Nitrates are what mere mortals talk about with furrowed brows and knowing looks. Sometimes you just need to push through that food naysaying and pile a Mt. Etna sized assortment of delicious italian cold cuts into your face hole. Today we celebrate something that is near and dear to my heart/colon, the italian deli.
Before there was proper refrigeration people has to go to great lengths to preserve their meat. A pig was an amazing thing with hundreds of uses but it also had a very limited shelf life, unless measures were taken to preserve the meat and other tasty bits. For thousands of years human beings have been figuring out ways to preserve food. Salt and Sugar were great methods of preservation, they both when used properly could dehydrate meat and inhibit bacterial growth. As man continued to evolve their preservation methods they found ways to cultivate and use helpful bacterias, and moulds which could either starve or kill harmful bacteria. Of course they didn’t really know theses fungi and bacterias were, they just knew that there were techniques that caused things to grow on foods which somehow preserved them. Of course smoking was another great method of curing or preservation.
In continental europe these preservation techniques, over time, became less of a method of survival and more of an art. Preserving all kinds of food flourished and these preserves became regional delicacies. Below are a few Italian cured meats that you should know more about.
Sopressata is a pork based pressed salami, that is notable for its most rustic style. With large chunks of pork leg, shoulder, tongue and cheek meat, fat, hot pepper and spices this salami is then hung to dry for between three and twelve weeks. This salami is central to southern Italian in origin and is great for sandwiches, meat platters and on pizza.
Capicola is another pork based cold cut that is traditionally made from pork collar and shoulder meat. A favourite of tv character Tony Soprano capicola goes by many names and different pronunciations, most famously from James Gandofini, “Gabbagool”. Capicola comes cured in different heats depending on how much chili pepper is involved in the curing process. I personally love this cold meat with some provolone on crusty bread. Nothing beats that simple combination.
Mortadella is one of the most famous cold cuts from Italy but it’s better known by the name of the region it hails from, Bolonga. It is made from ground ham along with 15% chunk fat as well as black pepper, nutmeg, olive, pistachios or jalapeño. Mortadella isn’t something that really does it for me personally but there are many children and man-children who would disagree. Mortadella can be served cold on bread but also is does well with a quick sauté in a hot pan. This caramelizes the meat nicely and give some much needed texture to the cut.
Prosciutto is a dried ham product made usually from the hind legs of a pig or boar. After the butchering the leg is packed in salt for a couple months and compressed, it is then rinsed and hung in a dark room. It was no wonder that prosciutto was the favourite food of Ed Gein.* Prosciutto must be sliced very thin to really get the proper effect when it is eaten, this effect is a beautiful airy melt in your mouth aged pork flavour that is as close to heaven as a heathen like me can achieve. Prosciutto is great in a sandwich, on a pizza, or wrapped around sweet melon.
Is an outlier on this list because it is not a pork product. Bresaola is made from beef, in the Northern Italian region of Lombardy. This air dried, salted beef leg is the bovine counterpoint to Prosciutto. The beef is also spiced with Juniper berries, nutmeg and cinnamon and the meat must be sliced very thin to get the amazingly complex flavours of this delicacy. Usually this cut is served in antipasto platters and is eaten with Parmigiano Reggiano.
Pancetta is similar to prosciutto but it comes from the Pork Belly. This cut is either rolled which gives it a swirled effect or it’s pressed flat which gives it a layered look. Either way pancetta is great on sandwiches or as a source of pork fat and flavour when cooking. Used much like bacon or lardon this compressed cut can last indefinitely in the right conditions unlike fresh bacon, which is great for cooks who wants to infuse the salty richness of pork into their dishes.
I am sure that I will take ungodly amounts of abuse for missing the multitudes of different Italian cured meats but this is a great start. Please enjoy cured meat in moderation it’s probably not the best thing for you to eat but sometimes you just have to shave some prosciutto and enjoy life.
*This is a joke, sorry Italy.