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.
Molinari salami chubs are sold in Italian delicatessens and at the olive stand at the Wednesday Santa Monica farmers market. In the early 1980s, Southern Californian supermarkets began to wake up and smell the salami. Mini-chubs of mold-ripened San Francisco salami, made by another Bay Area company, called Gallo, began appearing in Los Angeles in Ralph's and Food for Less.
Trader Joe's recently began dedicating ever-larger chunks of its tightly packed floor space to ever-larger displays of what is arguably the leading Bay Area brand, Columbus salami. These are all mold-ripened, and the Italian Dry (or Salami Secchi) are made to the 1970 standard. However, at first glance, they might disarm purists. They have been stripped of their moldy skins and vacuum-packed.
Columbus co-owner John Piccetti defends vacuum packing. Although the scent and appearance might be more pleasing from the traditional mold-coated chub, he says, salami left exposed to the air slowly keep losing moisture. Vacuum packing after air-drying can protect it from losing too much water and becoming overly greasy and hard.
The greatest pitfall for the consumer, however, is that this is also the way other producers package really awful salami imitations that miss the 1970 Italian salami standard by a very wide mile. For example, while Trader Joe's charges $3.99 for its 10-ounce, authentic, perfectly tasty Italian Columbus chubs, Whole Foods charges $9.99 for its 10-ounce Daniele Naturale" salami. The packaging on this says that it "authentic" and "natural," but not "Italian." The meat inside is finely minced, the appearance smeary, the flavor flat and sour. The buyer later explains that the chain has these made for it. It does not buy from traditional salami makers because it frowns upon the use of curing salts. To a lesser degree, the problem is simply with the packaging. The plastic might stop the salami from drying out, but it also arrests the heady aroma and makes the salami sweaty, detracting slightly from the texture. For purists, the only real salami is one sold with the mold on.
These chubs are usually displayed hung up, trussed in string and wrapped with a cigar-style paper ring, or in bright paper packaging. Crinkly, irregularly shaped links indicate that the salami were shaped in pork gut casings. This signals more complex flavor, says Piccetti. The fat in a natural casing will impart yet another layer of flavors. Double the skin to create a thicker casing, and you can slow fermentation and intensify the flavors yet more.
Normally, only delicatessens handle these, because the natural casings mean that they cannot be made to uniform sizes and will need to be weighed at checkout. Another typical casing for mold-ripened salami is cellulose-impregnated paper. These are excellent for curing meat, but unlike gut casing need peeling off in the kitchen.
A charcuterie bar
The last important step before eating is slicing. Piccetti recommends the Italian rule: Slice large chubs thinly and thin ones relatively thickly. Slices from large chubs should be cut thinly enough so that they roll up easily. Slices from smaller salami should be about the thickness of a silver dollar, just substantial enough to give pleasing resistance when you bite, but not put up a struggle. Cutting them this way ensures the right amount of meat to spice on the tongue, and it reveals less fat to air, where it will quickly oxidize and create rancid flavors.
Chef and Los Angeles restaurateur Suzanne Goin has made the slicing of salami a kind of happening. Three weeks ago, she and her partners opened A.O.C., a chic restaurant in mid-city Los Angeles. The place to sit is the charcuterie bar, where salami is only cut to order. Goin then serves it with bread and butter. There are few more indulgent rituals. First you generously slather a small piece -- bite-sized if possible, of fresh sourdough bread with sweet butter, then top it with a slice of salami. It's best eaten in small mouthfuls and swallowed whole, for you'll be coming back for more.
If this ritual sounds excessively rich for the blood of most Angelenos, Goin says that it is selling just fine. In taking it up, we have rediscovered one of the most profound pleasures of Piedmont. Italian cookery writer Anna del Conte describes the serving of bread and salami "one of the very few occasions on which there is butter on the table in Italy."
And it's true: a chub of salami, a bowl of olives, some cornichons if you're very lucky, a baguette, some good softened butter, and a bottle of wine, and you have a dead elegant first course. Add salad, nuts and fruit, and you have dinner.
Looking back at the San Franciscan fight to set the Italian salami standard, Piccetti says that the 1970 rule stands, "more or less. It has been somewhat liberalized." However, he is quick to add that this doesn't make our Californian Italian salami particularly Italian.
In Italy, salami is known by regional appellations: salame Milano, salame di Napoli, salame Toscano and so on, not as "Italian." Some might have more finely ground pork and fat, some might have boar, or even donkey. Some might have fennel, or in the case of salami from Calabria, chili pepper. Devoted fans can find these in gourmet stores.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., salami tends to be more pungent, made to stand up to San Francisco sourdough. It might include a small amount of beef, and San Francisco makers are observing a new class of American regions, producing "Cajun"-style salami and various new pepper-coated and spiced, dried sausages.
Finally, making "Italian salami" year-round is no longer strictly a Bay Area art. Advances in refrigeration and cold store technology mean that curing rooms can be set up anywhere in the country, and no longer require the temperate San Francisco climate. Piccetti mentions Volpe of St. Louis and Citterio in Pennsylvania.
But to true devotees, Italian salami will always be Californian.