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During a Sunday mass in a small village chapel in Umbria, I managed to follow the familiar prayers, but I couldn’t understand why the priest was ardently preaching against i peccati della carne. “Sins of the meat?” I puzzled. Were Italian breaking some sacred fast? Afterwards a bemused friend explained that “carne” also translates as “flesh.”
The flesh of Italian cattle (bovini) and pigs (suini) could indeed inspire carnalità (lust). Although I always turn into a carnivora (meat-lover) in Italy, it wasn’t until last week that I expanded my meat vocabulary in the best of ways: bite by delicious bite.
The occasion was a tasting of salumi (cold cuts or, more literally, salt-cured meats) at the Italian Cultural Institute in San Francisco, sponsored by ASSICA (Associazione Industriali delle Carni e dei Salumi). The timing couldn’t be better. The USDA recently announced the relaxation of a ban on cured-pork products, which will greatly increase the number and variety of affettati (sliced meats) in markets and restaurants here.
Here is a preview of what we soon may enjoy:
*Prosciutto crudo, made with three ingredients: coscia di suino (the thigh of a pig), sale (salt) and tempo (time). The large pig legs are massaggiate con sale (massaged with salt), then dopo un periodo di riposo (after a rest period), lavate, spazzolate, asciugate, controllate (washed, brushed, dried, checked) and left for una lunga stagionatura (a long aging period) of 8 to 24 months.
*Salame (plural salami) combines carne macinata (minced meat), aglio (garlic), peperoncini (peppers), semi di finocchio (fennel seeds) and vino (wine). “Each region uses different recipes and different ingredients,” explains chef and food specialist Viola Buitoni, “so each local salami has a distinctive personality (una spiccata personalità).”
*Speck, from Alto Adige, is made from baffe, boneless pig legs cut into large pieces, generously flavored with garlic, white and black pepper bay leaves, juniper berries, nutmeg and other spices and herbs. Il segreto di un buono speck (the secret of a good speck) lies nell'affumicatura (in the smoking process), which lasts for about ten days and imparts a sapore molto caratteristico, speziato e affumicato (very characteristic spicy and smoky taste).
*Prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) is made from cosce di suino disossate (boneless pig thighs), rubbed with spices and cooked for 9 to 12 hours in steam ovens. A sampling reminded me of American deli boiled ham, but moister and milder.
*Mortadella’s name derives from mortarium (mortar bowl), the instrument ancient Romans used to grind pork meat. It consists of a mix of finely minced pig meat with fat lardons from the throat area (gola), mixed with salt and natural flavorings. Most famous is la Mortadella Bologna—known to many Americans as “baloney.”
I learned another new word at the tasting: “SalumiAmo!” This slogan of the Italian meat producers translates as “I love salumi!” If this qualifies as un peccato della carne, I confess my guilt.
Words and Expressions
i piaceri della carne – sensual pleasures
carne di prima scelta – prime meat
salumeria – delicatessen
essere pelle e ossa – to be scrawny, skinny
essere in carne – to be plump
mettere troppa carne al fuoco – to put too much meat on the fire, to have too much on one’s plate
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered.
Even if you don't understand Italian, you'll gain a greater appreciation of prosciutto from this video: