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Vero Italiano LA SALUMERIA

The third instalment in Mario Matassa’s new series uncovering the secrets of Italian food involves a trip to the deli counter to discover exactly why cured meats are so cherished by the Italian nation


Years back, driving through customs, it was common practice for Italian immigrants returning from their annual summer visit to the home country to discreetly conceal half a dozen salumi under the blankets of sleeping children in the back seat of the car. The risk of confiscation and a fine was deemed acceptable. Even today, for most Italians living abroad, the dream of a canopy of aging salumi hanging from the rafters in the cantina can be just that: a dream.

Salume (pl. salumi) is the generic name for all salted and cured meat products. They’re officially made in a salumificio and sold in a salumeria. (Unofficially they’re made in a neighbour’s kitchen.) But salume isn’t just salami and Parma ham. There are over 600 different types of salume and 100 types of cured ham produced the length of the peninsula. Which is the best depends ultimately on questions of taste, climate, quality of ingredients, means of production and provincial loyalty – the latter being akin to supporting your local football team. (For me, it’s my neighbour’s.) My point is that when Italians discuss the subject of salume (a surprisingly popular topic of conversation) they can be talking about, among others, cured ham (prosciutto crudo), coppa, pancetta, guanciale, lardo, culatello, speck, mortadella, bresaola and capocollo… And, within each type, there is a seemingly infinite variety.

The key point is that each salume is unique; just as no two wines are the same, so too with salumi. If you consider prosciutto crudo, it’s safe to say that almost everyone has heard of Parma ham, many will be familiar with San Daniele, fewer with the Norcia hams of Umbria. Yet these are just three out of a hundred different hams made in Italy. They’re not necessarily the best, just the most successfully branded and exported.

Understanding your salumi is about understanding territory. A complex combination of factors – which includes microclimate (humidity, temperature, air), breed, territory, ingredients, tradition and method – is integral to making a good salume. It seems odd, but it’s true nonetheless, that a good Parma ham can be made in the hills around Langhirano (the capitale del prosciutto) yet travel just 20 kilometres down the road to Zibello and you won’t find a producer for love nor money. However, detach the pear-shaped muscle from the middle of the same ham and the locals produce culatello – considered by many to be the king of cured meats.

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About Italia!

Our cover star, Ravello, clings to the cliffs above the panoramic Amalfi Coast and is a perfect starting point for our travels this month. Take a stroll through this vibrant town to discover a place where faith, music and creativity flow.