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The taste of victory

California is home to true Italian salami, thanks to the sausage war.

February 19, 2003|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

THERE are official luxuries, like foie gras, then there is salami. Who hasn't stood in line at a deli and watched a gnarly chub with a moldy, white skin being placed on the slicing machine? As the slices tumble onto the open face of an awaiting baguette, silence falls and nostrils flare as an almost wine-like aroma rises from the meat.

Salami does just as well in elegant settings, say on a charcuterie plate spread with ham and pate. You reach for the salami first. After the first pleasing tug against your teeth, a cascade of pungent, salty flavors floods from the meat. There is a pause, as the fermented tang lingers, then you have no choice: You must have another slice.

Salami like that tastes like it came from the old country, where it was made the old way. And in a way, it did, via San Francisco. That's where some of the best Italian salami sold in America is made.

A curious war made San Francisco the salami capital of America. From 1967 until 1970, a band of six determined Bay Area sausage makers argued to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that they deserved the right to not only use Italian methods, but to call their product "Italian salami." They were direct descendants of salami makers of Milan, Lucca, Parma and Modena. Around the turn of the last century, they had settled in a city whose temperate climate might be the only one in the United States perfectly suited for dry-curing salami. They even had the right strain of penicillin mold to give the links a classic white bloom.

Sure, the Italian Americans wanted to keep a corner of meat processing to themselves, to prevent producers of cooked meat and fast-cured imitations from using the term.

But at the heart of the argument was pleasure. The San Franciscans were intent on saving a revered delicacy from a fate worse than baloney. Italian salami, they contended, is a food every bit as noble as cheese or wine.

Looking back, it seems obvious that the Bay Area salami makers were Slow Foodists of their day. At the heart of their argument, they insisted that true salami could not be achieved quickly, or by cooking the sausages like hot dogs, or in a short hanging period, or by spiking the meat with special flavorings. In letter after letter to bleary USDA officials, they outlined the echt way to make it, the way, more or less, Italians had made it since the 5th century BC.

Salami must consist mainly of pork and fat, they said. This pork should come from the shoulder (haunches go to ham), with large chunks of fat that won't melt. This meat must be chopped, never pureed like a hot dog emulsion. It could be combined with wine, garlic, pepper, curing salts, maybe a touch of mace. A lactic acid starter was called for to start a slow fermentation that would dry-cook the product. Dried milk was permissible as a binding agent between the meat and fat. The meat could then be packed into either cellulose or pork-gut casing. These sausages were then hung, first in drip rooms, then in aging rooms, for weeks, or months, depending on the size of the chub.

The optimum range of curing temperatures, they stressed, was exactly the same as San Francisco's temperate climate. As the salami dried, the links fermented, and a change in acidity effectively cooked the meat, and produced the complex spectrum of flavors. As this happened, the sausages would also dry. The meat would lose roughly 30% of its water weight. A penicillin mold would form on the coat, checking exposure of the meat to air, and thus stopping oxidation and preventing rancid flavors.

To press their case, the San Franciscans hired a lawyer. They formed something called the Dry Salami Institute. They prepared elaborate family histories, paraded fair ribbons from salami competitions in Rome and bombarded bureaucrats with long letters with even longer appendixes as to the utter authenticity of their every salami-stuffing step.

And, reader, they prevailed. Find the words "Italian salami" or "Italian Dry Salami" on a California chub, and you are guaranteed a food that could hold its own in Italy.

A fate worse than baloney

But as they defended the "Italian salami" standard in the federal rule book, Rome burned.

In supermarkets, generic salami made from precooked meat hung in refrigerator cases, in cold cut sections. It came pre-sliced and shrink-wrapped, as odorless as Formica, as forlorn as baloney, and meted out in such mean portions that it seemed that there was more plastic than meat.

Frank Giorgi's great-grandfather, Pasquale Molinari, founded the first San Francisco Italian salami company P.G. Molinari in 1896. Giorgi now manages it.

"Instead of a staple, we became a gourmet item," he recalls. A proud one. The Molinari calendar carries a photograph of an Italian American child presenting the pontiff with a P.G. Molinari chub.

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