Calabrian once renowned cured meats aren’t what they used to be. Last autumn I was part of a Slow Food commission that spent a fortnight in Calabria, traveling the region from Monte Pollino right down to the Aspromonte to taste its many typical food products. The biggest disappointments came from the once famous cured meats.
Artisan pork butchers are now few and far between in Calabria, supplanted by mass-market industrial concerns that use preservatives and sweeteners such as fructose, lactose and dextrose to process meat – not to mention extra-rapid, non-natural aging methods in special climatized environments.
Yet the biggest problem of all is that of raw materials. 70 percent of pigs – animals ready for slaughter, intensively reared and, above all, weighing much less than 200 kilos – are, in fact, imported from other Italian regions, Emilia Romagna in particular.
During our mission, we had the opportunity to visit the Experimental Pig Demonstration Center in Acri. Here some of the last remaining exemplars of the Calabrian Black Pig breed – widespread until the Seventies, but now extremely rare – are being reared. This native breed is characterized by relatively slow growth (the main ‘defect’ that led to its breeding being discontinued), and is especially suitable for life in the wild or semi-wild, being resistant to many of the diseases – such as bronchitis, muscular and articular ailments and enteric pathologies – to which pigs are prone.
One of the secrets of making good cured meats is to ensure that the pig lives on natural feed. The meat is tastier when animals eats acorns, chestnuts and other woodland fruits. At Acri pigs are free to scuttle up and down wooded hillsides, where it is possible to see how they help keep the ground completely clear. Furthermore, when a pig lives in the natural state, the fat is distributed more evenly through its flesh, making it incredibly soft and tasty. Pigs, finally, ought to be slaughtered when they exceed 200 kilos in weight, since an animal of a certain age possesses richer, tastier flesh, a pre-requisite for quality cured meats.
Calabria, incidentally, boasts four PDO cured meats: capocollo, pancetta, salsiccia and soppressata. The most celebrated is capocollo, made from the top part of the loin, whose weight, when fresh, ought to be around 3.5-4.5 kilos. The processing technique is particularly elaborate. After being boned, the meat is dry-salted for a period of a week. It is then washed with water, soaked in wine vinegar, massaged and pressed, seasoned with black pepper and wrapped in caul. It is then tied with string and the stomach intestine is pierced to avoid the creation of air bubbles. Finally, the meat is aged in well-ventilated rooms where temperature and humidity are maintained constant. Optimal aging takes about 100 days. Alas, these days in Calabria PDO capocollo is virtually impossible to find, partly because the discipline requires pigs to be bred inside the region and not imported. This is why the efforts of the Centro Sperimentale di Acri are not only important, but also decisive, if the artisan production that made Calabrian cured meats so famous in the past is to be revived.
The data container in this article is taken from Atlante dei prodotti tipici dei parchi italiani, an atlas of the typical products of Italian nature parks, promoted by the Ministry of the Environment and produced by Slow Food in collaboration with Legambiente (the Italian League for the Environment) and Federparchi (the Italian Parks Federation).
Giancarlo Gariglio, a journalist, is a member of the Sloweb editorial staff
Adapted by John Irving