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Savoring Salumi

As summer approaches, look no farther than the East Bay for the best artisan salami and sausages


Tabla de charcuteria at Cesar in Oakland

EAST BAY CHEFS have gone wild with salumi, and so can you. But first you should know that this isn’t just a snobby way of saying salami. Salumi, the Italian equivalent of the French word charcuterie, refers to the entire category of salted or cured meat products—most often pork—from fresh sausage to salami to prosciutto to mortadella.

In the East Bay, you can find cured pork in every style, from Italian (Paul Canales’s soppressata at Oliveto and Charlie Hallowell’s pancetta at Pizzaiolo) to Spanish (Maggie Pond’s chorizo at César) to French (Jean-Pierre Moullé’s pork rillettes at Chez Panisse). In San Francisco, restaurants such as Incanto, Delfina, Perbacco, and A 16 all offer house-made salumi, and the trend extends to top restaurants nationwide, including Mario Batali’s Otto in New York City.

The history of sausage- and salami-making in the Bay Area goes back a long way, and today the craft has one special champion in Berkeley who is helping to elevate standards for salumi everywhere. “The Bay Area is one of the few places in the world that has the right climate for air curing,” says Patricia Unterman, the San Francisco Examiner food critic who has covered the local food scene for more than 30 years. “We have a long tradition of it in San Francisco. Molinari and Columbus have both made excellent commercial products for over 100 years, but the Italian artisan movement really began with Paul Bertolli and spread like wildfire.” Bertolli, whose Italian grandfather ran a butcher shop on Chicago’s South Side and sent him a salami each year at Christmas, has long had a knack for curing. When he cooked at Chez Panisse (1982–92), he began curing the olives, anchovies, and prosciutto. By the time he became chef at Oliveto in 1995, Bertolli was drying various meats in every nook and cranny he could find. In 2005, he left Oliveto to open his own company, Fra’ Mani, based in west Berkeley.

Although the scale of Bertolli’s operation has increased enormously from his days working in restaurant kitchens—buggies holding 200 kilos (about 400 pounds) of meat roll along his factory floor—Bertolli is still intimately involved with his craft. “You can’t make salami with a computer,” he says, stepping into the humid air of one of his aging rooms. “The trick of it is the hand feel.”

Bertolli produces his salami by first carefully grinding the pork. He then adds simple spices and seasonings, such as sea salt, black pepper, garlic, and red wine (his soppressata includes a touch of ground clove). Next, Bertolli packs the meat mixture as tightly as possible into all-natural hog casings—fastidiously washed portions of pig intestine that often have to be imported from Italy. Finally, Bertolli ties off each salami with natural twine and begins the months-long process of mold ripening (fermenting) and drying.

Fra’ Mani isn’t the only show in town. Beyond the chefs mentioned above, Berkeley’s Fatted Calf Charcuterie makes great pork products in the French style, such as crépinette sausages—round, flat disks of sausage wrapped in a lacy pork casing—and Oakland-based Niman Ranch (which supplies Bertolli with pork) now offers its own line of sausage and salami. One advantage of eating salumi from these local, artisan producers is that they don’t rely on added nitrites or nitrates, which some studies have linked to cancer, to cure their meat. Niman Ranch recently debuted its uncured salami, and its cured products are made with a natural preservative: celery juice. Similarly, Bertolli cures his salami naturally without adding nitrites.

Berkeley is also home to the King of Sausage himself, Bruce Aidells. He single-handedly defined the “gourmet sausage” niche when he founded Aidells Sausage Company in 1983. The business flourished in the 1980s, when Cajun food was in vogue (his first sausages were Cajun) and low-fat was the new national buzzword (he pioneered poultry sausage). Aidells sold his interest in the company five years ago, but he’s still on friendly terms with its owner, and the company continues to produce his signature flavored sausages, which are godsends at summer barbecues.

Do You Speak Salumi?
Salumi: the broad category of salted or cured meat products, most often pork.
Salame (pronounced sah-lah-may): a single cured, fermented, and dried sausage, most often pork.
Salami: more than one salame.
Soppressata: large salami, four inches in diameter, whose flavor varies depending on where it’s made. For example, soppressata from Venice is mild and seasoned with clove. In Calabria, it’s spicy.
Salametto: small salami, about two inches in diameter, perfect for picnics.
Toscano: salami made in the Tuscan style, usually about three inches in diameter, with a strong salty flavor, and studded with pieces of black pepper.
Prosciutto: cured pig leg, generally not smoked, served in paper-thin slices.
Speck: cured ham, similar to prosciutto but cured with spices.
Pancetta: cured pork product similar to bacon but not smoked. Pancetta is seasoned with a variety of spices and is used in cooking.
Mortadella: large cooked sausage made with beef and pork, similar to high-quality bologna. Mortadella is often accented with flecks of white pork fat and pistachios.
Lardo: cured pork fat, made from the layer of fat directly under the pig’s skin. Lardo is often sliced into paper-thin sheets to be eaten as antipasti. It is sometimes used as a pizza topping (in place of cheese).
Coppa: pork shoulder, cured as a piece after being marinated and compressed in a casing. It has a firm, dry texture and is eaten in thin slices like prosciutto.
Pâté: smooth liver mousse. Pâté can be made from pig, duck, chicken, or goose livers.
Ciccioli or Rillettes: Pork or other meats cooked in seasoned fat and pounded into a rough paste.

How to Serve Salumi
Take the meat out of the refrigerator about 30 minutes before serving. Let it come to room temperature so the fat has a chance to warm up.

The larger the diameter of the salami, the thinner it should be sliced. Always have larger salami and prosciutto sliced for you at the deli. Once the meat is sliced, serve it within three days.

Sweet flavors can be a nice counterpoint to the saltiness of cured meats. Offer Lambrusco, the light, effervescent red wine from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. You can also serve salumi alongside sliced fresh fruit, such as melons and figs, in summer.

In spite of the American convention of serving salami on platters with cheese, don’t feel compelled to do so yourself. Salami is rich and flavorful enough on its own.

Grilling Tips From Bruce Aidells, the King of Sausage
If you’re working with raw sausages, gently poach them before putting them on the grill. That way, you don’t have to char the exterior to make sure the meat inside is cooked.

Control the heat carefully, and always have a safe haven on your grill—a spot that’s not over heat—where you can move sausages if they catch fire.

Never grill sausages over high, direct flames. Use indirect heat and place a lid, if you have one, over the grill.

Turn the sausages frequently. Grilling requires patience and constant attention. Never leave the grill until all the meat
is removed.

Where’s the Meat?
Fra’ Mani products are sold at Whole Foods in San Ramon, Walnut Creek, and Berkeley; the Pasta Shop in Berkeley and Oakland; Berkeley Bowl; and Young’s Market in Kensington. www.framani.com

Fatted Calf Charcuterie products are available at the Saturday Berkeley farmers market. www.fattedcalf.com

The following shops also carry a good selection of salumi: Genova Delicatessen, Walnut Creek and Oakland; A. G. Ferrari, Berkeley and Lafayette; Magnani Poultry, Berkeley; The Wine Steward, Pleasanton; Beverages and More (various locations); Lunardi’s, Walnut Creek and Danville. ■

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