Salumi is not a term that is heard often outside Italy, yet many of these products are found in specialty shops, Italian delicatessens and are used by cooks the world over. Some examples, like Prosciutto need no introduction while others are not usually seen outside the mother country. Salumi is a large family of high-quality cured meats that go beyond Italy's famous hams, lending their flavors to terrific appetizers as well as main courses.
Salumi is often confused with other Italian meat products known as Salami. Salumi is the product family that includes salami. Salami is a term that describes sausage made from ground pork and spices, which is then encased and often cured. Salumi is also made of pork (usually) but denotes a product that has been preserved in salt (and spices) and not encased before aging. However there are examples of Salumi that does use a natural casing, therefore all Salami are Salumi, but not all Salumi are Salami. What these two related products share is the same high quality ingredients, well-raised hogs and traditional production methods to produce Salumi that is often protected by a PDO or PGI designation.
Salumi starts with whole cuts of meat from large farm-raised hogs that are cured in salt or brine and then dry-aged. The most famous of these is Prosciutto, which stands alone when it comes to quality and flavor. However there are numerous varieties, each different in its own way and many now available outside of Italy.
Types of Salumi
No longer a secret outside of Italy, Pancetta is a hit among chefs worldwide. Pancetta is often known as "Italian bacon", however it is not really an accurate description. They look quite similar, both have pink meat with layers of white fat and they both originate from the belly portion of the hog. But that is where the similarities stop since unlike bacon, Pancetta is not smoked but cured. Using salt, pepper and cloves among other spices (depending upon the region) Pancetta is cured just enough to allow for some moisture to remain before resting for up to two weeks in cool, dark rooms. Two specific types of Pancetta, the Piacentina and Calabrian versions have been protected by the PDO mark and still used traditional methods. However there are now smoked versions using beechwood or oak that are very similar to American bacon. Traditional Pancetta is often the base of savory sauces and can be rendered down to form a braising liquid for meat or vegetables.
Speck shares its name with a German pork product, but while German Speck is basically lard (the equivalent to Lardo in Italy), Italian Speck has some similar characteristics to smoked bacon. However unlike American bacon that comes from belly portion of the hog (same as Pancetta), Speck is made from hog legs. Speck originates from the Alto Adige region where it is still a home made process protected by a PGI designation. The meat is seasoned with salt and spices that include pepper, laurel and juniper berries before being allowed to rest for about a month. Speck is then smoked using flavorful beechwood, ash or juniper for ten days. The meat is then aged for months to produce a smoky and slightly spicy product with a distinct pink/red interior with a small amount of fat. Speck is often served sliced thin or diced but can also be used to cook with, easily replacing bacon or as a smoky alternative to Pancetta.
Guanciale has become quite popular and much more available outside of Italy. Guanciale is the cured meat from the jowl of the hog and the name derives from "guancia", which means the cheek. The meat is cured by covering in salt, pepper, chili pepper and sometimes sugar for a month. After hanging for another month, the Guanciale is ready to be consumed. Unlike most varieties this savory salumi is not often eaten by itself. Instead it lends its flavor to the dishes of the Latium region especially its sauces including Amatriciana, Carbonara and Gricia. Guanciale can replace Pancetta in any recipe for a bolder flavor.
This is one of the most popular, but also the most involved of all the salumi. Not only is great care taken in making Culatello, but also serving this salumi requires special attention. Culatello originates from the Parma region and is yet another masterpiece from the makers of the Prosciutto di Parma. In fact both products are made from the leg but only a particular portion is made into Culatello. The meat is salt cured for three days, massaged and then allowed to rest before being encased. Therefore Culatello is technically a salumi as well as a salami. After being allowed to age for up to a year, Culatello is finally ready to eat, sort of.
The outer skin of Culatello must first be scraped away and the meat moistened by a wine soaked cloth. After a couple of days the skin and fat are removed and the Culatello is sliced thinly. This is truly a regional delicacy and the care in preparation of this salumi is unequalled in Italy. The painstaking process of the prestigious Culatello di Zibello is now protected by a PDO designation.
Coppa, Capocollo and Soppressa
These three regional products are other examples of encased salumi, similar to salami. However the process in making these differs from salami in that the meat is not ground and mixed with fat. Instead Coppa, Capocollo and Soppressa are made in a manner closer to Prosciutto, thus making them salumi. They share a common production method of using mostly neck portions of the hog, using wine, salt and a spice mix. The blend is allowed to rest in a ten-day cycle before being encased and aged. Coppa hails from Piacenza while Capocollo originates from Calabria - both are protected by PDO. Soppressa is the variety made in the Veneto and uses shoulder and leg portions as well as red wine. It is also aged for longer, up to a year. All varieties have a texture that is reminiscent of a Prosciutto with a red color contrasted by white veins of fat. Flavors can range from delicate and mellow to the more robust and spicy Capocollo.
Beef Salumi: Bresaola
Bresaola is the one major exception to the all-pork world of salumi. It is made from beef in the Valtellina area but shares a similar production method to pork salumi. Beef fillets are mixed with salt, pepper, laurel and cloves before being allowed to age. The meat is then encased and allowed to mature for about three months. Bresaola is dark red and should have almost no fat at all, it is sliced very thin and served as an antipasto with olive oil and lemon.
Slicing and Serving suggestions
Most of these salumi last a long time so long as they remain unsliced. However all of them must be consumed quickly after being sliced to prevent flavor and moisture loss. That is why it is best to only purchase what you can eat in a short time. In the case of Bresaola, it must be eaten immediately upon being sliced. The same is true of Culatello and Speck, which will dry out quickly. Most of these salumi are served in antipasti and should be sliced very thin to get the most flavor and aroma. However, Pancetta, Guanciale and Speck can sliced thin, chopped or diced since they are mostly used in cooking. All varieties of salumi go well with white wines such as Pino Grigio, however sparkling whites are also recommended. For smoked salumi like Speck and versions of Pancetta also go well with beer.
By Justin Demetri
For Further Information:
DOP cured meats: http://www.italianmade.com/foods/cat18.cfm
Culatello di Zibello: http://www.stradadelculatello.it/
Istituto Valorizzazione Salumi Italiani - http://www.salumi-italiani.it/
Salami and Salumi information from Milioni magazine: