Born in Paris, Kevin Caradeuc spent his childhood living between France and the small province of Ravenna in northern Italy, just a few miles from the Adriatic Sea. He’ll soon open his own restaurant, Brasseries a la Mode, in Paris, where he intends to capture the feelings and flavors of his past. Somewhere between the City of Light and Ravenna lives flavor and a language all its own — the salsiccia of his childhood. Dry fermented Italian salami, salsiccia romagnola, brings with it an elegant science imprinted within the hearts of the people rooted in a remote land by the sea. True salsiccia romagnola is never cooked, so a symphony of tenuous elements must bring it into being. It’s comprised of quality meat, salt, bacteria, and, of course, time. The rest comes in with the sea mist that threatens Ravenna’s famous Byzantine mosaics.
Something in the Air
“When the first fog came in the fall, that’s when we made the sausage. As a child I wondered why we had to wait for the fog, but now I understand,” he said. The fog brings with it a humidity level that’s perfect for air-curing meat. Proper humidity allows the meat to dry evenly, without overdrying on the outside before the inside can cure properly. Too much humidity welcomes mold on the surface, which infiltrates the product and causes poor flavor. Thus, salami and other preserved meats, completely cured with salt and air, have their origin in places like Ravenna, where the climate creates this essential balance. Speaking with Kevin, I immediately wanted to gulp the foggy air there, certain that I would find a host of inexplicable feelings and flavors that exist nowhere else in the world in it.
As Kevin prepares to open his restaurant in Paris, he candidly admits that Parisians might find it strange for him to combine French traditions with northern Italian flavors, but he feels that his personal culinary identity leaves him little choice. “We can never recreate exactly, but do the best we can to remember.” Kevin’s working to cultivate not just flavor, but feeling in his culinary pursuits, which is what good food continues to inspire. As charcuterie meets with modern, mainstream palates, the rich stories it tells about people and places are as central to its curation as its meat and salt.
Flavors from the Soil and Sea
As for good meat, the pork used in the salsiccia romagnola comes from the Mora Romagnola pig, an extremely rare breed once almost completely extinct, but eventually restored by Mario Lazzari, a man who reveres the Italian culinary tradition. This slow-growing hog is still raised today by and for Italian salumists. As I read more about the Mora Romagnola, particularly its propensity for activity, heavy grazing on vegetation, its slow growth and small, fatty frame, I can imagine what Kevin means about inspiring a feeling in his food. The life of the pig — its food, the soil in which it roots, the blood flow to its muscles and the amount and type of fat — contributes greatly to the flavor, color, and texture of the meat used in the salami. Reimagining the salsiccia of his childhood at his Brasserie in Paris might seem daunting without the same fog, and the same meat. Still, he’s committed to what he called the “elegance of flavor” in his Italian products.
Also native to Ravenna is sale di Cervia, a sea salt which Kevin calls a “very sweet” salt, a symbol of luck that’s exchanged at the beginning of the year in his family. The sweetness comes from the way the brines are controlled during harvest. This pure salt is also a key ingredient in the salsiccia, not only for reasons of flavor and good fortune, but also the most rudimentary of preservation reactions: dehydration. Preserved food relies on the reduction of water activity, and salt aids in that pursuit. The inherently gradual dehydration process increases the time it takes to produce shelf-stable products, such as salami, without ever cooking them.
The Science of Salsiccia
Dried plums and northern Italian Sangiovese wine are added with the salt, as a testament to the natural resources and terroir of the province. And as much as these elements speak of Ravenna, they also contribute to proper preservation, by providing sugars required by desirable bacteria for fermentation. As sausages dry out, a rather drastic change occurs to the environment inside the casing that prevents rancidity. One of the essential processes is a reduction in pH (an increase in acidity), achieved by bacterial fermentation, wherein species of Lactobacillus and Pediococcus bacteria consume available sugars and metabolize them into acids and alcohols. This produces the sour, bright flavors associated with some salamis, and also excludes unwanted pathogens.
After grinding the pork with garlic and other flavoring ingredients, Kevin remembers his elders letting the meat rest before stuffing it, messy and aromatic, into hog intestines. He remembers this stuffing process most vividly, adding that everyone involved in the processing of the meat started out a bit clumsy when the time came to stuff the salsiccia. “The very first few you don’t usually eat because they aren’t packed tight; you have to remember the way to do it after not making sausage for a whole year! After you do a few, you remember, and then they are right for hanging.” Resting the sausage mix allows the slow release of myosin, a protein in lean meat that creates a glue to bind the sausage. This, in addition to the proper stuffing of the meat, allows for an anaerobic environment inside the casing, further fostering fermentation and preventing the growth of aerobic molds.
It’s likely that the successful combination of these elements by Italian farmers was initially accidental, but today we know the scientific parameters for the safe production of salami. In regions quite different from Ravenna, climatically as well as culturally, one would find salamis varying drastically in essence from salsiccia romagnola. As such, production of dried sausages is now no longer limited to remote and foggy countrysides, and the preservation of meat in the modern bustle of an urban kitchen is neither uncommon nor out of reach.
While the foundational components — meat, fat, salt, microbes, sugars, and time — are all still required for modern charcuterie, the uniqueness of these key elements certainly has diminished and homogenized over generations, with significant effects on the final product. For instance, nitrites are added to curing salts to prevent botulism because the synergy of elements ensuring the relative safety of Old World products aren’t reliable or consistent enough for modern regulation. In many cases, colorants and preservatives are added to achieve an acceptable product, reminiscent of the Old World. And the traditional practice of “backslopping,” which is the addition of a successful portion of the last lot of sausage into the next batch to ensure proper microbial cultures, is now often achieved with isolated, freeze-dried starter cultures.
Nowadays, to produce salami quickly, fermentation is accelerated. A very sweet, simple sugar speeds up the process. Under higher temperatures and increased sugar content, the metabolism of microbes speeds up. Quickly fermented salami will possess an inherently tangier flavor profile, so to counteract the tang, additional sugars might be added. But, quickened fermentation won’t favor the slow curing and drying handled by another phase of microorganisms, and the meat will lack the depth of color and complexity of flavor that a traditional product possesses.
As a 21st century salumist without a sense of place as rich as Kevin’s, I find myself exploring a complex territory that spans culinary science, terroir, and human cultural identity. I strive to make Old World charcuterie as purely as I can, yet I feel sheepish when I consider how liberally I play with flavors, regardless of whether they have any meaning to me at all. Kevin said it best himself: “You can do whatever you want, but what you have to remember is that what people have done in the past is already so, so good.” Do our new endeavors in modern salami-making carry enough of the beauty and sensuality of past and place?
As I tried to do justice to Kevin’s memory through words, I found myself swooning over pictures of Ravenna’s raggedly romantic shoreline, and I decided to carefully scour my American city for sale di Cervia. I write about charcuterie practice as a way of freeing people from the status quo, and bringing them into a consciousness of self-sufficiency, but it took imagining the fog in a remote Italian town to remind me that our food culture must be rebuilt from so much more. Charcuterie gives us the gift of living past, present, and future; the creation of dried sausages tells a story of human cultures in direct and communicative contact with their natural environment, a contact that modern people — heavily urbanized, cyber aware, and hurried — don’t check on their list of common pleasures.
May our recognition of the character and integrity of Old World sausages be carried forth. May we strip our scientific understanding to its natural core, and may we learn to lean into the wind, and catch the scent of our own soil. If you learn to make your own salami, may it pull you closer to the place you’re in, and leave a legacy of the things you love. And if, like me, you have no memory of a specific fleeting scent or billowing mist from the sea, if you’re still figuring out your culinary identity, start with Kevin’s. After all, it has so much to teach us.
Over the past 17 years, Meredith Leigh has worked as a farmer, butcher, chef, teacher, non-profit executive director, and writer, all in pursuit of good food. Meredith works part time for Living Web Farms , where she travels extensively teaching charcuterie and food production and processing. For more information, visit her website.