May 22

Salami, Salumi, Ah…Baloney!

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Julia Moskin had a great article in last Wednesday’s New York Times Dining In section. It’s title Kissed by Air, Never by Fire, got the attention of the salami lover in me. I am a huge fan of traditional dry-cured sausages of all types and have enjoyed them all over Europe. I could happily make a meal of good dry salami, some hard nutty cheese, and a bottle of good wine almost any time.

One of the best meals I ever enjoyed in Italy was just such a spread. We were travelling in Campania a few years back with a group of 10 or so friends and had a late morning appointment to visit and tour the Di Meo vineyard and winery. As they all do–and if you’ve ever toured a winery, you’ll know just what I mean–the tour began at the point where the grapes come in and get crushed, then sit on the skins (if it’s to be a red wine) and yada yada yada on to the vats where the juice undergoes a malolactic fermentation and then into aged or not, French or not, oak barrels to mature and develop, then into bottles. Every tour ends up at the cellar that invariably leads up into the gift shop, where you can buy their wares. This one was no different to that point, but instead of stopping in the shop, we proceeded to a cozy family living and dining area and a surprise feast fit for a king (or in my case, queen).

The weather was chilly (it was October) and our thoughtful hosts (the DiMeo family) had laid a fire in the hearth and greeted us at the door with glasses of their dark, robust red wine. On the big farmhouse table they’d put out heaven on a plate: several kinds of hard, dry-cured Italian salame, hard cheeses, olives, and an entire plate of shaved black truffles. The perfect low-carb feast. Okay, there were loaves of dense, crusty, warm bread, too, and I admit to sampling a bit of it. Who could blame me? After all, when in Rome (or reasonably nearby)…

Sadly, according to Ms. Moskin’s piece, it’s getting ever harder to do as the Romans do if you’re trying to make artisanal salami in the good ole US of A. And the subhead of her article tells why:

“Dry-cured sausage feels the heat only from the inspectors”

Traditional dry-curing involves a many step process using fresh meat that is never cooked or frozen; artisanal salamis ferment, acidify, mold, and slowly dry out; it’s done just like the Romans did it and the Lucanians before them. It’s not about stainless steel vats and computers, it’s about a hands-on, almost personal relationship between the artisan and each of his works of art. When properly carried out, this time-honored method turns out salami that is not only safe to eat, but deliciously complex in flavor and aroma.

Unfortunately, the process lacks heat, freezing cold, or gamma rays and thus is deemed a health hazard by the powers that be–ie the USDA meat inspectors. And this difference of opinions about what is safe–this salami culture war that has arisen between artisanal sausage making and the modern Deptartment of Agriculture standards–is the thrust of Ms. Moskin’s piece.

Real salami–such as one would find hanging from the ceiling in an Italian salumeria or near the artisanal cheese case at a specialty grocer here–comes as a shrivelled imperfectly shaped sausage, completely coated in a fine white mold. It bears little resemblance in look or flavor to the greasy, waxy, tasteless, stuff you find vacuum-sealed in plastic bags, hanging on hooks next to the “sliced, processed cheese product” in the deli case of the supermarket.

Despite the salami artisans’ efforts to convince the USDA that killing unwanted bacteria happens by natural means in the traditional process, the USDA apparently remains unswayed and, according the Ms. Moskin, busy at work trying to shut down the manufacture and sale of artisanal salami in the US on health grounds.

I have just one word for them: Ba-loney!!

I fervently hope they will not succeed, but better to be safe than sorry. My advice is to run out or hop on line and get an artisanal salami while you can. I’ve got one awaiting in my kitchen, ready to be sliced up and enjoyed with a glass of lovely, rich Barnwood Cabernet this evening.


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