Recently, I relished the rare opportunity to take a whole pig, break it down into segments and cure every last bit – ie the cheeks (guanciale) right down to the legs (prosciutto). Salumi is the term for these resulting cured products, plus various forms of salami, such as mortadella (a cooked version) and bresaola (air-dried beef loin). Salting and curing the various pork parts can take anywhere between six weeks – for a glorious hunk of coppa, made from the neck muscle – and up to three years for prosciutto, which is a curing exercise not to be taken lightly.
A look at tradition
The centuries-old art of curing meat arose from the need for humans to preserve in times of abundance, in order to eat come the cold winter months, when fresh produce is scarce. Thus, our Italian friends have a long-held tradition of salumi-making, which takes place over a couple of days, with everyone lending a hand. Practically all of the pig is used: the blood is collected to make biroldo, a delicious blood sausage; the head becomes coppa di testa; trotters become zampone; the bones used in a hearty broth, and so it goes. It's a celebration of the whole animal, where nothing is wasted.
Can I make salumi at home?
Making any type of salumi yourself is entirely possible, but does involve time, research and dedication. My advice is to read as many books as you can, understand the different cuts of pig, and sharpen your knives. Also, finding a cave in the Italian hillside to hang your wares would help.
A few of my favourites
’Nduja It’s always risky to apply the word “favourite” to a food, especially when, like me, you tend to over-use it. But this really is my favourite. A soft, spreadable salami from Calabria, ’nduja is hot and spicy to the point of almost ridiculous, and contains more pork fat than meat. It's hard to find but well worth the hunt.
Culatello This regional speciality of Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy is made from the butt-end of the pig leg, and is therefore boneless. It's salted, stuffed into the bladder of the pig and left to dry for up to four years. The taste is similar to prosciutto, but sweeter, nuttier and earthier. I once stayed in an amazing old castle, Antica Corte Pallavicina along the Po river, where they've been making culatello for hundreds of years. While exploring its cellars, I discovered room upon room of ceilings and walls covered with hundreds of ball-shaped culatello. The smell of them drying permeated the entire castle.
Lardo Otherwise known as cured pork back fat, this is something that fills many people with horror, but is actually sweet and delicious. Sliced thinly, it is delightful on bruschetta, works well with seafood, and can be draped over a risotto. It’s a good way to begin your curing career, as it’s so easy to make. All that’s needed is fine quality pork back fat, lots of salt, and a little spice.
Photography by Benito Martin. Styling by Jerrie-Joy Redman-Lloyd.
Visit Matthew Evans' Fat Pig Farm online cooking school, for the basics of how to break down a pig.