Ten days in Italy with Brian Polcyn and Nic Heckett for a salume tour of northern and central Italy—primarily Piedmont, Tuscany, Umbria and Emilia-Romagna. Damn, Italy is beautiful.  There’s a reason Tuscany in particular is so romanticized.  Its rolling, forested hills and little towns perched on hillsides are breathtaking, particularly, I assure you, if you live in suburban Cleveland, Ohio.

View from salumeria Sergio Falaschi, San Miniato, Tuscany

I’m buried in work after being gone, so I will note a few highlights but of course keep the salume revelations for the book—there was one huge transformative one.  The book, a follow-up to Charcuterie and the reason for the trip, is due to the publisher September 1.  Yikes.

Various cured backfat at A. Mosca salumeria, Biella

The top photo was what our nightly table tended to look like in the beginning, salume tasting and notes.  What a pleasure it was to travel with Brian, who cooked dinner whenever we were near a kitchen (he’d wake in the morning thinking about the cotechino he was going to cook that night).  We stayed first outside the town of Biella, lovely untouristed city with a stellar salumeria, Mosca.  (A few pics and the whole drop-pin shape of the trip can be seen on my google maps, via my “author” app—click on the compass icon, scroll to Italy, enlarge Italy and start in Biella and go more or less counter clockwise.)

We picked up our colleague, Nic Heckett—who has begun a business, Woodlands Pork, attempting to create authentic American salume using ossabaws forested in the Appalachian hills—in Genova, and carried on to Colonnata, a town high in the Apuane Alps, above Carrara, where much of the world’s finest marble is quarried. Here they make Lardo, pork back fat cured in salt and herbs in marble casks.  Of all the things we ate, this lardo was one of the two great tastings we experienced.  Tastes of a place, tastes impossible to create anywhere else on earth.

Lardo curing in a marble cask below Bigi Luigi's shop in the center of Colonnata.

The second was the Culatello made by Massimo Spigarolli at his ancient villa Antica Corte Pallavicina.  Culatello is the top and bottom round of the back leg of the pig, sewn up in a bladder, tied and dried for 2 1/2 to nearly 4 years.  Like the lardo of Colonata, the Culatello, cured in a cellar several yards from the Po River, a cellar whose temperature-humidity control device is a window with a grate over it, is something that can only taste as it does given the pigs of the area and the drying conditions of the cellar. The oldest of the culatello was so soft on the palate it felt close to rot and had notes of stinky cheese along with the sweetness of the ham. Really spectactular.

Culatello hanging in the Spigaroli cellar

Below is the Spigaroli temperature and humidity control device.  The cellar was built in the 14th century, about twenty feet from the Po River.

Workers sense the ambient conditions and, especially in the summer, close or open the window to let the outside air in or close it off.

The final highlight was not food, but a working farm and a foundation.  Spannocchia is a foundation who’s mission is to further explore and teach sustainable and organic farming and to maintain and sustain the extraordinary villa and surrounding land.  Toward that end, the foundation brings in 8 interns for three month periods to work the farm and to see Italy.  They were an inspiring group and the place itself an agrarian idyll.

One of the interns, Elisa from new Jersey, feeding the pigs (an heirloom breed called Cinta Senese, brought back from near extinction in the 1990s)

Main guest house at Spannocchia

The final night found us at a Novotel near the airport outside Milan. Brian stole a serated knife and plate from behind the untended bar to cut some salami he’d picked up in Norcia (coglioni di mulo, named for their shape, “mule balls,” pear-sized salami with a bar of lardo running through the center).  The bartender, Vincenzo, hustled over to take it all away saying the hotel could get in trouble, but adding that if we wanted to know about salame, he could give us the real scoop, the way the best salume is made.  From his town, in Calabria.  The salume trail will continue.

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46 Wonderful responses to “Salume in Northern Italy”

  • Tom

    WOW!

    I am truly jealous. I do have to say that my first trip to Tuscany inspired me to attempt to recreate lardo from scratch (which is no small task when you live in New York City and are not a professional chef). After reading Charcuterie, and doing some research on the good ol’ web, I procured some fatback from my local CSA and am happy to say that after a few weeks of hanging in my basement, I had something resembling lardo. It was no “lardo di colonnata”, but it hit some of the same notes and started me on the (obsessive) pursuit of the perfect home cured salumi.

    Thanks for the inspiration… and my wife thanks (blames) you for the fact that our basement now looks like a deli.

  • Bob

    The passion which you bring to your writing is what makes it so engaging, Michael. You educate, you inspire, you elevate and help define a world that is broader and has more depth than many people (in general) realize as they trudge through a 9-to-5 routine.

  • Blake @ salt, teak & fog

    Amazing and just the thing for this gray San Francisco morning. Please keep the photos and descriptions of Italy coming… the first two photos alone are making my day.

  • Abigail @ Sugar Apple

    Love the salumi and the pics! When we were in Italy last summer, the two 11-year-old girls we had with us both ate salumi at almost every meal. The grownups loved it too. I wrote about the market and my Italian wasn’t quite good enough to know I posted about salumi called coglioni di mulo (mule’s testicles) and palle de nonno (Grandfather’s balls). Poor granddad: http://abigailblake.com/sugarapple/?p=1317

  • Nick

    Unbelievable. My wife and I are taking our delayed honeymoon to Italy in early October. I’ve never been before, but I have a feeling the trip might change my life ;)

    Thanks for the great writing and awesome photos. Can’t wait to check out the book!

  • Al W

    September!! What am I supposed to do in June, July and August?

  • Tags

    Nic Heckett’s comment on your Oct 25, 2007 “Beauty Itself” post is the best comment I’ve ever read on a blog. Maybe that’s why I cut and pasted it so I can click an icon on my desktop and read it any time.

    I don’t know about the others, but I certainly will be forgiving if you take it easy on the blog while working on the Charcuterie followup.

  • Jon

    Lardo! We are fortunate to spend several weeks a year in Italy and lardo is always the first thing we buy.

    Pity it is nearly impossible to obtain in Southern CA. Thought about curing my own but sources of fatback also seem to be few and far between.

  • Thom Stilton

    If you are eating a cured product so close to “rot” as you mention, this must have some consequences for your digestive systems correct ?

    At what point is food safety a concern ? I’m sure you guys all travel with emergency rolls of Charmin.

  • Martha

    Looks like a fabulous trip!!! We took a cooking class there in the Sabina region in a small medieval town called Toffia. You are right about the views – absolutely breathtaking!! Glad you had the opportunity to make this trip. Looking forward to seeing more pictures in the new book.

  • Andrew

    Really amazing-I’ll (painfully) forgo all blog posts from you if it means a follow up to Charcuterie comes early

  • Vivian

    Absolutely incredible. Excited about your new book and can’t wait to see it. I will be dreaming of Salume, Italy and Lardo for the rest of the week now thank you :)

  • Natalie Sztern

    I cannot wait for this book to come out…wow! It is hard to come back to real life after a trip like this; it makes you want to run away eh?

  • Karen Downie Makley

    1. Missed the up-to-the-minute postings…thanks for coming back to it with such promptness
    2. That looks like so much fun and so much good eating…Ahhh!!
    3. OK…can I just bust your chops about the 10oz pour of vino in front of your notebook in the first photo ?!!! (but only because I want a 10oz pour of vino in Italia!)

  • Amy Viny

    Wow wonderful post–can’t wait to get the new book. Question–do the traditional Italian salume craftsmen use nitrates or are they only using salt, air and time? I’m aware of only two U.S. producers (of country ham–Benton’s and Newsom’s) that do not use nitrates but they must do a careful dance with the FDA to stay within guidelines. Seems everyone else who cures meats here must use nitrates. Do you notice a deeper flavor in non-nitrate cured meats? I think I do.

    • ruhlman

      they only use salt. which is fine for whole muscles but i still don’t know what protects against botulism. i don’t notice a flavor difference due to nitrates.

      • bobdelgrosso

        I am pretty sure that the sea salt used is naturally high in nitrate salts which precipitates along with sodium chloride and other salts during evaporation. Mediterranean sea salt is famous for containing lots of nitrate- at least some of it is.

        • Mark Bitterman

          Actually, there are virtually no nitrates in natural salt. Certainly not enough to contribute substantially to heavy combat like firefight with botulism. Unrefined sea salt is made up of a host different cations (+ charged ions) and anions (- charged ions). Sodium is obviously the major cation, with magnesium, calcium, potassium and a long list others following in small amounts after that. Balancing that out are a bunch of anions. The vast majority of anions are chloride, carbonate, and sulfate. There are others in ever diminishing quantities. I’ve looked at mineral anaysis of many dozens of sea salts, many going down to 0.000001% (the amount of gold that is in unrefined salt), but it is rare that you find any nitrate at all in any of them. Nitrate salts used in cure contain anywhere from 4% sodium nitrate to 100% potassium nitrate (saltpeter). If you are counting on a natural sea salt to provide a nitrate cure, you are off by at least a factor of 10000 in your salt/nitrate ratio.

          An important thing to find out in a meat, salt, air, and time recipe like dry curing–after you’ve figured out the meat part–is the salt. Are they using a Trapani Salt from Sicily way to the south or a Cervia Salt (~97% NaCl) from nearby Emilia-Romagna (~94 to 85% NaCl), or another–or are they just using some industrial salt (99.8% NaCl)?

  • Casey Angelova

    What a fantastic work trip! I look forward to your next book about curing meats. This is an area that I really want to delve into.

  • Karen Fratto

    Oh la bella Italia, I lived there for 15 years in the south of Italy in the small costal town of Sellia Marina, in the foothills of the Sila mountains of Calabria. The bartender is right about the salame in Calabria – I am hoping you will get down there to experience the wonderful sopresata – some of the best salame in Italy. I can taste it now! Yum! What a wonderful trip for you. Looking forward to your book. I hope you can duplicate the salame back in the states. We tried to in Ohio but failed, something there in the air and climate that just can’t be duplicated!! Counting on you for some guidance. Enjoy the tastes and sights!

  • E. Nassar

    A followup to Charcuterie! That is great news Michael. Looking forward to hearing more about that.

  • Phil B

    Do you have any specifics on the cures used for the various sausages? I’m curious what some of the spices and herbs they toss in there are.

    • ruhlman

      usually very simple seasoning. a lot of fresh fennel. pepper. bay. sometimes juniper. chilli pepper. that was it.

  • Deborah Barocas

    Awesome photos Michael, I especially loved the sliced salami, and the villa(main guest house). If those pigs only knew what happens to their butts, they would fry that intern :)

  • Mantonat

    Just thinking about the noble pig; is it the only livestock that serves no purpose while alive? Thank you for your sacrifice, pig, and the many wonderful products you give us.

  • Chris

    That first picture reminds me of my honeymoon two years ago. My wife has family who own a home in Tuscany in the hills and we stayed with the locals. The small water style glasses for wine (which was homemade, along with the olive oil), the home cured pig, they would butcher one a year and cure everything, eating the different pieces as they were ready. This makes me want to go back, the landscape is unbelievable… Great pictures, they bring back awesome memories

  • Chris

    Make sure to have some Porchetta while you are there. I couldnt get enough of it.

  • HankShaw

    A follow-up to Charcuterie, huh? I for one will be buying it. Good luck on the book deadline! Like Georgia, I too know how that feels…

  • luis

    We were planning a trip to Italy. I am learning Italian although…haven’t had a chance to work on it for several months.. long story short Tuscany is a beautiful place.

    That is a beautiful spread and If you write another book on charcuterie I will be buying it.

    Something good happened that may turn my week into 12 shifts and thus free up three and four days at a time…. if that were to happen I would surely start making my own sausages and such….

    Small world… just had a 12% sausage, I didn’t prick it… I cooked it low and slow and browned its casing and it was delicious.

  • Brooke@foodwoolf.com

    Sigh….Italy….Wonderful to hear this meat-gorging trip was all for your upcoming book. Your September deadline put a HUGE lump in my throat as I thought about all the writing you have to do between now and then. So turn off that Twitter and go to it!

    xoxox,
    Brooke

  • Scott

    I was wondering; do the tradional salumerias use lab produced bacto fermentation cultures these days? If so, I was wondering what they were using. If not are they still back batching?
    Thanks for the great story.

    • ruhlman

      they use no nitrate of any kind and no added bacteria. i understand the latter, but not how they protect against botulism.

  • Jennifer S

    I’m thrilled about a followup to Charcuterie! I’ve been spending more time making sausages lately, and am pleased with the results I’ve been getting. I can’t wait to see what you and Brian come up with now.

    Great photos and descriptions, by the way. Forza Pancetta! Viva lo speck!

  • Mark Bitterman

    Regarding the use of marble vats to make lardo. How freaking cool is that? It’s been speculated that calcium or some such mineral might affect the fat. Marble may contain calcium chloride, but it is likely to contain far more calcium carbonate, and calcium carbonate can influence the cure process and flavor of meat I think. But I don’t see the marble itself contributing a significant amount to the lardo. Unrefined salt would provide vastly more calcium carbonate than such environmental factors could possibly hope to achieve, with some salts containing 1% or more of the mineral. If the lardo-meister likes the impact of calcium carbonate, the logical move would be to source a good calcium carbonate-rich salt. The far greater impact of the marble tubs would likely be their thermal mass and thermal conductivity, giving the lardo a certain connection to the ambient temperatures.

  • John Schwarz

    The amazing thing about your photo from salumeria Sergio Falaschi is that it’s not taken from some special courtyard for customers, that’s the view that the hams get while they cure! Go back to San Miniato in November for tartufo bianco season.

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