Oct 14, 2009

Salumi Primer - Italian cured meats

This evening I dined in a restaurant whose first menu entry for antipasto was a dish called Elogio del Porco, which roughly translates to ‘Plaudit to the pork.’ Although generally eaten as antipasto, salumi–or cold cuts–are a selection of cured meats often known also as "affettati misti" that can be enjoyed freely at any point of the meal. Salumi span a wide assortment of (generally) pork-based cured meats, and for a clear definition of salumi all you really have to do is eat some handsomely folded in a warm bread roll. Like this.

My favorite specialty store to visit (much more than a jeweler or a haute couture boutique) is a salumeria, a local Italian deli. This especially when I'm in Rome's centro storico, the central old part of the city, where the Roman deli is commonly called a pizzicheria, presided over by a pizzicagnolo, an artisan managing a sharp slicer, fragrant specialties and palatable delights. Another name for this exquisite little shop of wonders is Norcineria (from the town of Norcia, renowned for its cured meats), where the person behind the counter is a Norcino. Gastronomia or Alimentari–other ways of calling a salumeria–are places where one can also purchase a wide range of prepared gastronomy items, from salads to pre-cooked dishes, dry goods and canned delicacies.

Whatever the name, the smell in the store is divine and the arrangement of cheeses and cold cuts is a work of art, balance, and efficiently creative use of space. When the salumeria is strategically located next door to a fornaio, there is no way out: purchase some warm bread, slice it open and fold in some freshly cut cheese or cured meat, or a mix of both, and enjoy your life then and there. When you are done, crumbs littering your chest and smile widening on your face, you can walk another few steps to the nearest bar and get yourself un caffé.

Some of the distinctive cold cuts that fall under the generic domain of Salumi are porco-based, but not all. There are hundreds of types of salumi found in Italy, some of the most popular are:


Bresaola is salt-cured beef typical product of the Alpine valley Valtellina. Bresaola is usually served finely sliced, and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and lemon juice. Some like to add flecks of Parmigiano. I personally serve mine dribbled with pink grapefruit slices, olive oil, freshly ground black pepper and a little arugula.


This lean and rosy, refined variety of raw prosciutto ham, is made with a part of the normal ham cut closest to the pig's rump. The name refers in fact to the animal's culo, a vernacular term for 'rear end.' Universally considered superior, aged culatello has a clean, delicate flavor. It is highly prized and priced, but worth every penny it's worth.


This is a Tuscan fennel seed flavored salami that is aged less than regular salami, it is more of a soft sausage. Legend has it a thief stole a salami and hid it in a bushel of fennel seeds while chased down by guards. When he returned to pick up the booty, he found the aroma of the herb had seeped int the cured meat.


Galantina is a delectable meatloaf made from boned poultry, stuffed with ground meat, hard boiled eggs, giardiniera, ham, truffles and other diced ingredients, pressed into a cylindrical shape, and poached in an aspic-like stock.


The word translates as lard, and that's what this is, thick fat with some thin streaks of pink meat, cured with herbs, pepper, and salt. The best-known Italian lard is from the town of Colonnata, which is a small village perched on a ridge between two marble quarries in the Apuane Mountains above Carrara (the place where Michelangelo went to shop raw material for his sculptures).

Lardo can be used as a flavoring ingredient in other dishes (thinly sliced and wrapped around a filet mignon, for example), although it is best served as is, thinly sliced with plain toasted bread. If your cholesterol count can take it, this is one of the finest affettati around.

Rendered lard that's used for cooking as a shortening, is called strutto, and looks like a white paste.


This is a salume made from pork shoulder, which has been trimmed of its fat, slipped into a casing, and then salted and air-cured with herbs and spices, treating it much like prosciutto. It is one of the leanest cold cuts available, and rather delicately flavored. Capocollo, as it sometimes also called, is sometimes marinated in wine.


This si a precooked and highly seasoned sausage the size of my den. Mortadella is also known as Mortadella di Bologna, the signature cold cut of the city.

Mortadella is a cooked salume, made from ground pork meat that's been stuffed in a casing with peppercorns, pistachios and cubes of pink fat. The popular bologna is usually sliced and served as a sandwich filler. I usually have my pizzicagnolo carve a thick 1-inch slice and then cube it. I place the cubes in small bowls scattered around the house and nibble them during mid morning housework. And mortadella rules stuffed in warm pizza bianca.


This is a soft, spreadable Calabrian sausage that's been ground with tons of spicy red pepper, which lend it bold red color and a fiery flavor. The best way to enjoy 'nduja is scooping it out of the casing with a spoon, softening it further over mild heat, and dipping bread or veggies into it.


Dry cured pork's stomach meat. Pancia means abdomen, pancetta is also the affectionate name for the sexy pot-belly. Pancetta is made from the same cut used to make bacon. However, pancetta is not smoked, and there's no added sugar in the curing process.

Porchetta di Ariccia

Porchetta in the town of Ariccia is an institution, and no fair or festive gathering would be complete without it. Porchetta is commonly served in the town's many typical fraschette, local informal eateries where paper tablecloths and abundant portions are synonyms of quality. The Ariccia trademark porchetta looks very much like a cliché banquet prop from a Roman epic blockbuster. Fact is the Romans were great fans of porchetta, which has traveled through time and landed on our tables virtually unchanged from the one Nero ate during his orgies.

The ingredients are the same, a large boned and bound pig with an apple in its mouth, salt, pepper, garlic and herbs among which wild fennel or rosemary, depending on the Norcino who assembled it. The pork is spit roasted and served sliced, enjoyed with warm Genzano bread and abundant vino dei Castelli which is a table wine made in and around Frascati.


The Italian word for ham is Prosciutto. In this case dry-cured ham, which has not been cooked. Italians call it simply prosciutto, short for prosciutto crudo, which means "raw." Prosciutto is a specialty of northern Italy, the signature Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele, are the sweetest, loveliest, melt-in-your-mouth hams in the universe.

Prosciutto Cotto

Cotto means 'cooked,' and this what this ham is, the kind you purchase in a deli as a cold cut. Once boned and trimmed, the pork legs are cured in salt, water and fine spiced brines that impart the cooked hams their typical aroma. The pork legs are then put in special molds to be cooked in steam ovens. The ones to choose from the myriad available on the market are the hams containing no gluten, milk proteins, phosphates, or MSG. Sometimes prosciutto cotto is also roasted, a process that provides a delicately sophisticated flavor.


The large sausages made with ground pork and cubes of fat, seasoned with salt and spices, which are then stuffed into a pig's intestine casing are the common definition for salame. Like prosciutto crudo, Italian salame is raw*, with the meat being cured by the salt in the spice mix. Salame piccante, has red peppers in it mixture. In the United States this known as pepperoni, and for some unknown reason it commonly garnishes pizza! The town of Felino, just outside of Parma in the Emilia Romagna region, is famed for its namesake salame Felino. Then there's Salame Milano, a popular standard whose pork fat is finely ground; and there's Cacciatorino, which means 'little hunter,' and indeed tiny he is. Corallina has 3 squared chunks of white fat in the middle of the otherwise fairly lean slice. Ungherese is lightly smoked and ambrosial in sandwiches. So you see, calling it simply salami is an oversimplification.

Soppressata, or Coppa

This is a sausage made from leftover pork cuttings, like cartilage and pieces of meat, which are stuffed into a casing and then cooked. The taste and texture are rather particular; people generally make sure their guests like it before offering it.


Speck is a salt-cured and cold-smoked ham of the Südtirol, or Alto Adige. The production of Speck remains quite artisanal and has recently obtained IGP status, which means it can only be made in the Südtirol and only following local traditional production methods. Speck is commonly served as antipasto.

Plaudit to the pork, then. I agree.

*Trichinosis, you wonder? The disease caused by trichinae, typically from infected meat, especially pork, characterized by digestive disturbance, fever, and muscular rigidity? It's virtually unknown in Italy. The salt and the aging process guarantees salumi and other pork-based cold cuts to be a safe food because the salt ties up all the water, making it impossible for any form of bacteria to grow.

Images courtesy of NovelliSalumi.it, Buttalapasta.it, Sorrentino.it

Oct 10, 2009

Be my guest - Pflaumenkuchen plum cake

I'll be brief, because the smell of baking sweetness is making me dizzy here. I have to slip away and savour a slice while you meet this week's guest chef. I'll hand over my toque to Angela–we call her Geli–and let her tell you of her beautiful German island and her everyday adventures. Pop over to her lovely blog Letters from Usedom to read more of her wonderful stories on the intelligent and witty children she teaches, her love for education, her passion for gardening, nature and... Kuchen!

Geli, the kitchen is yours.

My lovely friend Lola sticks her head through my kitchen door. “What cake are you baking today?” She is always drawn by the smell. Lola likes to visit me in my kitchen, and I am always happy to welcome her. If there is one who can appreciate good food–the making, the looks, the taste, the presentation–there is no one like Lola! Her blog is an adventure for the palate and the eyes, and even I–not one for garlic–am overwhelmed by the wish to sit at Lola's kitchen table and share a plate with her of ANYTHING she has to offer!

My own joy lies in the baking of cakes. In Germany, it is a nice custom to invite friends over for afternoon coffee and have some home-baked cake to present.

“Look, I made a Pflaumenkuchen today, late September is the time of the ripe plums!” This is my husband's favourite cake, made with a yeast dough. Do you know how to make a yeast dough? Some are afraid to try it because it involves some time, but actually it is the most adaptable and easy-to-make dough.

Before I continue chatting I must tell you that Lola is also not here personally. We can only visit each other virtually, but by visiting each other's blogs and then starting to e-mail and sending pictures, we have become good friends, although she lives about 2000 km away from me in Rome, while I live in the far North-East corner of Germany, right next to the Polish border. Our island is situated in the beautiful Baltic Sea and is called Usedom (pronounced oo-za-dom).
Here you can see our beach in the summer...

...and this here is me.

If you had come to visit me in July, I could have offered you an angel-food cake, filled with whipped cream and my own garden-grown strawberries.

Or in winter, when snow is lying on the ground and you have to take off your boots and scarf and mittens before sitting down by the fireside, I would treat you with my favourite chocolate cake, along with a mug of hot chocolate.

The recipe for that one you can find on my blog post Chocolate and other cakes.

When my blog friend Fire Byrd visited me last month, she sat in our beach basket and enjoyed a piece. Paco was counting every bite!

Now, in the fall, my family also likes apple cake, which I make of a short pastry, filled with soft-cooked apples, and covered with a grating of pastry, and after baking, with an icing of powdered sugar and lemon juice.

But today it is Pflaumenkuchen, plum cake. Here you can see how it looks when waiting to be eaten. Of course, when you invite guests, they will look at you expectantly to see if you also provided for some whipped cream! Pflaumenkuchen und Schlagsahne, that's just unbeatable!

Here comes the recipe:

20 g yeast
1 teaspoon of sugar
250 ml (1 1/4 cup) lukewarm milk
400 to 500 grams (2 to 2 1/2 cups) of wheat flour, depending on stickiness of dough
75 g (2.6 oz) sugar
3 tablespoons oil, or 50 grams (1/4 cup) of soft butter,
A pinch of salt and some cinnamon, some powdered sugar if you like.

Put the teaspoon of sugar, 2/3 of the flour and 5 tablespoons of milk in a bowl. Then add yeast and stir together. Cover with a cloth and let rise at a moderately warm place for half an hour. Then add the rest of the ingredients. Stir with a spoon or work with your hands. Add flour if necessary but not too much. Dough must remain soft. After having kneaded it thoroughly, cover again and let it rise double its volume. Try if it is sweet enough for your taste.

Spread it on a greased baking tray.

Now prepare the plums (you may also use peeled and sliced apples). Remove the pits and cut in halves. Then put them closely onto pastry, insides up. If you skimp on the quantity of plums, it will show later because the dough will continue to rise and there will be uneven, empty spaces!

When you are finished, put the tray in a warm place again (the oven at 50° C) and wait till the dough has become soft and fully risen.

Now put a heat-proof dish with water inside the oven, underneath the tray, and heat it up thoroughly (220° C). The water will create clouds which will cover the cake and make it soft.

After ten minutes open the oven door so the steam can escape, then remove the heat to moderate temperatures (170 °C) and bake for further 15 or 20 minutes.

When the pastry is well done, remove tray with mittens onto a wooden plate or a cloth, let it cool.

Only AFTER fully cooled, add sugar or icing. If you do it before baking, or right afterwards, the plums will draw too much juice, and the cake will become too soggy.

Now, please sit down and put on your napkins!
Guten Appetit!

Thank you for participating, Geli!

Oct 6, 2009

Ciambelline al Vino recipe

I like finishing dinner with something sweet. But sometimes dessert is too much, especially after a hearty meal. In that case, dipping dried biscuits in the leftover red wine in my glass is the best way to end the evening.

The most famous dipping biscotti are the Tuscan Cantucci, known for their jaw-breaking hardness and their toasted almond surprise. Cantucci's liquor of choice is Tuscan vin santo, an auburn sweet dessert wine made with Trebbiano or Malvasia grapes. My thing are instead ciambelline al vino. Dry, crunchy sugar biscuits made WITH wine, and made FOR wine. The recipe to prepare them is absurdly easy, and the result is obscenely tasty. Try it.
800 gr (4 cups) all purpose flour, sifted

300 g (1 1/2 cups) sugar
250 ml (1 cup) good red wine
200 ml (7 fl oz) olive oil
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 teaspoon pastry yeast
A pinch of salt

Preheat oven at 180° C (350° F).

In a bowl, mix the liquids and the sugar with a wooden spoon. Add the sifted flour, yeast and vanilla extract with the salt little by little, to obtain a firm and slightly wet, yet not sticky mixture. Knead into a soft, supple dough and allow it to rest for about 30 minutes, covered. Cut the dough and roll into foot-long ropes, about 1/2 inch thick. Cut each rope into 20 cm sections and shape them into rings, clasping the ends with a little pressure. You can also use a cookie-cutter to form your ciambelline (which is a diminutive of ciambelle–"life savers").

Press the ciambelline in the sugar to coat, and bake in the oven on a greased cookie sheet for 20-30 minutes, or until golden.

Cool completely before serving after dinner, dipping them liberally in your wine glass. Sucking on the ciambelline, making noises and moaning while eating is encouraged. Kids are allowed a taste too, but only on special occasions.

Images courtesy of Forchettina.it, Gnocchettoalpomodoro.it

Oct 3, 2009


I love Abruzzo's not entirely undeserved reputation of being something of an undomesticated land.

The region's inland is mostly all rugged mountains, snow caps, small villages and valleys, and until not too long ago the primary economic activity was shepherding. It was even more important in the past, when herdsmen would transfer their flocks from winter pastures in the lowlands further south to summer pastures in the Abruzzo mountains–a twice yearly migration of millions of animals over numerous trails as wide as modern day highways.

This drive obviously helped the shepherds keep their flocks fit and alive (some pastures parch in summer). It also served to secure interdependence between the Abruzzo region, which was among the most isolated provinces of the country.

It's no accident then that the Transumanza–as the migration was called–began to decline following the unification of Italy. In 1864 a law was passed that recognized the rights of the farmers whose lands were crossed. Many of these forbade the passage of herds on of their property to prevent destroying the fields, or to charge tolls; and in 1908, Parliament reduced the number of migration routes to a mere four.

With the decline of the Transumanza, Abruzzo became more sequestered than it had been previously, an isolation that has only been broken since WWII, in part through the construction of highways, and in part through the development of tourism.

One very special Transumanza tradition fortunately survived the erased pasture routes, and that's spit-roasted arrosticini, the Abruzzi’s own delightful sheep-meat kebabs.

The ovine meat is carved in small, 1 cm cubes, about 1/2". Nowadays, arrosticini are commercially sold using emasculated sheep meat and prepared ready to be grilled, but with a little patience and skill, they can be easily made at home too.

The traditional arrosticini are cooked on the "rustillire" (or "furnacella"), a special narrow brazier built especially for the small 25-30 cm skewers, which can be easily turned and grilled without spilling onto the wood-burning coals.

If you do not have a grill or barbecue, arrosticini can be cooked on a griddle or in the oven, provided they be well seasoned with oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Here's how:

A minimum of 800 grams (4 cups) lean lamb, diced
Extra virgin olive oil
Rosemary in sprigs
Salt and pepper
The juice of 1/2 lemon

Start your coals or light the heat under your griddle, and keep at a medium temperature, for the cooking.
Skewer the meat cubes neatly on well-oiled metal skewers or tiny disposable wooden kebab sticks (which you’ll have soaked briefly in water, so the heat won’t burn the wood). Marinade your kebabs in olive oil, rosemary, salt and pepper. Turn them over to ensure all sides soak up the flavors. Dribble over the lemon juice and roast them on the barbecue quickly, 2-3 minutes, turning a couple of times to ensure even cooking, while basting the arrosticini with more olive oil, using your rosemary sprig.

The shepherd's tip:
Cosimo, my new shepherd friend from Calascio, tells me that arrosticini meat should not be too lean, the fat marbling should be about 25% of the total used, this will avoid the preparation to become too dry and toughen on the chew during roasting. Arrosticini should be mild flavored, not "muttony", and if properly cooked, will melt in your mouth. Also maintain the flames (or the heat) low so that the arrosticini won't char. And always keep a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo handy when grilling arrosticini...
Landscape and vintage images courtesy of Regione Abruzzo