Charcuterie has been the big ‘new’ thing in this country over the last few years, having much to do with the change to laws governing liquor licences which saw the proliferation of small, Euro-style bars in big cities. It is not uncommon, now, to come across an atmospherically dark hole- in-the-wall in a Melbourne laneway from whose ceilings are suspended salamis and prosciuttos, smallgoods still occasionally referred to as ‘cold cuts’.
The term charcuterie comes from the French, originating in the Latin ‘caro’ for flesh or meat, and ‘coctus’ for cooked. It was indeed the French who in the 15th century raised the Roman practice of curing meats to an art form. Most commonly referring to pork, it is the technique of salting, smoking or brining meats – and to this day the skills involved are highly regarded. The roots of charcuterie lie in the need to preserve meat so that it can be savoured slowly over the course of months, and its challenge is to do so in a flavoursome way while ensuring the meats are free of bacteria. Bacon, ham, sausage, confit and patés fall into the category – although these days what is offered in fashionable venues is more likely to be Spanish chorizos and jamon, or Italian salumi such as bresaola, pancetta, mortadella and speck. (The word salumi means Italian cured meat products – salami is one specific type.)
Now, out of spick and span premises at Billinudgel, is coming a range of charcuterie made by using traditional, authentic techniques by a small group of Italians. They call themselves Salumi Australia and they have only been operating for several months. Founder and director of the company is Massimo Scalas whom locals may remember from the restaurant at Byron Bay’s Hotel Great Northern where for many years he sent forth wonderful pizzas from the wood-fired oven, along with other Italian fare. His partners-in-crime are Michael Dlask, long-time collaborator of his in the hospitality industry, chefs Riccardo Trossero and Monica Trapani, and salumiere (smallgoods expert) Gimmi Avanzini.
I drive out one morning, locating the factory with ease. Michael, unrecognisable in a white lab coat, waves me in. After our exchange of greetings he hands me my own white coat, a disposable hair net and bootie-like shoe coverings, then wheels the new glamorous me into the first room. This, he says, is the processing room. Down the centre of an otherwise starkly bare, scrupulously pristine room is a long table at which Riccardo, Monica, Massimo and Gimmi are busily inserting lengths of meat into beef casings. The ripe stench of fatty flesh is almost more than I can bear; I am regretting my recently enjoyed coffee and muffin and decide to simply not inhale. Michael explains that it is lonza, back pork loin cured with salt, peppercorns and juniper berries, similar in taste and texture to prosciutto. The meat comes from Booyong, near Clunes.
We move through into one of six drying rooms where the encased varieties of meat suspend in order, obviously, to dry out. It’s shock-dried, Michael tells me, so that the pH (acid) levels drop low enough to satisfy health requirements and to prevent bacteria build up. The smell is still too rich for me; I am still holding my breath, but Michael is guiding me now into the ageing room where suddenly I feel as if I could be in an Italian delicatessen, and where with relief I begin to breathe. Shelf after shelf of pancetta rolled and flat, cacciatorini, little wizened Sardinian sausages and, oh joy, guanciale, pork jowl, my absolute favourite of all the cured meats and indispensable for a true Salsa Amatriciana.
At this point we are joined by Gimmi, cherub-faced expert in the art of smallgoods, whom Massimo lured from Italy’s Parma, whose ham – prosciutto – is considered among the best in the world. Gimmi has something to show me: a polished pointy object about four inches long. Into one of the dangling pancettas he inserts the pointy end, extracts it and studies it closely. Then he tells me it is the bone from a horse and by inserting it he can determine at precisely what stage of maturation the particular salume has arrived. It is a five-hundred-year-old tradition: I am completely enchanted.
Salumi Australia are already supplying their products to high-end Sydney restaurants and about to hit Melbourne. It’s a tiny operation doing dazzling things in our own backyard. Their website is www.salumi.com. au.