We're celebrating the pig today at WhatsCook.in. I love pigs. I love them roasted, grilled, braised, seared, and smoked, but most of all I love pigs salted and dried. Prosciutto, salami, jamon, lomo, Mortandela, and my favorite: Culatello!
Culatello is sort of like prosciutto, only better. It’s the best muscle groups of a fresh ham, bound in a pig's bladder and then, if you’re lucky, hung in a barn close to the Po river, where it gains incomparable nuances from the generations of mold in that farmhouse and the subtle, slow changes in temperature and humidity that only natural ageing can provide.
Or you may be less lucky, which is increasingly common now that the EU is crushing artisanal food production due to imagined problems and fantasy problems. Just a little aside here: I think you have to have your head up your culatello to think fewer producers mass-marketing these artisanal products is a good idea. People have not gotten sick off these meats in, like, forever. (Disclaimer: I abhor this use of "like" and make an exception only for this somewhat less vulgar usage.)
These artisans created these amazing products and knew that if they started making people sick they would quickly find their product unsalable. That would leave them broke. In their stead, we now have big factors that age pork under optimal conditions turning out thousands of identical pieces of meat that just seem to lack soul. And when someone gets sick off their meat, which is not possible since this production is perfectly regulated by the infallible EU, the producer will be... thrilled with his insurance. We’re losing our cultural heritage to regulation, but that’s a fight for another day. Let's turn our attention back to the meat of the day: Pig!
The truth is there are fine producers of salumi (cured meats) out there who have managed to industrialize the ageing processes. Really, at their best, there is nothing to industrialize. At best, you can control certain parameters of the ageing process, but the key to these delicacies is: time!
Time, perhaps the last thing we don’t have control over (cue the theme to The Twilight Zone!). Yes, the key to these ageing processes is letting whatever is happening to happen, slowly and steadily, much like ageing wine in a cellar. In fact, there are remarkable parallels.
In today’s world, many people opt for the perfect control of an active cellar for their wines. It might be because they have no other option, or maybe it’s simply because they are a control freaks; for whatever reason, they are ageing their wines at some ideal combination of temperature and humidity. Other people who are blessed with appropriate facilities may opt for a passive cellar that sees small, but significant fluctuations in both humidity and temperature as the seasons pass. Which is better?
Well, the perfect cellar keeps the wine, well perfectly, much like the industrial producer. There is correctness about everything that breeds confidence. The passive cellar, on the other hand, breeds a certain level of inconsistencies. The wines are sometimes better, yet sometimes worse, but somehow in that lack of consistency there is beauty. Perhaps it is the beauty of this theory that lets us convince ourselves that this range of results allows for peaks that simply cannot be reached by means whose explicit aim is consistency.
Who knows for sure? I have the remnants of some artisan culatello in my fridge today and the level of complexity and depth of flavor in the little piece of pork butt are mind-bending. On the other hand, I’ve also been enjoying some wonderful prosciutto of late, produced by a large scale, yet still modestly sized producer who does little more than salt some hams and let them air dry for months. Fabulous as that prosciutto may be, living on the edge is somehow more exciting. There is something a little funky about my culatello that sets off that vestigial warning center in my brain that is designed to prevent humans from ingesting toxins and the like. But I am still here. A little less in control, and a little less worried about it!
OK, so while I’m saying too much of a good thing can be too much of a good thing, please don’t think that ageing meats in random basements is a sane thing to do. The people who do this for a living have learned from generations what they should and should not be doing. I’m all set to review a nice little tome called Charcuterie that can help those who do want to try to make their own salumi.
On the other hand, if you do decide to make some salumi -- which is my retirement plan by the way -- and it turns out well, samples will always be appreciated!
So, how exactly can salumi be made?
Let’s take a look at Mortandela...