There’s a disagreement over salt.
We’re sitting around a marble-topped dining table in a vast farm kitchen that’s barely warmed by the fire in the Everhot Deluxe Aga stove. Everyone has a cup of strong tea and a shot glass of home-made passionfruit liquor in front of them. It’s 9:45am.
In between bites of chewy ciambella doughnuts and icing sugar-doused crostoli, we pass around a small bowl of fried pork mince seasoned with salt, pepper, chilli, paprika and wine. We each take one of the teaspoons that sit on the rim of the bowl and taste the mixture.
“It needs more salt,” says Eddie, a farmer and the patriarch of the family. His wife Gina agrees. Everyone else – their son David, his wife Marie, her friend Nadia and me – thinks it’s salty enough.
But Eddie and Gina know best. Eddie grew up on a farm in Salerno, Italy and when he was 12 his family moved to a farm outside Sydney. He grew up making salami, prosciutto, pancetta and myriad other small goods every winter. He and Gina have been doing it on their Western Sydney farm for 34 years.
“'Doing the pig’ is a tradition for a lot of Italian families,” David tells SBS Food. “It doesn’t happen in Five Dock backyards [in Sydney's inner west] obviously – but families out in the western suburbs and the northwest where they’ve got land, you’ll find them doing it.
“Growing up, I remember old Italians coming over with wine and home-made prosciutto and arguing over whose was better.”
The process takes three days in winter when the temperature is cold enough that the meat won’t spoil. On day one, the pig is slaughtered and cleaned. On day two, it’s butchered and the various cuts are put under salt.
In the shed, Eddie shows me cuts of meat that are layered with sea salt in a plastic tub. There’s pork belly for pancetta, cheek for guanciale, rear leg for prosciutto, neck for capocollo.
“It gets salted and compressed with whatever we have on the farm,” David says. “Dad was a bricklayer builder, so when I was growing up, we used bags of cement.”
“This leg is roughly 15 kilos, so it stays 15 days under the salt. You keep checking it to make sure the salt goes right to the bone,” says Eddie.
When I ask how he can tell, Eddie shrugs. “I don’t know, experience I guess. I’ve been doing this for a long time now.”
When SBS Food visits, it’s the third and final day when offcuts are minced in an electric meat grinder, seasoned and checked for taste, then stuffed into sheep’s intestine casing using a hand-cranked sausage maker, ready to be hung in the cellar under the house for seven weeks. Salami is relatively quick, but prosciutto will stay hanging for at least two years. If done correctly, when the meat is sliced, it’s glossy, marbled with fat and meltingly delicious.
There’s only one way to deal with seasoning the offcuts from a 200-kilogram pig: by hand. Before morning tea, David and I rolled up our sleeves and as Eddie sprinkled salt and pepper over the top, we kneaded the seasoning through the meat, ploughing with our hands towards the centre of the pile and then squeezing hard.
After watching quietly from the side, Eddie stepped in and took David’s place at the table. “If we keep going like this, we’ll never get it done,” he said matter-of-factly, ploughing and squeezing the meat with enormous, weathered bricklayer’s hands.
“It gets salted and compressed with whatever we have on the farm. Dad was a bricklayer builder, so when I was growing up, we used bags of cement.”
Back in the kitchen, waiting for the meat to marinade, Gina is constantly in motion, clearing the table, baking a batch of tooth-cracking hard Sicilian mustazzoli, or honey biscuits, and starting the meatballs, sauce and home-made ravioli for lunch. When we’re shepherded back to the shed, we discover Eddie and David already there adding more salt to the meat.
Gina stands at the sink giving the sheep intestines a final rinse, and reminisces about her own family doing the pig. “Everyone has their own tradition. In the old days, I remember my mother made sure there was nothing wasted out of the pig. She would measure the cuts off with her hand, this for this, that for that. She was unbelievable,” she says.
Italian farms in Italy and Australia preserve an incredible amount of food. There are pickling days, tomato days, pig days. I spy at least 1000 bottles of passata around the farm wrapped in newspaper and stacked on their sides. The cellar is full of cherry grappa, wine, red wine vinegar, strawberry liquor and piles of vacuum-sealed smallgoods.
These days, it’s harder to find a family that raises, slaughters and processes a whole pig. One first-generation Italian-Australian recently made salami with a cousin who bought a side of pig from the butcher. David, who is a barrister, helps his parents each winter, but he doesn’t have the space, equipment or inclination to do it at his renovated cottage in Sydney's inner west. Traditions are alive, but they’re shifting.
“Eddie’s cousin still lives on an acreage in Italy with a humongous garden,” Gina says. “They make their own olive oil, grow their own vegies, make their own bread. She lives on one side of the highway and the main town is on the other side. It’s like living in two worlds: the city and the farm.”
Gina returns to the sink and washes a thick coating of cold fat from her hands under hot water. Behind us on the table are 20 finished lengths of cacciatore and salami, ready to be hung and dried in the cellar.
“It’s a hard way of life, but it’s a good life,” she says. Then she walks back up to the house to finish making lunch while Eddie and David dismantle and clean the sausage machine, ready for next winter.
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