by David Downie
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For centuries, Rome’s demand for cured hog jowl was met by hundreds of specialized pork butchers and salami makers. The first are called norcini and are both butchers and salted-pork product makers. The second, salumieri or salsamentari, do not usually get involved in the butchering of the pigs. Norcia, the mountain town in Umbria famed for its black truffles, gave its name to norcini, such as the Carilli brothers were: they came from the area. It has been the heartland of great pork and wild boar for millennia. Both animals feed on acorns from the forests that gave Umbria its name. (Umbre and variants originally meant “shady” or “dark,” as in a dark forest of oaks.)
Norcini traveled the Italian peninsula butchering pigs, curing the meat, and making sausages. Eventually, probably in the 15th century, norcini began to settle in Rome. In the mid-19th century, their number swelled after Rome became the capital of united Italy.
Until recently, both Rome’s salumerie and salsamenterie in Rome, like norcinerie, were still run primarily by families from the around Norcia area. Now, however, most of them shops merely resell items — from cheese and salted anchovies to ham and wine — made by others. And Italian supermarkets are increasingly taking over the trade, carrying a mix of handcrafted and industrial goods.
Recently, many of the remaining small businesses survivors of this changed business environment were forced out because they couldn’t afford the cost of meeting stringent European Union hygiene regulations. Only a few norcini survive in Rome, eschewing industrial methods, and curing and aging excellent guanciale entirely in the city. Carilli was the king of these holdouts.
It was lunchtime when I arrived to visit Carilli, as instructed by Salvatore. He pulled down the metal shutters and led me to the workroom in back. His hands fluttered with excitement as he described his typical workweek of six 16-hour days, spent primarily butchering, curing meat, and waiting on customers. Then at 4 am on Sunday, Carilli would hop in his delivery van and drive to his ancestral home in the village of Nortosce in the mountains near Norcia.
Salvatore would check his bees, hives and grapevines; load the van with honey, seasoned hams, and guanciale; and head back to the city. Several times a month, he and his brothers Giulio Cesare and Giovanni would fill a truck with free-range, corn- and grain-fed white Umbrian pigs from Umbria, raised for them by cousins or friends, and take them to the sprawling municipal slaughterhouse on Rome’s edge. But then Salvatore’s brothers grew tired; one died in a nightmarish if banal road accident outside the shop.
Salvatore remembered the years before refrigeration, when pigs were slaughtered and salted only from October to March instead of year round. Later, when thousands of animals were processed daily, Carilli always walked his hogs through the slaughterhouse himself to be sure he received his own sides of pork at the end. Whether any other Roman butcher has the time, energy and passion to do this today is an open question.
When it comes to making guanciale, Carilli Salvatore told me the bigger the pig the better. His averaged fifteen months old and 400 pounds, though some, after two to three years, used to hit almost 800 pounds. The typical Umbrian porkers have thick, heavy, muscular jowls — up to six pounds each — ideal for slow dry-salting and long aging.
Most of the large-scale guanciale makers operating today brine their hog jowls for 24 hours in a swirling solution of salt, nitrite or nitrate (saltpeter), preservatives and coloring, then coat them with spices and dry them with hot forced air for a week or even less. But Those industrial methods were an abomination to the Carilli brothers.
“I love what I do,” Carilli told me. He smiled, eager to initiate me into the mysteries of salatura a secco, “dry-salting,” taught to him by his grandfather, Filippo. Salvatore would take about 50 jowls at a time. Once they were scrubbed and trimmed of ragged edges and unwanted surface glands, they were chilled to within a degree of freezing. For each 100 kilos, he weighed out three kilos of medium-coarse, gray sea salt from Sicily. Working on a stainless-steel table, he rubbed the salt into the jowls by hand, coating each thoroughly, then transferred them to another stainless steel table in a cold room.
Here, they waited at just above freezing for 21 days. Once a week, Carilli would flip them and massage any loose salt back in. After three weeks, the salt had been absorbed. Carilli would rinse the jowls in warm water and gently with unexpected gentleness pat them dry with clean dishtowels. Back on the worktable, he would combine garlic powder, roughly ground black pepper or sometimes chili pepper, and more sea salt. (Powdered garlic has been around a long time; he said his grandfather used it.) He then coated the jowls with the seasoning. Then he punched a small hole in the thin tip of each guanciale and ran twine through it. At the family’s drying facility in Frascaio di Norcia, the jowls would hang in cool mountain breezes for three to four months. The guanciali are then ready, but the largest and thickest would improve if aged in a cellar or shop for another year or more.
In part because of the long salting and hanging, the taste of the Carilli guanciali was closer to prosciutto than to pancetta, and, unlike most salt-cured jowls, the Carillis’ could be eaten raw. As a parting gift, Salvatore sliced for me by hand some of his best jumbo guanciale. It was nearly two years old. Though the texture was slightly elastic, and the flavor hovered between lardo di Colonnata — the now-famous cured back fat from the Carrara region — and prosciutto from Parma or San Daniele. This was archetypal Roman guanciale: peppery, moist, sweet, and earthy. I will miss it.
David Downie is the author of Cooking the Roman Way: Authentic Recipes from the Home Cooks and Trattorias of Rome, and Food Wine Rome (a complete food- and wine-lover’s guide to the city); his latest book about Rome is Quiet Corners of Rome (over 50 silent, serene, often secret corners of the city). All three volumes are illustrated by color photographs by Alison Harris.