Another ingredient that appears in great Italian food almost as often as the omnipresent olive is good quality meat. Although big chunky steaks do exist here the real piece of the puzzle lies in Italy’s cured meats and cold cuts. These thinly sliced strips or circles of meat come in a wide variety of forms each with their own flavours and common uses. The difference between buying from the deli counter at your supermarket and purchasing cured meat from a merchant in Italy may seem trivial but the quality, selection and importantly the freshness here will make you think again.
The one meat you may already be familiar with is incredibly popular on pizzas everywhere else in the world. Pepperoni however is not really Italian. The idea of putting a cured meat on a pizza (which of course is an Italian dish) does come from Italy and simulated salami cuts, but pepperoni is a distorted version of the Italian word peperoni, which simply means pepper.
In Italy Traditional Salami is generally pork mixed with several simple ingredients like pepper and garlic and although tasty, this is often the cheaper and least exciting option available. Famously from Parma (often called Parma ham) Prosciutto is made from pork legs and is a soft and slightly sweet meat. If you are in Parma you will want to catch the markets on Fridays or on the third Sunday of the month when the Ancient farmers’ market of Colorno arrives, and make sure you ask for sample slices so you can pick your favourite.
Something you may notice amongst the light pinkish colours of these meats is a much darker red sometimes almost purple option; this is Bresaola. With the majority of the other cured meats using pork as their source, this is actually made from beef, which is where it gets its darker colour and tougher texture. Aged for around two months this denser meat really adds something different to the mix with its heartier flavour and a bit more pull that makes it ideal for use in sandwiches.
For something far juicier you are going to want to try some Testa. You may hear some people calling this boldly coloured cut head cheese, this is because the meat here is cut from a hogs head, where butchers know some fine flavours can be extracted. Brined in salt and sugar and then poached in spices, and infused with gelatin, the resulting mix comes out packed with flavour and moisture that you will want to taste as fresh as possible. There are plenty more varieties available including Speck, Pancetta, Lonza, Coppa which can all be tried, tested and purchased at the markets. To really focus on the flavours and get a good mouthful of the spices wrapped in these meats they are best enjoyed on their own or simply accompanied by olives and cheeses. On of the best markets for meat is the famed Il Quadrilatero. The old market here has a maze of medieval streets jam packed with stalls that will take you a good while to wander round, with modern shops and even more food to be found on its outskirts.