movement towards artisanal cured meats in America. Cured in their factory across the bay in East Oakland, Boccalone produces meats in the Italian tradition. Close enough for me.
The English word “sausage” like the Italian salami, and the Spanish salchicha, comes from the Latin word salsus — salted. Salt is key to the process of fermenting meat for two reasons: it controls the growth of microbes in the aging meat, and it dissolves myosin (a fiber filament protein) out of the muscle fibers and onto the meat surfaces, where it acts like a glue that holds the ground chunks of meat together, forming dense, stiff sausage.
Mark Pastore, co-owner of Boccalone, explains that the quantity of salt, along with the type of grind and the temperature at curing, is what separates the artisanal meats of small-batch producers from the industrially produced salami found in supermarkets. Lots of salt, a fine grind on the meat, and curing at warmer temperatures means a faster turnaround from raw meat to sausage.
Good sausage comes from good meat, and there is no sense in drowning delicious, sustainably-raised heritage breed pork in salt, even if it is fine Italian sea salt.
Hand-butchering, infinitely more skilled, slow and precise than throwing the whole hog in the grinder, ensures that only the best cuts and most appropriate fats end up in the salame. A coarse grind and lower temperatures mean that the salami ferments slower. Fermentation turns the sugars in the meat to lactic acid and lowers the pH level, preserving the meat during drying. High fermentation temperatures tend to produce volatile acids with a sharp aroma, a flavor that can be achieved in a mere 18 hours. The complex blend of nutty aldehydes and fruity esthers that traditionally mark a good salame requires time and a low temperature to achieve — two or three days, before aging for another sixty to ninety days.
Aging dries the salame to it final moisture content. It is during these months in the cool darkness that raw meat transforms to complex, tangy, aromatic cured sausage. The powdery white coating of harmless mold and yeasts may form on the surface of the casing. But fear not, these friendly microbes contribute to the flavor and help prevent spoilage, and are safe to eat, though just as easy to peel off.
Cured meats in the American diet have often been found pre-sliced in bright yellow packaging, but there are hopes that a growing number of artisanal salumeria will change this. Just as pinot noir, syrah and cabernet has replaced jug wine in the American vernacular, nduja, salame, and soppressata may one day replace baloney.
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Leading image: Charcuterie in Les Halles, Paris, 1962. (Image by Tom Palumbo)
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