Salumeria: A Triumph of Gastronomical Proportions
A primer on Salumeria: the Italian term that refers to that vast, mouth-watering array of air-cured, preserved, and, in some cases, cooked meat. From prosciutto to mortadella, information on the dried meats (and their origins) that make an impact on Italy and your kitchen.
Italy's renowned cured, preserved and cooked meat
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
One of Italy’s favorite and most distinctive gastronomical inventions is salumeria—a term which refers to that vast, mouthwatering array of air-cured, preserved, and, in some cases, cooked preparations made (mostly) with pork meat: from prosciutto crudo to capocollo (capicola or coppa); from salsiccia fresca and secca (fresh and dry sausages) to various salami and sopressate (pressed salami from the south, most notably from Calabria) to cotechino (a delicious boiled sausage). After many years of living abroad, I have to admit that since returning to Italy, my desire for these succulent capolavori (masterpieces) appears insatiable. I just can’t get enough of them—and I’m not alone in this passion. Each region of Italy—and sometimes even just a particular part of a region—has its own specialty, which is not only greatly appreciated locally, but is sometimes exported all over the world. Today salumeria is appreciated even in such unexpected countries as China, who now must be counted among the devoted fans of Italian salumi.
Basically, there are two categories of salumi in Italy: the first type is made using just one part of the pig, such as the leg for raw or cooked prosciutto, or the belly for pancetta; the second type is insaccati (that is “encased”), meaning the raw or cooked meat products are wrapped within a natural or synthetic outer skin. This later category covers a vast array of pork products, such as sausages, salami, soppresse (sopressate), cotechini, mortadella and others. (It may be helpful to keep in mind that the word “salami” refers only to dried sausage; the Italian term “salume” covers all kinds of preserved meats.) Speck and bresaola (cured beef), for example, are very special kinds of salume from the northern Alpine region; they are extremely lean, and their taste is incomparable.
It is notable that there are 31 different “salumeria italiana” products that carry the most coveted European food labels: the D.O.P. (Denomination of Protected Origin) and I.G.P. (Indication of Geographical Protection). These labels ensure that strict standards of production are followed, and guarantee not only that the products are produced solely in specific geographical areas, but also that the animals are bred and raised only in designated regions. These guidelines are defined and regulated by European laws and monitored by different consortiums which ensure the methods of production for each single salume follow the traditions and regulations. The result is an impressive list of unique and traditional salumi with very different appearances and tastes; unfortunately, many of these products are only available in Italy. The United States Department of Agriculture has strict regulations about all imported fresh and cured pork meats. Happily, all prosciutti crudi that are aged 400 days or longer, and all cooked salumi (such as mortadella, Cotechino Modena, and others) are allowed. In the list below, we’ve indicated those products that are available in the U.S. with an asterisk—but it should be noted that even some of these permissible items may not be easily found in the U.S.
The USDA only allows certain meats to be sold, determined by the number of days it has been air-cured, so many of these items are not available in the states.
Salumi with DOP label:
Prosciutto di Parma*
Prosciutto di San Daniele*
Prosciutto di Modena*
Prosciutto Veneto Berico-Euganeo*
Prosciutto di Carpegna*
Salame di Varzi
Culatello di Zibello*
Jambon de Bosses (Val d'Aosta)*
Lard d'Arnad (Val d'Aosta)
Sopressata di Calabria
Capocollo di Calabria
Salsiccia di Calabria
Pancetta di Calabria
Salamini Italiani alla Cacciatora
Salumi with IGP label:
Bresaola della Valtellina `
Lardo di Colonnata
Prosciutto di Norcia*
Salame d'Oca di Mortara
Speck dell'Alto Adige*
It is believed that some of the salumi listed above were being produced long before recorded history, as depicted in pictorial representations in frescoes and proven by archeological evidence. From prehistoric times up until the early Middle Ages, pigs freely roamed the Italian countryside, particularly in the hills and wooded areas of the peninsula and the two large islands of Sicily and Sardinia. As these animals mingled among people in the countryside, they were very easy prey and the meat was extraordinarily succulent. The practice of using salt to preserve meat goes back thousands of years; the term “salumeria” derives from the Italian word for salt, or sale (pronounced SAH-lay)—and was developed alongside techniques for preserving fish and cheese making. Texts from Roman times indicate that the complex practice of preserving pork meat originated in the Mediterranean region and was already well established on the Italian peninsula. The dry, temperate weather and the richly varied geographic and climatic conditions of the Italian territories—together with the abundance of sea and mineral salt—all contributed to the development of the craft. Later, in Roman times, when legions of soldiers needed to be nourished, the techniques of salting and also air-curing pork meat became more refined. In the days of the early Roman empire, pernas—the latin term for “legs” (or prosciutti—and lucaniche (semi-dry sausages) were transported in large quantities, along with olive oil, wheat, wine, pecorino and dry figs. By the early Middle Ages, the practice of breeding hogs developed, and in the centuries to come, the accumulated experience, skills and wisdom for producing delicious salumeria were passed down through the generations and jealously protected within families.
It has been said that “tradition” can be defined as the sum of innovations that are collectively recognized as valuable. This is certainly true in the case of the development of the arte della salumeria. Besides the use of salt to preserve the best parts of the hog, like prosciutti, and air-curing techniques (for lonzini, for example, which is air-cured pork loin), smoking methods were added to the culinary repertoire for preserving meats. A combination of all three methods was also commonly used. As the famous Roman statesman and expert in agriculture Cato the Elder wrote in early Roman times, a technique for curing prosciutti (plural form) was used after initially salting the pork meat. After twelve days, the prosciutti were the washed and all the salt eliminated. The legs were then left out in the arid wind for two days to dry. After that, a mixture of olive oil and vinegar was applied, completely covering the prosciutti before hanging it near a fireplace. According to Cato, using this method would ensure good and hygienic results. With some variations, this method continued to be used for centuries; of course, other methods were also explored. Spices—such as pepper, hot pepper, cumin, saffron, and cinnamon—and herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary, parsley, coriander, and fennel, as well as garlic, were often added to prepare salami and salsicce (sausages).
Eventually, in early Renaissance times, the most skillful, experienced and talented salumiere (producers of salumeria) formed guilds to protect and codify their discoveries and practices. The town of Norcia in Umbria, still famous today for its salumeria, gave the name to the trade: the norcini. In winter, the norcini would go from farm to farm, butchering the hogs and preparing prosciutti, capocolli, lonzini, salami, sausages, pancetta arrotolata (rolled, air-cured pork belly), and pork lard for the family. Later, when hog breeding developed and up until modern industrialization, norcineria was a revered trade—venerated traditions and secret recipes passed down from generation to generation within families.
With industrialization came the first refrigeration systems, which had a great impact on the norcineria, providing great improvements in the techniques and hygienic practices of the industry. In the last thirty years, another significant development occurred when pork meat became much leaner due to changes in feeding and breeding methods. The centuries-old attachment that Italians have had for their traditional salumeria—and the great efforts made in safeguarding and improving upon traditions and recipes—has made it possible to develop and maintain an extraordinary level of quality and taste. Throughout Italy, it is possible to enjoy unique, unforgettable delicacies which are not only appreciated locally, but are successfull