Soppressa del Pasubio; or, How I fell in love with a salami

The best reason to travel to another country may not be food. It may be culture, or stunning vistas, or a dark and sultry lover. For me, though, there are no vistas more stunning than a platter of antipasti, Italian palate-teasers. However sultry the lover, his skin could never glisten as fetchingly as the sheen of oil on hand-cured olives, the delicate layer of fat on a perfect slice of prosciutto, the juice of sun-warmed Tuscan tomatoes just off the vine. I realize that this says something rather disturbing about my priorities, but I choose not to analyze it.

My homegrown American lover and I have a deep and irrepressible yen for Italy, specifically Italian food. Neither of us have heritage or ancestry there; Sam's relatives hail from Scotland, and my lineage is as German as bratwurst. Whenever we are forced by laziness or economic duress to eat hamburgers or plain grilled chicken, we try to spice up the blandness of the meal at hand by telling one another Italian food stories. Sam brings me food porn to supplement my fantasy life - collections of essays by M.F.K. Fisher; glossy magazines brimming with photos of sun-ripened produce and golden-brown roasted meats; indecipherable Italian cookbooks that I pore over like sacred Aramaic texts; exotic goodies from the local Italian market. (Persimmons - who knew they tasted like autumn? Salt-cured olives that suck all the moisture from my mouth and replace it with a flavor so intense and singular I think I might swoon. Asiago cheese, the milder country cousin of the King of Cheese, Parmigiano-Reggiano. And pomegranates, each perfect globe a jewelry box full of the tiniest sweetest rubies of exploding nectar.) So we eat our American food and read stories to one another from Gourmet magazine and shamelessly romanticize the Italian countryside.

~reverie~

One day, we say, one day we will rent a tiny villa. We will sip grappa from thimble-sized cups until we are too dizzy to stand. We will lie down in fields of wild oregano and feed one another fried baby artichokes. We will learn to say "please" and "thank you" with our manners, and not be Ugly Americans. We will find tiny restaurants and trattorias and never order off the menu; instead we will gladly bow to the whims of each and every chef. We will laze in a sunlit stone kitchen with three cats and wait all day for the sauce to perfect itself. We will eat when we are hungry (nibbling on crostini, on almonds, on slivers of tangy cheese) and relegate mealtimes to myth and memory.

The Chase

Just before Christmas I was rifling through my latest edition of La Cucina Italiana (which I think means Italian Food Porn) and I came across a photo essay that made me sit bolt upright and salivate. There, against a completely black background, was a shot of the most perfect salami I had ever seen. In the complex hierarchy of Italian foods, it is my considered opinion that Italian meat products may be second only to Italian cheeses. This photo captured the "is-ness" of the salami - peppercorns thrown into bold relief by pure white flecks of fat, meat rich and red, casing aged and chewy-looking. This is a sausage to savor, to slice thinly, to enjoy with good wine and only the best company. I read on and discovered that not only is it a beautiful product, it is rare as well, very difficult to find even in Italy, and seldom imported.

It's called soppressa del Pasubio, and it's a regional type of salami, but several distinctive features elevate it above other more mundane varieties of salami. It is described as having a firm, dense texture and a pure, salty flavor. Produced exclusively in a small province of the Veneto (the northeastern region of Italy situated on the Adriatic Sea), soppressa is considered a prized delicacy, a true regional flavor in a country that holds such "local secrets" in very high regard. Its most passionate adherents are found in the province of Treviso, where the lean, chewy, aged salami is often served over bowls of steaming polenta. The hot polenta melts the fat in the salami, forming a succulent gravy for the relatively bland cornmeal. This is the kind of food I want to sink my teeth into, to roll on my tongue - food that has secrets and history and its own private, peerless flavor. After I read the article, I wanted to write about it, but decided I needed to do a bit more research on its production. When I searched for soppressa, every one of the top sites in my search was in Italian. "A HA!" I chortled to myself, "I'm on to something good here!"

In which I learn of the scrumptiousness that is Soppressa

Was I right. "Good" is far too pallid a description for this stuff. Soppressa is a coddled product, an artisan salami made completely by hand. There are Rules, and lots of them. The creation of soppressa is not an undertaking one enters into lightly. The maker begins the long process by meticulously choosing the right cuts of pork. Soppressa makers refuse to use any pigs but the ones raised on the Prealpine slopes of the Pasubio, a regional cluster of hills surrounding one particular mountain, where the animals are fed a strict diet consisting primarily of chestnuts and potatoes. Farmers insist that this diet in combination with the mineral-rich waters from the surrounding mountain streams lends a subtle but unmistakable character to the soppressa. The cuts themselves must come only from the shoulder and leg of the animal, and must be 65 to 70 percent lean.

The fat used in the soppressa is a matter unto itself. Not just any pork fat is good enough for this meaty treasure. Most Italian sausages use regular chunks of fat, but soppressa requires lardo, an aged, cured pork fat that is generally served as an antipasto or used as a flavoring in cooking. Nothing like simple lard (which is called strutto in Italian), lardo is classified as a cold cut, or salume, rather than as a cooking fat. It is sold in large marble-white slabs about the size of a side of bacon, and its creamy color gives it its nickname, prosciutto bianco ("white ham"). It's made from the tenderest fat from the back of the pig, which is salted and rubbed with garlic, layered with aromatic herbs, pressed between marble slabs, and finally left in cool marble storage bins to age for as much as six months. When served as an antipasto, lardo is shaved paper-thin and treated like the finest ham, usually draped over hot crostini to melt and lend its richness to the toasted, crusty bread. When smoked it becomes lardo affumicato, or simply lardone. For soppressa, plain, elegant lardo is used, but with a twist: only lardo made from pigs raised in the Pasubio is deemed worthy to use in this local delicacy.

After the pork cuts and lardo have been carefully selected, the artisan chops the lean meat and fat together by hand. This is an exacting process, and meat grinders are eschewed, imparting to the final product a firmer, chunkier texture than most machine processed salamis. By all accounts, soppressa is hardier and meatier than lesser commercial salamis. Generous quantities of salt and coarsely cracked pepper are added to the meat mixture during the chopping process. Some makers add their own spice blends, garlic being the primary accepted addition, but soppresso del Pasubio is not typically a highly spiced product. This, however, is the juncture in the process when the soppressa can be treated in one of two distinctive ways. One variation called soppressa con fil contains a "surprise" filling: a thin pork fillet placed exactly in the center of the roll. Alternatively, the maker may soak the meat-and-lardo mixture in a vat of Amarone della Valpolicella, a dry, full-bodied red wine produced in the surrounding Veneto. (Note: this is the type of soppressa I want to try!)

Once the meat mixture is perfectly chopped (not too fine, not too coarse) and perhaps soaked in the Amarone, it is stuffed by hand into sausage casings made from the linings of pig intestines that have been cleaned and boiled. It's then plunged into vats of warm water to soften the chunks of lardo and given a vigorous massage by hand. This accomplishes two things: it evenly distributes the lardo throughout the pork mixture and tightens up the casings for a firmer, plumper finished product. The bath mellows the salinity of the finished product, allowing the taster to experience less of a salty "bite" and more of the ineffable aged quality of the meat itself. The salami is then divided with twine into generously sized links about three to four inches in diameter. The soppressa del Pasubio is left to hang and age in a cool, dry, dark place for anywhere from three months to one full year before it is ready to be sliced and enjoyed.

A gentle admonition

Though true soppressa may be found only in the Veneto, soppressa-hunters must beware sound-alikes and pretenders. It's a bit tricky; the Southern regions of Calabria and Apulia (respectively the sole and heel of the Italian "boot") produce a salami that not only looks nearly identical to soppressa del Pasubio, it is even called soppressata. The Southern Italian varieties, however, are much more aggressively spiced, with sweet red pepper flakes mixed into the meat for color. The greatest difference between soppressata from the Veneto and its Southern Italian cousin is that soppressata is heavily doused with red wine and is not made from the same pampered pigs used in the north. In Central and Northern Italy, soppressata refers to head cheese, a gelatinous cold cut made from boiled spiced pig heads. In other words, make sure to ask for soppressa del Pasubio by name - and enunciate clearly.

Epilogue: Soppressa plays hard-to-get

I searched. High and low, I scoured the internet. I scanned gourmet sites, sausage purveyors, and outrageously expensive, trendsetting places most foodies don't dare to tread. I even attempted to decipher Italian Engrish, which amused my husband no end. But alas! It was all to no avail. I called our local Italian market and was informed that true soppressa del Pasubio is rarely, if ever, found outside the Prealpine confines of the Veneto. The soppressa must be wooed and pursued on his own terms, or no terms at all.

So please...if you should one day find yourself in a little trattoria in Treviso, check the menu carefully. Ask the waiter in hushed, reverent tones if there is soppressa del Pasubio (pronounce it carefully, mind you!) to be had. Be humble and appreciative. And maybe, just maybe, he will return to the kitchen and tell the chef what an astute and tasteful creature is seated at the table by the window, the one that overlooks the town square. Maybe he will throw open the kitchen door, bursting with pride, bearing a steaming bowl of the freshest polenta adorned with slice after perfect slice of soppressa. Don't be stingy with your praise. Be ostentatious as you fan the fragrant steam toward your face. Enjoy a rapturous sauna of soppressa. Gild the lily a bit with the merest drizzle of pure green olive oil; anoint it, then take a bite.

Extend my compliments to the chef. And whisper my name to the salami.

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