“This is no ordinary salami,” says Jose Coutinho. He takes a thick fermented sausage in one of his hands, a keen boning knife in the other. “It is ventricina,” he says. “It is made from hand-cut pork belly folded through red pepper paste in the traditional Abruzzese method.” He holds a thin slice to the light. It’s like a tiny pane of stained glass – a translucent mosaic of meat, deep red and pink shapes ringed by red paste and flecked with pale fat. Its scent is complex: fruity, musky, spicy, all underlaid with the sweet punch of pork. On the tongue it has a mouth-filling savoury quality, a subtle saltiness and a clean-finishing lactic tang. Coutinho beams with pride. The demand for this Portuguese-born smallgoods-maker’s products has been so great that he recently moved his San Jose Smallgoods operations to a larger factory, in Newton near the Adelaide Hills. “Australians have found a new passion for quality smallgoods,” he says.
Coutinho’s prosciutto and other cured meats are exceptional, but fermented sausage is his true passion. His traditional European cured sausages – sopressa, chorizo and the like – are preserved by salt, spices, nitrate and, most importantly, lactic fermentation. Lactic fermentation is what happens when lactobacillus bacteria (think of them as sugar-eating bugs) are added to chopped meat. These bugs feed on the naturally occurring sugars in the meat and turn them into lactic acid. This acidity, plus salt and nitrate, stops bad bacteria from spoiling the sausages as they hang and mature for weeks, sometimes months. During this maturing period the sausages lose about half their moisture, and the resulting product is firm and dense. While this is happening, enzymes break down proteins into amino acids that we detect in the mouth as savouriness or, as the Japanese call the sensation, umami.
“Fermentation and preservation is what makes really interesting smallgoods,” says Sam Hurst of Savour and Grace. A former director and co-owner of Calendar Cheese Company, Hurst was one of the forces, along with Gourmet Traveller cheese expert Will Studd, responsible for revolutionising Australian cheese consumption. Now he’s doing the same with smallgoods.
“Educated Australian diners are eating less protein and better quality meats,” he says. “They want the hit of salt and fat that great artisan salumi and the like offer, but they’re eating these products in moderate amounts in the European tradition… But what people are really looking for is an emotional connection to the food that goes beyond aroma and flavour. They want to have a piece of that peasant honesty that comes from handmade fermented and matured sausages.”
“As far as Australian smallgoods go,” says Catalan-born Emile Gomez of La Boqueria, “I think we have come so far in these past few years.” Gomez works with a smallgoods producer in Sydney to make fuet, a small pork sausage that’s matured with added penicillium mould (similar to the way camembert is matured) and fermented. “We’re emerging from the bland industrial quagmire where smallgoods were the repository of all the meat industry’s offcuts,” he says. “These artisan smallgoods makers across the country are paying homage and respect to the traditions of Europe, and although we have a way to go, we are now taking the best cuts of meat and using these processes to not only preserve the meat, but to make it taste even better.”
Sydney salumi-maker Tony Sgro from Quattro Stelle is responding to the growing demand for authentic smallgoods. His salumi are commonplace in bars and restaurants around the nation, and they feature heavily on the Fratelli Fresh menus in stores around Sydney. Sgro recently moved his business from Kingsgrove to a larger factory in Belmore, but he still tries his best to replicate the way his grandparents made salumi in Italy. “Back in Calabria my family grew their own fruit, vegetables and pigs,” he says. “They’d fatten a pig all year, and come winter everyone would get together to turn the pig into salami.” Sgro hand-picks large female pigs (males can produce meat with an unappetising aroma called boar taint) with a good covering of firm back-fat and darker meat. He separates the muscles by hand to cut out the sinew, and the meat is both hand-chopped and minced along with about a tenth of its weight added in back-fat. This is mixed with salt, pepper and the preservative nitrate, which must be added to comply with New South Wales state health regulations. “We have to use starter culture by law,” says Sgro. “In the old days back in Calabria we simply relied on the culture that was naturally occurring in the old shed.”
While the manufacture of artisan fermented smallgoods grows across the nation, one state languishes. Victoria’s commercial meat production is controlled by a state meat licensing body called Primesafe. “They have draconian rules,” says one well-known Victorian charcutier. “When we approached Primesafe about producing fermented sausages their response was, ‘Are you kidding? Just don’t do it!’”
Primesafe’s spokespeople say they simply require all licensees to “stringently” adhere to the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, which is enforced by state and territory government departments and agencies. Some Victorian farmers, though, are sending their pork and beef to facilities interstate to be processed into fermented sausages. The dearth of quality artisan smallgoods produced in Victoria is exemplified by the results of this year’s Melbourne Fine Food Awards. Almost all the awards for salami, uncooked smoked sausage and cured meats were won by interstate producers. The only Victorian winner has its salami made in Tasmania from Victorian meat.
Melbourne restaurateur Guy Grossi is hoping to turn this around by giving his own family recipes to an existing licensed smallgoods maker. The results are to be served at Ombra, his new venture adjacent to the Cellar Bar at Grossi Florentino on Bourke Street. “We’ve got a great wine list of natural Italian wines, we’re putting in a pizza oven and some really great salumi and sopressa made from free-range pigs,” says Grossi, who plans to open in late November.
Over in Western Australia, chef David Coomer is soon to open Spanish deli La Xarcuteria. Coomer, best known for his restaurants Pata Negra and the sadly departed Star Anise, took his inspiration for this new venture from the deli bars of Barcelona. La Xarcuteria will sell terrines, Spanish preserves and a large range of fermented smallgoods. Grossi and Coomer are following in the footsteps of Sydney restaurateur Robert Marchetti, who teamed up with Andrews Meat eight years ago to produce smallgoods from free-range pigs.
Victoria’s Adam Foster sees the enjoyment of fermented smallgoods and wine as inextricably intertwined. Foster, a former head chef and sommelier at the Lake House in Daylesford, has turned his hand to making salumi and wine. Today he makes pork salami with herbs that reflect the earthy terroir of Heathcote, the wine region where he makes a textured, savoury shiraz called Syrhami. The salami contains a good sousing of the wine itself. Syrhami salami is being sliced and served in some of the best bars in Melbourne – The Graham, Gerald’s Bar, The Builders Arms Hotel and Cumulus Inc. among them.
“There’s so much going on with artisan fermented sausages,” he says. “Unlike commercial salami that has the bejesus minced out of the meat, these have lovely large pieces of different shapes of meat that you can feel in your mouth.”
Foster suggests partnering salumi with slightly spicy red wines, such as sangiovese and tempranillo. “The fat in the salumi also helps smooth out the tannin in the wine, so they work really well with a good, savoury Heathcote shiraz,” he says with a laugh. “Like mine.”
PHOTOGRAPHY JULIE CRESPEL
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.