The Salama Affair

Written by  Valerio Riva
Is salama an old or a new food? Is it fit for Dukes or villeins? Is it native to Ferrara or does it come from elsewhere?
Some months ago, a friend of mine and her husband invited me to Ferrara. I told myself that if this time I had decided to make a serious visit to the city, I had to go about the matter methodically: decide on an objective, an itinerary, a plan. And so I called my friend and told her that my visit had a concrete purpose - over and beyond the pleasure of staying with my hosts: I want, I said, to know all about salama da sugo [a kind of pork sausage cooked in sauce].

Salama da sugo? I hear you say. With all the beautiful things to be seen in Ferrara! What a daft reason for making a trip! You must excuse me, but I don't agree. Those who swear that they are going to a place to see the Palazzo dei Diamanti, or Palazzo Schifanoia, are lying.
Let's be honest, these are not serious objectives. People go to places for very different reasons: to seduce a woman, to do business, to go to a funeral. Then, given that you are there, you might well choose to visit the frescoes in Palazzo Schifanoia or Ariosto's grave and, naturally, these are always fine things to see. But as for those who say they are taking a trip to widen their cultural horizons, my God!, they bring me out in a rash.

But, in my book, going to a place to eat something is definitely a serious matter. I had eaten salama on another occasion in Ferrara and I have an odd recollection of the affair: a restaurant with pink decor, white table linen, a plump hostess, and great clouds of steam rising from the plates. It must be a memory dictated by a guilt complex: in fact I was ill afterwards, I ate too much of the stuff.
Mindful, however, of that bad experience, this time I had read up on the subject with scrupulous care. In reality, I blundered right from the start. And that's how the nightmare began.
I arrived in Ferrara along a coast road swarming with lorries, after a wild storm. I was very late. It was bitter cold. The hotel was deserted. I thought: if tonight - after the salama - I fall ill, no one will hear me, I'll die in a hotel bedroom. There was no escape: I had lapsed into an atrabiliary mood. And so, to ward off ill luck, I decided to plunge into the world of research. The salama and its predictably fatal outcome were not on the menu until that night. Just as well: I had a few hours in which to take my learned precautions. All was not yet lost.

The problems I had set myself on leaving Rome were basically three: was salama an old or a new food? Was it fit for Dukes (d'Este, naturally) or villeins? Was it native to Ferrara or did it come from elsewhere? It seemed to me that the answer to all these queries lay in the response to a simple fourth question: did Messisbugo, Ercole II d'Este's seneschal, use it in his banquets? For this reason, the first stage of the itinerary organized for me by my courteous friend was a visit to a man of erudition: Professor Chiappini.
Rummaging in a drawer, the Professor pulled out a series pages on which Messisbugo, by listing various foodstuffs, quantities and prices, set himself the task of estimating the cost of the upkeep of the Ducal family, the courtiers and the servants. A budget, as we should say today.

But I, the ingrate, regarded those papers with suspicion: I couldn't have cared less about the managerial abilities of messer Messisbugo. In any case I suspected that Messisbugo, like many administrators, while looking after his master's interests had made sure there was a little something left over with which to line his own pockets. And so, rather rudely, I interrupted the Professor: Did Messisbugo cook the books or not? The Professor burst out laughing, but admitted that, yes, Messisbugo had indeed cooked the books.
The interruption gave me the chance to bring the conversation round to my real objective: did that long list of provisions, meats, fish, bread, wine, spices include salama da sugo? For my part I doubted it. The list mentioned salted tongue, garnished ham, all sorts of salami and sausage, cured beef, Bologna sausage, salted meat, bacon fat, and pig's trotters. No sign of salama though.
But look here and here and here, said the professor, do you see? Where it says: sausage for the pot. And what, I shot back, if they were cotechini, or sausages for boiling? The professor demurred, I insisted, we nearly began arguing about it.

There was nothing for it but to fall back on Messisbugo's most important text, the Banchetti. But even this magnum opus provided no answers. There was a description on how to make Bologna sausage, whose recommended blend of pork, salt and pepper, «four hearts, six milts, four kidneys» plus «a measure of liver» and «a glass of red wine» could have made one think of the traditional mixture called for in the production of salama. But the proportions of meat and liver did not weigh heavily enough in favour of the latter to settle the controversy definitively. Nor was it recommended to use a pig's bladder for the skin, the cook being generically advised to adopt «the intestines of pigs».

And finally didn't the Professor find that salama was probably too inelegant a dish for a finicky master of ceremonies such as Messisbugo, whose prime concern was to improve the manners of the D'Este court, to lead them not into provincial temptations? How could his recherché recipes coexist with the tangy juices of salama, a food more suited to a company of ribald gentlemen off to the hunt (for pheasants or for peasant girls, as the fancy moved them) than that of court ladies and their cavaliers? I was on the point of becoming distinctly bad mannered. Seeing my state of mind, my friend wisely decided - reminding everybody that it was getting late - to take me by the arm and drag me off with celerity to the second stage of my tour: the offices of signor Sani, a lawyer who doubled as the Grand Chamberlain of the Ferrara branch of the Accademia Nazionale della Cucina.
The lawyer was seated at a beautiful 19th century writing desk. I screwed up my courage and hit him with my question point blank: Ferrara was a frontier city; to the south lay the courts of Florence, Rome, and Naples. To the north lay the Venetian Republic and Milan, under French influence. Farther north still were the Germans. Was it not possible that salama da sugo had been brought to Ferrara by German mercenaries come out of the north, with their fondness for tangy sausage? The lawyer demurred.

Making his way through Pandects and Codices, he pulled down a pile of sacred culinary texts from a shelf and showed me documentary evidence, with an abundance of quotations, that the origins of salama could be traced back to a Ferrarese Statute of 1383. The sausage therefore was a respectable six hundred years of age. It was clear that this completely ruled out my German mercenaries. Faced with this onslaught, there was nothing for it but to retreat with my tail between my legs, defeated...

By that time dusk had fallen and it was time to abandon theory in favour of practice. My friend's husband came to pick us up: a kind man who knew every stone in the city like the back of his hand. As he accompanied me, every so often he would stop in front of a closed door to tell me about what lay within; at every stop it was if he were opening up his heart to show me the pulsing of the ventricles and the pumping of the blood.
In this way we finally arrived at the restaurant where my friends had ordered the supreme ritual of the salama. The host gently prepared me for the fatal moment the way one does with a sacrificial lamb.
When the wine and the aromas had completely stunned me, he came and laid a paper parcel on a silver plate; he then delicately unwrapped the smoking confection before proffering me a silver spoon and showing me the correct technique: I was to sink it very gently into the sauce quivering with animal life and extract small boiling hot portions of salama that were then to be deposited on a fluffy bed of lukewarm purée...

I had an unbroken night's light sleep, punctuated by erotic dreams. I awoke the following morning with a festive sun beating on the window. The phone rang. It was expected at my friends' house for lunch. After the meal the cook, an old countrywoman, came to join us at table. We talked of times gone by, the food of the local countryside and the nearby towns where they used to make the best salama da sugo in the whole district...
She told us of her father. And of her mother, who died in childbirth leaving her and her five little brothers. What did they eat in the countryside in those days?, I asked sotto voce. Sotto voce she replied: Signore, we didn't have much to eat...

I left. I went back to Rome. How could I write about salama da sugo? I was more convinced than ever that I knew nothing about it. I went back through the bibliography, leafed through the texts and my few brief notes. Nothing. I looked up the entry "salama" in Battaglia's dictionary. But the most recent volume I had received from the publishers stopped at "robare". I felt lost. I phoned the editorial department in search of help. And suddenly a familiar world opened up before me. The first source of the word was Panzini's Dizionario moderno, dated 1905. I thought this had to be an error. Before 1905 there should have been in the 1891 edition of Artusi at the very least.
Or perhaps the lexicographers thought that La Scienza in cucina was not a worthy source of language? On reflection, however, I convinced myself that they weren't entirely wrong: by starting with Panzini they had been able to sanction the word "salama" as a modern expression, only recently introduced to the national tongue. And "recently" meant precisely fifteen years before, the number of years that had passed since Artusi had transformed "salama" from a regional oddity to one of the many instruments in the brand new national orchestra.

On thinking about Panzini, my thoughts turned to my father. Born in the Romagna, he had emigrated to Milan. He used to soothe his homesickness by filling the bookshelves with authors from his native region. There was a whole shelf of books by Panzini. When I was a lad my father had encouraged me to go off on long cycle runs.
As he pedalled, he would tell me stories about runs he had made himself as a youngster: his discovery of the church at Polenta and the ruins of Spina that had just emerged from the surrounding swamp. He came from above Forlì: Meldola.
He would cycle down to Bertinoro, where he would take the coast road and then off towards Ravenna, Argenta, Ro, Ferrara... in those parts there were rumoured to be not only churches on piles but girls. And given that his purpose was not only tourism but also a kind of tacit eroticism, salama da sugo also had its part to play.

My father is dead. Sooner or later it'll be my turn. While waiting, I have gradually become the same age as him. On finding myself at my father's age I have discovered that I have lost all fear of salama. It may well be hard to digest. But difficult digestion is one of the normal infirmities that come with age, especially for elderly men. And then again a certain gastric heaviness induces somnolence, and thence dreams and memories.
What memories? As Pastonchi wrote (another author in my father's library) after gorging on salama da sugo: all that evening in Bologna and thereafter in the train, the devil tempted me the same way he had done when I was twenty.