The fluorescence of one room bleeds into another with only minor differences: a blinking flicker here, a snoring hum there. I sit again beneath these flickers and hums, just past 9:00 pm, in thesalamina da sugo workshop, ready for the gentle myth, ready for some anarchy. This is the Salone del Gusto, the Slow Food Movement’s Salon of Taste and, while this is also Torino, Italy, the rest of the world, via its respective culinary delights, trickles in through the cracks in the mortar.
Tonight, a hush falls over Ferrara, a small city in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. Talk of its indigenous salamina da sugo rarely breaches its borders. Perennially crowning the Christmas tables of the Ferrarese, the mysterious and controversial dish remains out-of-reach for the rest of the world.
The salamina was first documented in the 15th century letter from Lorenzo il Magnifico to Duke Ercole II d’Este. Apparently, the first to produce the product were the “porcaioli” of the Trentio and Bormio mountains. Pork artisans. Porcine Michelangelos. (Somebody stop me—I can go all day…).Eventually, they migrated into the Po valley, and then into the area that was to become Ferrara. Not a single discovered document mentioned salamina da sugo again, until 1722. Capturing the artistic heart and palate of writer Antonio Frizzi, salamina da sugo became the object of his poem, “Salamoide.” Frizzi writes, “I mix the pig’s liver with its meat, put an iron on top, and step on the iron.” Frizzi went on further to speculate that the pigs destined to become salamina are born carrying the spirits of all dead women. (Insert your own necrophilia joke here). In tasting it, the headphones proclaim, one has difficulty separating flavor from verse.
Often invoked as an incurable aphrodisiac, the salamina (or salama, as it is often called) was a popular meal at wedding banquets and brothels. The dish was reputed to soften the skin and add life to the blood of newlyweds, as well as prepare the “ladies of the night” for their customers. Here, tonight, call me Madam.
The night outside Torino’s Lingotto building stretches its legs, brothel-less, blows its yawn over the old Fiat factory, and the edifice itself seems to settle in a post-tasting bliss. This is the last workshop of the day, and it is run by representatives of the Slow Food Movement, their Italian taking the form of culinary protest. The translation whistles flute-like into my ears, discussing this nearly extinct breed of sausage, stirring the Slow Food Movement to educate the masses in an attempt to lift it from certain death.
This salamina is commercially-illegal. The Slow Food Movement had to hew through bureaucratic barbed-wire just to get this workshop off the ground. It is virtually number-one on Slow Food’s endangered foods list, holds a top-shelf position in their Ark of Taste.
The dish begins with the grinding of the “less noble,” but more flavorful parts of the pig: liver, tongue, belly, shoulder, chin, top neck, throat lard, cheek, thigh. The ground meat is then coupled with an array of spices—types and amounts differ with each producer. Typical spices include salt, pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon, clove, and garlic. Red wine (approximately two liters per ten kilograms of meat) is added to the mixture—usually a Sangiovese, Barbera, or Semisecco del Bosco Eliceo.Certain producers also add rum, grappa, or brandy.
The mixture is then packed into a pork bladder, tied with twine, and traditionally divided into eight segments. In a well-ventilated, dark chamber, at about fifty-degrees Fahrenheit, the salamina is hung to ripen and age for at least one year. During this time, the salamina is periodically brushed with olive oil and vinegar.
Once sufficiently aged, the salamina will bear a protective coating of white mold. Prior to preparation, the mold is rinsed away and the cased meat is soaked in lukewarm water for at least twelve hours. After the soaking session, the salamina is placed inside a cloth bag which is then tied to the center of a long wooden stick. The stick is draped across the top of a large stockpot, so that the salamina bag is hanging in the middle, away from the pot’s bottom and sides. The pot is filled with water, and the salamina cooks for about four hours at a low simmer. Once ready, the salamina is cut from the bag and gently removed from its casing with a spoon. The salamina’s wine is released during the cooking process, yielding a viscous and spicy sauce.
Three types of salamina line the plate in front of me, each cresting a small mound of mashed potato.The first is anarchic; Slow Food’s own farmers producing their ideal version, sans governmental regulation. It is pink and brown, and dripping with its internal, natural “sauce.” The next is a small farmhouse version, produced, as it has been for Italian centuries, against the rigid health department standards, left to hang for months from pig-sty rafters. The truffle of the barn. The final slice is an industrially-produced, commercially-regulated sausage that does its best to mimic salamina da sugo.The Slow Food Movement wants us to know the difference.
We lift our forks in choral unison and, slowly, like the simultaneous bowing of fifty veiled heads, bring them to our plates as we are instructed to taste the first. Upon biting, the salamina oozes smoky gravy into our mouths, collecting a texture somewhere between ground meat and rose-oil. If this sausage were a cheese, it would be baked brie. Just by chewing together, with our arsenal of taste-buds, we march on Roma with torches ablaze.
The farmhouse salamina a little less sweet, but just as runny, scampering over the tongue like a mouse, feet soaked in licorice. Together, we burp terrestrial elegies. The industrial version is tasty, but common, a mere smoked sausage injected with hormones and cardboard crumbs. We sneer. We save the whales.
We have tasted, the thin, black-haired representative declares with a snap of his fingers, what may be the last barely legal taste of salamina da sugo, ever. After this Salone del Gusto, the book may very well be closed. I imagine an Underground, gathering in windowless attics, reading by candlelight, ancient farmland recipes, and passing samples of this banned foodstuff. We will weep over the crushing of pleasure in favor of the illusion of health. We will smoke banned cigars, drink banned liquor, and toast to anarchic sausage. We, and the salamina, will survive in the basements of the world.
This black-haired representative of Slow Food widens his eyes and stares, cultishly, into the ceiling’s holy, but fleeting fluorescence…