Although the Festa di Salumi is all about making Italian cured meats in the home, I really wanted to get a sense of what salame production looks like on a larger scale. After all, when we visited a prosciuttificio during our January Go Pig or Go Home trip, I came away not only with a greater understanding of how prosciutto is made, but of what I had done wrong when I tried curing a couple boar's legs the previous year. And having made salami with a norcino during that same trip, I wanted to see how larger-scale production resembled or differed from the way things have been done traditionally.
A couple months ago I hosted a Twitter party for Columbus Salame, one of the three major salumieri based here in the Bay Area. They graciously agreed to allow me to pay a visit to their production facility in South San Francisco, and I leapt at the opportunity.
Now, when I say large scale, I mean seriously large. The day before my visit, Scott and I made two batches of salame, using about 10 pounds of meat and fatback. At this facility, Columbus produces up to eight million pounds of salame annually, and when you factor in their other deli meats, that number rises to almost 30 million, all in a 55,000-square-foot space.
For the tour, I had to don a hairnet, safety helmet, smock and some very fashionable Oompa Loompa plastic booties. It was far from haute couture, but it was necessary in the interest of maintaining fastidious cleanliness. Before entering the production space, we had to sterilize our hands and step through a basin of antiseptic solution. We had to wash or sterilize our hands at multiple points along the way.
The lion's share of Columbus's products are pre-sliced deli meats, with the bulk of their market share on the East Coast. However, about 15 years ago they rolled out their Artisan line of salami, which are made with sustainably raised meat and fat from Niman Ranch. Unlike the classic American deli logs, these are far truer to tradition, with natural casings and irregular, gnarled shapes. They're in the process of rolling out a new line, Farm to Fork Naturals, which melds the two -- pre-sliced deli meats using ethical, antibiotic-free meat and using celery powder in lieu of curing salts. This allows them to get their foot in the door at Whole Foods, which has a strict no-nitrates policy. (Mind you, the reason celery powder works is that it is a naturally occurring source of nitrates, so technically not 'nitrate-free" nor "uncured," but that's a whole other discussion. I'm just happy for the ethical meat.
As I walked into the facility, I saw boxes of pork meat on one conveyor belt, heading into a grinder. An adjacent machine took in slabs of fatback and chopped that coarsely. This was interesting to me, because it more closely resembled the salame we made in Italy. The meat was ground, and the fat was cut into cubetti. This creates a desirable texture differential between the two elements. In Salumi, the salame recipes call for grinding both, and sometimes grinding them together, which creates a more uniform texture.
From the grinders, two parts of lean to one part of fat were then conveyed into a large -- and I do mean large -- bowl mixer with the spices and, well, mixed.
That white disc in the upper left drops into the bowl, and the mixed meat runs up to another conveyor belt and into a stuffer. The stuffed casings are moved over to a work table where they're tied off by hand. I got to try my hand at it.
Scott and I had made bubble knots on our salami, as recommended in the Ruhlman/Polcyn book. Here they basically just did a surgeon's knot with another hitch over that to secure it.
The amount of time from when the meat first hits the conveyor belt to being tied off in casings is somewhere in the vicinity of six minutes. To make two batches of salame, Scott and I took about six hours.
Once tied, the salami are run through a sprayer where they get their mold inoculation, hung on racks and moved to the first part of their curing, in a room where they can express some of their moisture. All the curing rooms have curved corners, which facilitate air movement and allow for more efficient drying. Notice the difference between the synthetic casings on the left and natural casings on the right.
One of the cooler things about the facility is the elaborate system of tracks that allow workers to move the salame -- again, by hand -- from room to room.
The mold that was sprayed on eventually covers the casings. This is beneficial mold, penicillin, which serves not only to keep less desirable molds and bacteria at bay, but also helps wick moisture out of the salami by way of capillary action as the mycelium penetrates the casings.
The rest is waiting time, as little as 21 days for their smaller-diameter salami, like the cacciatore, or up to 90 days for the big ones, like the finocchiona gigante.
The curing rooms smell amazing. One warmer chamber was full of chorizo in its earlier stage, and the smell of paprika was swoon-inducing. The rooms full of more advanced-stage salame, all covered in white and green molds, smelled almost cheese-like. At any given time, there's about 1.2 million pounds of salame curing in these rooms.
Once the cure is complete, all that's left is to package and ship. While their classic salami are shrink-wrapped, the Artisan line salami are shipped with the moldy casing intact. (Some of the mold is rinsed off before packaging.) They are then all wrapped by hand.
A major part of my interest in DIY food is knowing where my food comes from, and what goes into it. Having this kind of transparency and visibility into the production of Columbus's salami is the next best thing.
So you like to make salumi, do ya? Well, why don't you join us for a week-long trip to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to learn to make salumi, preserves, pasta, piadina and more at the hands of local artisans who do it the way it's been done for generation upon generation. Tickets are on sale now!