In this short-term benefit fuelled world with a 7-11 on every corner, there is no practical need for preserving food. If you need something, you can just go to the supermarket and get it; it doesn’t matter what season we’re in or climate we live in, you have access to it. However, cured, pickled, preserved and fermented foods are still around, we hang on to these food relics for their traditional and cultural significance, and unique flavours.
There is a pretty simple reason for the tradition of using or preserving as much of a whole animal once it was slaughtered: meat was expensive to buy, people without much money had to find a way to eat all the meat before it went off.
Before my Nonno came to Australia in 1952, making salami was an annual tradition he shared with his family in Soveria Mannelli, the town in Calabria where he grew up. They raised the pigs to 200kg, finishing them with corn, chestnuts and acorns to reduce the water content of the meat. He remembers each year being woken up early one morning by the sounds of the pigs being slaughtered, and knowing that it was salami making day. The pigs were gutted, with the intestines kept and cleaned to be used as the sausage skins. The whole family, as well as some friends, then got to work removing all of the good meat from the bones and sinew. Nonno says the best meat and the back fat was minced by hand for making sopressata, a salami spiced with chilli, pepper, wine and capsicum puree, which is pressed with stone weights while it cures. Calabrians are proud of the saying ‘Del maiale niente va perduto’ which means nothing of the pig is lost, the various offal was spiced and made into sausages, the bones were saved for making soup or ragu, and various cuts were kept aside and cured to make prosciutto, cappocolo, or pancetta. Even the skin was saved and slowly poached all day in melted down leftover fat to make frittole, a specialty Calabrian dish traditionally eaten that night. Not everyone in the town made salami, but all who had the resources to raise pigs did, as it guaranteed a supply of meat for the year. Remember, this is before the industrialisation of farming, so if you didn’t have it on hand, you didn’t have it at all.
Following the post war mass migration of Italians, mainly to America, Australia and Argentina, the food Italians cooked changed a lot. Meat was cheaper and more available in these countries, and there was more work available, so it became far more present in the diet. Australians were amazed at the relationship the new arrivals had with food: they grew their own vegetables, and preserved their own meat. A young, susceptible culture met with an old one, and soon ‘Australian cuisine’ had Italian fingerprints all over it.
About twenty years ago, a family friend who also has Calabrian heritage wanted to restart the tradition which his family stopped doing when he was young. He learned the recipe and techniques from his parents’ generation and wanted to preserve them. I started making salami when I was about six when my family and another joined in the annual event in their shed. Over the years we have tried lots of different recipes and preservation methods, including frittole, cappocolo, prosciutto, French saussison, cottochino, pancetta, bacon, rilletes, but the two slightly different Calabrian salami recipes have been a constant throughout.
On salami making day this year, a pig greets us when we go to the shed, she isn’t in one piece anymore, cut in quarters and hung in the cool room waiting for this important morning. Unfortunately, her head went missing somewhere at the abattoir, but we were given the cheeks along with the quartered carcass; perfect to go in the pan with the roast for dinner. We bring her out of the cool room and onto the stainless steel bench set up in the carport. Work begins by breaking the pig down into smaller pieces, then removing the bone and sinew and cutting into strips to suit the mincer. This year we kept about five kilos of the belly and loin to make a Porchetta roast for dinner that night. We ended up with about eighty kilos of meat for salami, split in half for the two recipes.
My family’s recipe uses paprika, chilli flakes, capsicum paste, tomato paste, pepper, salt and a sweet sicilian wine called zibbibo to flavour the sausages. Salt is the most important of these, as it is a part of the preserving process, the rest are all just for flavour. The other recipe we use is from a different part of Calabria, and is a bit more typical of the spices used in the area. It has a bit more chilli than our recipe, and fennel seeds, tomato paste, salt, pepper, paprika and red wine.
When the meat is minced and has the right fat content, we spread it out along the table and evenly cover it with the spices and wine. This is the stage where many hands make for light work, we all stand around the table and work the flavours through the meat with our hands. The pork is bitterly cold, and after a few minutes you lose most of the feeling in your fingers. The silver lining of this freezing cold cloud is that pork fat is the most amazing moisturiser, and everyone comes out of it with soft, supple hands as reward for their hard work.
We fry up a little bit of the spiced mince to make sure it’s all good, which is almost tastier than the end result. Where the salami is dry and rich, the fried meat is juicy and salty. The meat is put into synthetic casings with the aid of a slightly scary compressed air powered sausage filler, and then hung for a bit over a month.
Knowing that I make salami to the same recipe as my family in Calabria gives me the strongest sense of connection to my Italian heritage and is the most rewarding part of the process for me. Food is a part of culture that connects us to other generations, it can even be used to reconnect with them — ten years ago I visited the town where my Nonno was born with my family. Food is reflective of the influences of a time or place: what was available to grow or buy, and how food was made and eaten. We have our own modern set of these which is obvious in the food we consume, time is so valuable to us, so if you can cook something quickly and easily it is a huge benefit, and everything can be bought cheaply at any point of the year. These factors have changed our relationship with food drastically.
Home preserving has gone through a complete flip over the last fifty or so years, when my Nonno was still in Italy it was a cheaper way to ensure that food was available all year, especially over winter when there is less in season. Now it is a luxury which takes a lot more time and effort, and usually money, than buying it at the supermarket. It is absolutely worth it though, for the connection to culture, appreciation for the food we eat, and once you get good at it, for the quality of what you produce. There is a unique satisfaction in biting down on a sandwich, knowing that you saw it as a carcass in the cool room.
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