What is salumi?
Literally meaning ‘salted meat’, salumi is a catch-all term for the huge array of Italian cured meats, from pancetta to prosciutto and everything in between.
Cured meats have been an integral part of Italian cuisine for centuries. Cooked and cured meats often feature in Italian antipasti and so salumi have a central role to play in the aperitivo tradition in Italy. There are even records of salumi being produced during the Roman period, when the first laws were written up to regulate meat production and consumption.
The practice of curing meat initially came about through necessity – in the days before electricity or fridges, curing was one of the only ways that Italians could preserve meat for more than a few days.
The basic curing process always starts with the meat being salted. After this, the next step is typically air-dying, although some Italian salumi are smoked before they’re air-dried. Others, like mortadella, are cooked as well as cured.
Whilst pork is by far the most popular meat for curing in Italy, the country is also home to some lesser-known salumi made from beef, wild boar, venison and even goat meat.
Salami vs salumi
They might sound almost identical, but salami and salumi aren’t the same thing. Like the French word charcuterie, Italians use the word salumi to describe any meat that has been cured, smoked or turned into a sausage.
In contrast, salami is a type of cured meat (or salumi) typically made from ground meat and spices stuffed into a sausage casing. So, a salami always falls under the collective term salumi, but not all salumi are salami.
Types of salumi
Whether you’re hosting an Italianesque dinner party in the comfort of your home, or sipping an appetite-awakening aperitivo in a sun-kissed Italian piazza, an accompanying salumi selection is always a good idea. Here’s our rundown of five of the best Italian salumi, so you can tell your mortadella from your bresaola.
Prosciutto di Parma
Prosciutto di Parma (or Parma ham) is made in the hills above its namesake city of Parma, where fresh breezes from the Apennine mountains create the ideal conditions for air-drying whole legs of the finest pork. After an ageing period of around 10-12 months, Parma ham is deftly cut into paper-thin slices. Sweet yet salty, prosciutto di Parma is wonderful wrapped around homemade Italian breadsticks and sings when nestled amongst wedges of ripe cantaloupe melon.
Made from salt-cured (and often spiced) pork belly, pancetta can be served in slices and eaten as it is, or cubed and fried in order to add a salty intensity to a host of classic Italian dishes. We use pancetta in our signature carbonara recipe, but it also brings savoury depth to slow-cooked dishes like pasta e fagioli or this rich game ragú.
Mortadella is the signature salume of Bologna, in the northern Italian region of Emilia-Romagna. Pale pink in colour and studded with peppercorns (and sometimes pistachios), Mortadella Bologna is cooked as well as cured. The gently spiced flavour of this salume works well as a standalone aperitivo, and in Bologna you’ll also see it stuffed into flatbread known as piadina for a satisfying streetside snack.
Unlike the other salumi on this list, bresaola isn’t made from pork, but beef. Hailing from the mountainous alpine valleys of Lombardy, bresaola is deep red in colour – with a gentle spicing from the juniper berries, cinnamon and peppercorns that the beef is cured alongside. Normally served in thin slices, bresaola works well draped over some crusty Italian bread, or paired with parmesan cheese, wild rocket and good olive oil for a light but seriously satisfying salad.
A spicy, spreadable sausage from the southern Italian region of Calabria, ‘nduja has a fiery kick from the native Calabrian chillies that are incorporated into the mix of minced pork. As well as being cured, ‘nduja is smoked, giving it a deeply savoury flavour. ‘Nduja has a pâté-like consistency not dissimilar to Spain’s sobrasada, which makes it perfect for spreading over bread, stirring into pasta sauces or even stuffing inside filled pasta.
Our favourite cured meat recipes
Across Rome, salumerie counters are piled high with thick slabs of fat-marbled guanciale, which is made from salt-cured pig cheek. Fattier than its famous cousin, pancetta, guanciale releases this deeply flavoured fat when fried – enriching pasta alla gricia with its seriously savoury flavour.
Whilst not strictly a traditional combination, this dish marries ingredients from several regions of Italy: spicy ‘nduja sausage from Calabria meets Amalfi lemons from Campania – with mellow mascarpone from Lombardy bringing everything together. Paired with fresh tagliatelle, this dish demonstrates the best of Italian ingredients spanning the length of the country.
The signature shape of pasta-obsessed Bologna is tortellini, and you’ll find them served the same way everywhere you go: stuffed with pork, cured prosciutto and parmesan, then served in a chicken broth – a dish known as tortellini in brodo. This dish is particularly popular at Christmas, when it’s eaten across Italy as a precursor to the main meal.
A favourite of our Head Chef Roberta, who, like this particular dish, hails from the southern Italian region of Puglia. Made with an under-appreciated pasta shape called capunti (which is shaped like pea pods), this dish features a pecorino-enriched sauce flecked with crisp pancetta and a generous smattering of fresh rosemary.