LIKE desert wildflowers after a rain, a thousand charcuterie plates have bloomed this summer. A few crimson hunks of pungent dried salame, a pale slice of unctuous mortadella -- here a silky prosciutto, there a rustic jamon, everywhere some smoky speck.
Who could have predicted it? Southern California, where even great restaurants need to have a big green salad on the menu, has suddenly gone crazy for pork fat.
You can find these sliced meats at established favorites such as AOC and La Terza, and at new hot spots BLD and Cube, as well as at all of those wine bars that seem to be popping up on every corner, such as Lou, at Melrose Avenue and Vine Street, or Bin 8945, in West Hollywood.
And when the most eagerly awaited restaurant of the season finally opens this fall -- Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's Mozza, a mix of pizzeria and casual osteria (scheduled to open in late September or October) -- sliced cold cuts will play a major role. After all, Batali's dad Armandino is practically the patron saint of salami.
Ironically, though many menus still label these meats with the French word "charcuterie," saucissons secs are pretty rare in L.A. Southern California's love affair with all things Italian means that prosciutto and salumi predominate. But there is also a healthy sampling of Spanish meats, mainly because La Espanola Meats, a great producer and importer, is located nearby in Harbor City.
Like Eskimos with "snow," the Italians have many words to describe cured meats. As a matter of definition, salame is a cured sausage made from finely ground meat (usually pork); salami is the plural. Salumi is a category of cured meats that includes salami but also other products such as coppacolla and soppressata.
In Italian, the whole bunch -- hams and all -- are generally referred to as affettati, the Italian equivalent of charcuterie, and that just about exactly translates as cold cuts. It wasn't so long ago that the only way we ate any of these cured meats was piled on a sandwich. Now they've got artisanal pedigrees, and partly due to the regulations on importing meat products from Europe, some of the most interesting ones are made in the United States.
In fact, a new American cottage industry has developed making and supplying high-quality salumi. First wine, then beer, cheese and bread -- now there's one more handmade product to become obsessed with.
"What's happening with salumi now is very similar to the bread revolution 10 years ago," says Silverton, the woman who introduced Southern California to the pleasures of a rustic baguette when she created La Brea Bakery.
To this point, local involvement in the salumi revolution has been pretty much limited to the serving and eating of it. Although there are a few chefs, including Gino Angelini (chef at La Terza and Osteria Angelini) and Matt Molina (slated to head the kitchen at Mozza), who are experimenting with curing, salumi-making is not yet as popular as it is in the Bay Area, where having a rack of sausages or hams hanging in the walk-in has become a badge of honor.
BUT when it comes to the enjoyment of these meats, obsessed is the right word for Southern California. Order the full charcuterie assortment at BLD, chef Neal Fraser's new informal restaurant, and you'd better clear the table. Out will come two massive slate-gray tiles covered with artistically arranged assortments of prosciutto di Parma, jamon serrano, bresaola, chorizo, lomo, speck, morcilla and two kinds of salami.
At Cube, a new cafe and retail store on La Brea near Melrose Avenue, the menu comes with an annotated list of 20 cured meats, including an exquisite small-producer prosciutto di Parma from the firm Pio Tosini, and salumi from the two top American makers, Paul Bertolli's Fra'Mani in the Bay Area and Armandino Batali's Salumi in Seattle.
Southern California's cold cut pioneers can only shake their heads in amazement at this enthusiasm.
Many local food lovers' first exposure to artisanal salumi came when Angelini was chef at Rex Il Ristorante in the early '90s. But his best-known example, exquisite house-made guanciale that melts onto warm bruschetta like some kind of ethereal, porky butter, was offered only to special guests; it was never listed on the menu. L.A. just wasn't ready for salt-cured hog jowl, he feared.
"It was just too scary," he says. "There were very few people who would appreciate that."
Today, that guanciale (still made in-house), is the centerpiece of the great cold cut assortments that are among the most popular appetizers at his restaurants, the informal Angelini Osteria and the more dressed-up La Terza. And he is experimenting with lardo, pancetta and even prosciutto, though his experiments are still rarely served.
"Now, we sell even more salumi at La Terza than we do at the osteria," Angelini says. "It's incredible. And the people who are ordering them want to know everything about salumi. They ask questions about what regions they come from and how they're made."
One of the first places to emphasize cold cuts was the pioneering wine bar AOC. When it opened in 2003, chef Suzanne Goin and partner Caroline Styne made the decision to put charcuterie front and center on the menu. And then they swallowed hard.
"We had served prosciutto at Lucques, but only as part of a dish," Goin says. "We weren't sure how people would react; we were so afraid that people were not going to get it. But we were shocked. I guess it's a similar thing to cheese -- when you make it the focus of what you're doing, people see how it makes sense."
Dishes designed to share
TO emphasize the importance of the cold cuts, the slicing station was positioned dead center in the dining room, and during AOC's early months, Goin often stood there for hours, slicing meats herself.
More fundamentally, she says, this style of dining seemed to be terribly attractive to Southern California diners. "I think people really get into this way of eating: Order everything family style and share," Goin says. "That way you can taste little bites of lots of different things. You're not supposed to eat a whole plate of prosciutto by yourself."
Alexander Palermo, owner of Cube, compares it to a kind of culinary speed-dating. "It's not like you're committing to a whole dish, you're just getting little tastes of everything," he says. "We don't want that one enormous plate, we want lots of little tastes -- four or five forkfuls, then you move on to the next thing."
Cube offers a relatively limited menu of cooked dishes but an extensive lineup of meats and cheeses for nibbling. (Even better, until the restaurant gets its liquor license, you can bring your own wine to drink with the meats with no corkage charge.)
The meats can also be sliced to take home -- prices for cold cuts range from $19.99 to $33.99 a pound. That sounds expensive, but a little bit of salumi goes a long way, and everything can be bought by the ounce. A half-pound assortment would make a fabulous and generous appetizer for a dinner party for six.
One of the big draws at Cube is that it is the only place in Southern California where you can buy the salami of both of the biggest names in the business -- Salumi and Fra'Mani.
If you still think salami is salami, comparing sausages from these two is an eye-opening experience. Given that the essential ingredients are the same -- pork, fat and salt -- the final results couldn't be more different.
"It's so amazing because with just a very few ingredients you get so many different tastes," says Palermo. "It's like the salame is the canvas and everybody paints his own portrait."
Batali's salami are exuberant and unrestrained. Most finocchiona has a subtle perfume of fennel, delicately balanced by just the right amount of black pepper. Salumi's tastes like somebody emptied a spice drawer. It would never pass muster in tradition-bound Italy, but it's hard to resist.
That's far from the wildest thing Batali makes. He just introduced a mole salame (as in the Mexican sauce, not the rodent). It is a knockout for the adventurous, with distinct, delicious notes of bitter chocolate and ancho chile.
Outside the sausage realm, Salumi makes an intensely gamy lamb prosciutto and is working on perfecting lardo -- salted pork back fat (at Mario's mom's suggestion, called "white prosciutto").
"What we want to do is to challenge the whole flavor concept for salami," says Batali, who started Salumi in 1999 after retiring from a career in the aerospace industry. "We definitely make some very strong-flavored products. They are different, but you know, the salami business hasn't changed much in the last 30 or 40 years, even in Italy. Now that chefs are getting more involved in it, maybe it's time to try some new things."
Whereas Batali's meats are wild and crazy, Bertolli's are restrained and perfect, almost intellectual -- if that's not too strange a word to apply to cold cuts. It's like the difference between Jackson Pollock and Giotto. Rather than exuberant spicing, from Fra'Mani you get meditations on the deep and complex nature of cured pork.
Bertolli started selling Fra'Mani salumi this year after at least four years of intensive preparation. Of course, he was playing around with hanging his own prosciutto during his Chez Panisse days in the 1980s. Curing meat is a complex art, and it takes lots of practice to get it just right.
Curing requires a precise balance of fat, lean and salt. The coarseness of the grind is critical. And then there are the variables of the natural fermentation process, which preserves the meat and gives it many of its distinctive flavors. Size matters; in fact it is one of the most important factors.
A salame with a big diameter will be moister than one that is smaller -- that is, if it is aged for the same amount of time. The aging and finishing of these meats is every bit as complex as that for fine cheese.
"Cured meats are going through a renaissance through producers like me who are going back to the old ways -- finding good meat, preparing it simply and aging their salumi longer," Bertolli says.
"It's not easy to make salami, and it's not at all easy to make it well. It's something that needs to be tended to all the time. I'm down here every morning of every day checking on my babies.
"But it is incredibly exciting to have this thing happening under your hands, though not quite under your control. What you do to nurture the thing along is part of the equation, but the natural forces that act on it are just as important."
It's not just the little guys who are getting into the handmade salami business. This year, Bay Area cured-meat giant Columbus Salame Co. introduced an "artisan collection" of four small-production salami that is very, very good. (Angelini serves it at his restaurants.) It is available at high-end markets such as Bristol Farms and Gelson's.
Of course, you don't have to go to a restaurant to enjoy these products. A few hard-core home cooks are making their own from the new book "Charcuterie," by Brian Polcyn and Michael Ruhlman. But this takes dedication (to say nothing of a storage space that will maintain temperatures in the 60s and 60% to 70% humidity).
Cured meats come home
BUT even the least adventurous cooks can easily serve salumi. After all, the meats require no cooking, simply slicing and serving. And though it would be nice to have one of those giant fire-engine red Berkel meat slicers in your kitchen, you can do a perfectly adequate job on most salami with a good sharp chef's knife (though you'll want to have the hams and larger sausages sliced at the store).
You can make things as simple or as complicated as you want. Have a selection of salumi be the focal point of a casual dinner party, with a full range of hams and sausages, and then finish with salad and cheese.
Play around a little and do a whole cheese-plate thing: Pair similar salami from different producers, or different sausages from the same producer. Taste prosciutto di Parma side-by-side with jamon serrano.
Build a range of flavors and textures. Offer some silky prosciutto or mousse-y mortadella to balance the sharper, drier sausages. Include some meats that come from the middle of that range: Spanish lomo or Italian coppa or soppressata.
Pour different wines and see how they match the various meats.
On the other hand, a couple of ounces of sliced hard salame cacciatore and bowls of good olives and salted almonds are a perfect way to welcome guests to any dinner, even the most formal.
"I've always considered salumi some of the most riotous things to eat at the beginning of meal," says Bertolli. "It's really provocative food. Serve it before the meal proper to get things rolling, get the body awakened to what is to come.
"There are all of these wonderful aromas you get from meat that's been aged properly. It appeals to the animal in people."
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Lamb prosciutto: Silky, lamby and nicely salty, with flavorful fat. Produced by Salumi's Armandino Batali.?
Salametto: A small, dense garlic salami from Fra'Mani, Paul Bertolli's company.
Lomo: Spanish-style cured pork loin, lightly flavored with paprika.
Prosciutto di Parma: A silky, elegant prosciutto from a small producer, Pio Tosini.
Coppa: Well-marbled, cured, spiced pork shoulder.
Lardo: Cured, brined pork back fat flavored with rosemary. Armandino Batali calls his "white prosciutto."
Mortadella: Slices of moist, tender pork sausage dotted with pork fat and pistachios.
Smoked-paprika salame: A small, dense, dry salame from Salumi's Armandino Batali.
Mole salame: A Mexican twist from Salumi's Armandino Batali.
Speck: Lightly smoked prosciutto from the Alto Adige region of northern Italy.
Nostrano salame: Fra'Mani's northern Italian-style salame, flavored with garlic, black pepper and white wine.
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Sweet or spicy, cured meats for every taste
WHEN restaurants offer cured meats, it's usually not one or two items but a wide assortment of different types of dried sausages, meats and hams. Here's a guide to what you can find. Be aware that definitions are fluid and often offer little more than a general description of what you're getting:
Bresaola: Beef, usually the fillet, that is salted and then cured for a month or more. This has a mild, slightly sweet beef flavor.
Chorizo: Essentially Spanish salami flavored with paprika, chorizo also comes in a variety of flavorings and names. Spanish chorizo bears absolutely no resemblance to Mexican chorizo, which is a fresh sausage that must be cooked.
Coppa: A moist, cured sausage made from large chunks of pork shoulder marinated with spices and red wine. Soppressata and capocollo are similar but made with different spice mixes. The exact mix is based only on the sausage-maker's whim, but soppressata can be fairly spicy.
Guanciale: Brined and cured hog jowl. Almost pure fat, it has a very silky texture.
Jamon serrano: Dried Spanish ham, it is usually firmer and "pork-ier" than prosciutto.
Lardo: A thick block of pork back fat that has been brined and cured. When done right, it's silky, with a perfect balance between fat and salt.
Lomo: Whole pork loin rubbed with salt and spices and cured. The texture is leaner and firmer than most hams, and it is usually lightly spiced with Spanish paprika.
Mortadella: A huge, unctuous sausage made from pureed pork, often dotted with pistachios and cubes of pork fat.
Pancetta: Pork belly that is salted and spiced, rolled and aged. It is eaten raw and also used as an ingredient in cooking.
Prosciutto: The back legs of pigs that have been salted and dried. These are found all over Italy, but only prosciuttos from two regions have been approved for import to the U.S. The best-known from the Parma area (prosciutto di Parma) is silky and elegant, but there is also one from San Daniele in Friuli that is slightly firmer and sweeter. Occasionally, you can find small-producer prosciuttos that can be sublime.
Salami: Dried sausages made from finely ground pork, usually seasoned with garlic, white wine and pepper. The flavor will vary tremendously depending on additional spices and also the diameter of the sausage, which, depending on the length of cure, can result in a salame that is either very dry and hard or fairly moist and crumbly. Individual names vary so greatly from maker to maker that they are almost useless. In Italy, you can find salami made with all kinds of meat, even goose, but those are not available here.
Speck: From the Alto Adige (or Sudtirol for German-speakers), this is essentially a prosciutto that has been seasoned with herbs while it was drying and then lightly smoked.
-- Russ Parsons
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Pork leg futures
WHAT'S the hottest news in the world of cured meats? Jamon Iberico is coming to the United States. One of the treasures of Spanish gastronomy, jamon Iberico is made from black-footed pigs (hence the alternate name pata negra) that have been raised on acorns and wild plants.
Though it has been made in Spain for centuries, only in July was a producer certified by the Department of Agriculture to ship the hams to the U.S.
It is wildly expensive, even in Spain. In the U.S., prices are predicted to be in the $80 per pound range, with boneless hams going for as much as $139 per pound. But it's not coming any time soon. Because of the amount of time required to cure the hams, the first ones won't be arriving for more than a year -- late fall of 2007 at the earliest.
Still, at least one website, www.tienda.com, is already taking deposits of $199 per ham. Owner Don Harris says about 250 customers have already reserved their hams, and one was so excited he actually flew to Spain to visit it. "Another guy said he wasn't going to set his wedding date until he can be assured he can serve his ham at the banquet," Harris says. "Of course, this is wife No. 3."
-- Russ Parsons
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Where to find artisanal cold cuts
Restaurants that carry Armandino Batali's Salumi products include Jar, 8225 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles; Lou, 724 N. Vine St., L.A.; Simon LA, 8555 Beverly Blvd., L.A.; Four Seasons Hotel, 300 S. Doheny Drive, Los Angeles; Clementine, 1751 Ensley Ave., L.A.; Cafe Stella, 3932 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Ford's Filling Station, 9531 Culver Blvd., Culver City. Salumi products are available at retail at Cube, 615 N. La Brea Ave., L.A., or online at www.salumicuredmeats.com.
Restaurants that carry Paul Bertolli's Fra'Mani products include A.O.C., 8022 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles; Joan's on Third, 8346 1/2 W. 3rd St., L.A., Firefly, 11720 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; Vincenti Ristorante, 11930 San Vicente Blvd., L.A.; BLD, 7450 Beverly Blvd., L.A.. Fra'Mani products are available at retail at Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, 419 N. Beverly Drive, Beverly Hills; Cube, 615 N. La Brea Ave., L.A.; Artisan Cheese Gallery, 12023 Ventura Blvd., Studio City; Wally's Wine and Spirits, 2107 Westwood Blvd., L.A.; Say Cheese, 2800 Hyperion Ave., L.A.; Cheese Store of Silverlake, 3926-28 Sunset Blvd., L.A.; Market Gourmet, 1800A Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice; Robins Nest, 68 N. Venice Blvd., Venice; Taste Cheese, 530 University Ave., San Diego; C'est Cheese, 825 Santa Barbara St., Santa Barbara, or online at www.framani.com.
Columbus Salame's Artisan Collection is available at retail at Bristol Farms markets; Claro's Italian Market, several locations; Gelson's Markets; Giuliano's Deli, several locations.
-- Russ Parsons