Georgia Pellegrino’s excellent book, ‘Food Heroes’ (2010), examines the importance of traditional methods of growing and preparing foodstuffs. One of my favourite chapters is the one about the centuries-old tradition of dry-curing meat:
US Food Standards v. Italian Tradition
In 2002, in the interests of food safety, the USDA (US Department of Agriculture) introduced measures for ‘dry-aged’ products to be ‘cooked’, irradiated, or have chemicals and preservatives added. But New York charcutier, Marc Buzzio, insisted that the ancient method of air-drying meat obviated any need for such regulations and, to prove his point, asked the scientists to see for themselves. With a promise not to reveal his secret recipe, they recreated Buzzio’s process, but took it a step further, by injecting the meat with E.coli, and thereby introducing far more bacteria than would normally have existed. When the air-drying process was complete, the scientists could find no harmful bacteria present. Marc Buzzio’s meat products were saved, and the USDA scientists came to understand that traditional methods survive for a reason.
Top Tuscan Traditions
At a time when animals are being pumped full of antibiotics, meats are being chlorinated, and traditional methods of production are increasingly under threat, the protected designation of origin (PDO), and protected geographical indication (PGI), are increasingly important certifications, determining the area with ties to traditional methods of production. The DOP (denominazione di origine protetta) status is awarded to products that have been produced to a very high standard, and within a specific region and, like all producers, Tuscany takes this status very seriously.
The world famous Chianti Classico wine is made from particular grapes (usually Sangiovese – described as ‘a horse that doesn’t like to be tamed’, by our wine guide at Tenuta di Lilliano) – grown within an area between Florence and Siena. The grapes must then processed, according to strict rules, and bottled within the same area. Though other wines can achieve DOP status, only Chianti Classico can be labelled with the historic symbol of the League of Chianti, the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster).
Pecorino Toscano PDO, soft or semi-hard, is made from the milk of sheep grazing within Tuscany and some specified areas within adjacent Lazio and Umbria, where climate conditions and dairy traditions give the cheese a variety and flavours and aromas.
The quality of the cheese is checked at every point during production. Much of the process is still done by hand, including ‘painting’ the rounds of cheese with oil, to preserve them. One of the best cheeses I tried at Consorzio Tutela del Pecorino Toscano had been buried in the ground in a jute sack for two months!
Air-cured ham has been produced in Tuscany since Etruscan times. Once a ham has been processed, it’s final test is the ‘puntatura’ – insertion of a needle made from a horse bone into various places in the ham: as the bone absorbs the flavours of the meat, experts who have been trained to evaluate the olfactory characteristics of the product, can determine the quality just by sniffing the needle. This process has been carried out since the time of the Medicis. The PDO status ‘Protected Designation of Origin’ assures buyers that the pigs were born, bred and slaughtered in Tuscany and in the nearby regions, and processing takes place at establishments located in Tuscany.
Each DOP product has its own ‘Consorzio’ (consortium) that regulates and checks the process to ensure that standards are maintained.
Where to go
The DOP label is your guarantee that the ham, cheese, olive oil or wine is of the highest quality. Many producers have their own shop and, especially with wine, you may be able to take a tour, and find out more about the process, before making a purchase.
Many products can also be purchased online.
Via del Chianti, 101, 53019 Castelnuovo Berardenga SI, Italy, +39 0577 152 3789, felsina.it
NB Fèlsina S.P.A. also has olive groves and produces high quality olive oil but, as the groves are outside the designated region, they do not have DOP status.
Tenuta di Lilliano
Località Lilliano, 8, 53011 Castellina in Chianti SI, Italy, +39 0577 743070, lilliano.it
Contact: Consorzio Tutela del Pecorino Toscano DOP, pecorinotoscanodop.it
Caseificio Pienza Solp, Località Poggio Colombo, 40, 53026 Pienza SI, Italy, +39 0578 748695
Contact: Consorzio del Prosciutto Toscano, www.proscuttotoscano.com
Antica Salumeria Gozzi, Via dei Tessili snc, Zona Ind.le del Sentino, 53040 Rapolano Terme, Siena, +39 0577.704318, valtiberino.com
Contact: Olio Chianti Classico DOP, http://www.oliodopchianticlassico.com/en/