One of Norcia’s elaborate salumerie.
Recipe: Celery, Pistachio, and Parmigiano Salad, Served with Salami
I think I’m a salami addict. When I’m offered a platter of good salami, the same feeling comes over me as when I’m offered a great (or even not so great) glass of red wine. I get happy but a little agitated, worrying that there won’t be an endless supply. Salami, salted, air-dried sausages, mainly of pork, are served in Italy as an antipasto. They’re not a main course because they’re so rich and, I should add, fattening. As the proper Italian gal I try to be, I do make an effort to control myself, but it’s a struggle, especially if the salami is really good.
What makes me very unhappy is bad salami, the kind that’s so loaded up with nitrites it chokes you at the back of the throat and has a terrible sour aftertaste. It’s hard to find excellent salami here like the often wonderful stuff made in Italy, the local, hand-tended, funky-shaped, moldy, gorgeous big shlongs you see hanging from pork shop ceilings. I once tasted a soppressata in Lecce, Puglia, a salami so mellow and suave it brought tears to my eyes.
Pork and tears seem to go together in my family. On a trip to Umbria with my husband and sister some years ago we settled for a few days in Norcia, a town famous for its pork butchers. We entered one of their many salumerie for sandwiches to take on a short journey up to Castelluccio, where I was dying to watch the local ladies harvest their famed lentils. We ordered slabs of salami and pecorino on rolls, and that was it. As we sat by the side of the road eating our sandwiches and sipping Oranginas, I saw a watery-eyed look on my husband’s face. The look said, essentially, this is one of the best things I’ve ever eaten, and I’m overwhelmed with emotion. And it truly was. Norcia has unfortunately become a little full of itself lately, loaded with tour buses and some hastily made salami. I’m sure you can still find excellent salami there, but it has become something of a racket. The best Italian salami I’ve eaten recently has been in Puglia and in Basilicata, where you can taste everything from the most nuanced nutmeg- and wine-scented soppressata to big fat salami loaded with garlic, hot chilies and fennel.
For years I’ve been hearing very good things about Fra’ Mani, a California company that makes handcrafted salami, but for some reason I wasn’t able to find any of their stuff in Manhattan until just recently. Fra’ Mani was started in 2006 by Paul Bertolli, a former chef at Chez Panisse, and Oliveto, in Oakland. Fra’ Mani is an Italian abbreviation for fratelli mani, meaning brothers’ hands, and the name sets the mood for this pig-friendly company (as pig-friendly as a company can be that’s in the business of butchering pigs). Mr. Bertolli set out to create the kind of salami he and I have tasted in Italy (I actually ran into him at an agroturismo place in Ostuni, Puglia, in 2004 where he and his buddies were hanging around talking about, of all things, salami—small world). Well, he has really done his homework.
I’ve finally found Fra’Mani salami at Balducci’s in Manhattan (Fra’Mani has always had a website where you can order online, www.framani.com, but somehow I never got around to using it). I was happy to see that Balducci’s carries three types of their salami. I first tried the Gentile, which is suave and subtly seasoned but with a pronounced porky flavor that I really loved. It’s based on an eighteenth-century Parma recipe. I went back later the same day (wouldn’t you know) and purchased a big chunk of their Salame Nostrano, a fatter one, more coarsely ground, and a bit gentler in flavor. I imagine it would go really well with fresh figs—or just sliced thin and piled up in an Italian-American-style hero, for that matter. Those are two of his milder offerings. Fra’ Mani also makes salami seasoned with garlic, wine, and pimenton de la Vera, the smoky Spanish pimento. And a salami called sopressa, Vicenza-style, seasoned with cloves.
Their pork is antibiotic- and hormone-free and fed on grains and natural feed, and it’s made without nitrites. This it seems is possible because Fra’ Mani closely monitors the salami during the fermentation stage, a period when lactic acid bacteria cause protein breakdown and the release of water. That is when salami starts to develop its tangy, gamy aromas. All the salami is packed in natural casings, and all is hand-tied, making it look as artisanal as it in fact is. Low temperatures are used during fermentation to encourage beneficial mold and a good nuanced flavor, a quality you’ll notice when you cut into one, even before you take a bite. Temperature, humidity, and airflow are tightly controlled during the next phase, the drying period, so that the texture turns out just right, not too mushy, not too hard. Then the salami is left to age, and soon after that you can eat it.
Since I do have a problem controlling myself when faced with great salami (and just for the record, why is it that lately everything I eat seems to want to turn directly into thigh fat?), I’m always looking for a refreshing, salady dish to serve with my salami, something that will both complement the meat and also, as a side benefit, prevent me from focusing single-mindedly on the salami and eating way too much. Here’s the cool and crunchy little something I created to accompany Fra’ Mani’s Gentile salami. It’s a mix of thin sliced celery, fennel, and scallions, with a handful of pistachios and slivers of Parmigiano tossed in. I dressed it with good olive oil and lots of lemon to balance the salami’s richness. It and the salami make a nice combination.
Celery, Pistachio, and Parmigiano Salad, Served with Salami
(Serves 4 as a first course)
1 large fennel bulb, very thinly sliced
3 celery stalks, very thinly sliced, plus a handful of celery leaves
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
A handful of unsalted, shelled pistachios
About a dozen big shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
The juice from 1 small lemon
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, possibly a little more
Freshly ground black pepper
A few big grating of nutmeg
Place the fennel, celery and leaves, and scallions in a shallow serving bowl. Scatter on the pistachios and the Parmigiano. In a small bowl whisk together the lemon juice and olive oil, seasoning with salt, black pepper, and the nutmeg. Pour this over the salad, and toss gently with your fingers, adding a bit more olive oil if needed to coat everything lightly. Serve right away, accompanied by a platter of really good thinly sliced salami.