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Salumi: A Dangerous Beauty

June 22, 2009 | Frank Bonanno

Wild boar arrived at Luca a couple of weeks ago, but it’s not going to be on the menu for at least three more months. That’s because we’re grinding it, seasoning it, packing it, hanging it, slowly, slowly, s l o w l y, turning it into finocetta and capocola. In the seven years we’ve been crafting our own salumi at Luca, the wild boar’s a first–so it’s been great fun, but it got me to thinking about the recent popularity in curing meats . . .
A little while ago, a local cooking school asked if I would teach a class on making charcuterie. I declined. Because, while preserving meats is a great celebration of our ancestors and a return to a more natural, organic, aware form of cooking, it’s also cause for concern.
Making salumi—pork, generally, that is sugar and salt cured and air dried–is a big jump from making bacon or pancetta or even breseola. Hanging meat for extended periods, fermenting it, forcing bacteria to grow on it, changing temperatures from rigid to semi to no refrigeration–requires knowledge and commitment. It necessitates a level of patience, precision, and comprehension that used to be passed down from parent to child and among members of a community. Giving remnant chunks of meat from a slaughtered animal (shoulder, neck, head) more flavor, the ability to travel well, and a longer shelf life is a process mostly lost on this American generation. You have to be aware of temperature changes, and water activity and the ph balance of the meat as it ages. You have to promote the growth of “good” bacteria so that it will kill the bad, which means you need to know the difference between them. And you need to be able to tell when the product is finished—to wait weeks, months even, before enjoying the first taste.
Yes, you need patience.
You need practice.
And while you’re practicing, you need a string of guinea pigs willing to sample your efforts—guinea pigs who just might get sick on your first attempt. And then, after those weeks and weeks of waiting for the completion of that first product, you have to try again—this time to improve upon it, because all good recipes need honing. And then wait weeks and weeks to see how this effort turned out. And so on.
It is a genuine labor of love. With a background in chemistry.
At the restaurant, we have a water soluble ph tester to double check what we think we already know. We have refrigeration that guarantees a temperature. And we have trained chefs as guinea pigs.
I didn’t start curing meats for the novelty—I did it because seven years ago we couldn’t buy good salumi anywhere in this country. Now there’s all sorts of availability, but Luca’s product has surpassed most of what’s out there–but it took us years to get to this level, and it scares me to think that in someone’s home basement, in the chilly, dusty cellar of some novelty restaurant, in the wine room of a cooking school filled with someday chefs, there is a tube of ground, festering meat, decaying but giving new life to the bacteria growing upon and within it, waiting out the weeks . . .
To get someone intensely ill.