Saturday, June 19, 2010

Sausage and Peppers

Every year, in the middle of August, the Ciociaro Club of Windsor comes alive for the Festival of the Madonna di Canneto. While the religious observance marks the occasion, it is the fun and food draws out the crowds. People come to talk and to laugh, to sing and dance, to play games, and to eat. The feast is an important part of any Italian festival and the Ciociaria spare no expense. As one of the cooks, it was my job to try to keep up. The menu included Trippa alla Romana, capicola and provolone on a panini, penne and sugo, pizza, pasta e fagioli, and my specialty, sausage and peppers.

Meat processing in ancient Egypt

Italians have been serving and savouring a variety of sausage meats since before they were even Italians. There is evidence of various kinds of sausages being a part of the diet of those ancient civilizations centered in Mesopotamia and Egypt. It is likely though that the knowledge of sausage-making and meat preservation -- charcuterie -- is older than ancient, stretching back, past even the archaeological record, and into unknowable pre-history. Sausage was a product of antiquity’s shrewd frugality: a way to make the most out of every bit of livestock and a way to make it keep in a world without easy abundance or refrigeration. However, what began as necessity turned into culinary craft and art.

Banquet scene from an Etruscan tomb unearthed in Targuina

Charcuterie has a similarly ancient tradition on the Italian peninsula. The preparation and preservation of pork was an important part of Etruscan culture. Etruscan civilization, centered on a loose collection of city-states spread out across what is now Tuscany, Latium, Emilia-Romagna, and Umbria, rose to prominence during the first part of the ninth century B.C.E. This complex culture was heavily influenced by routine exchange with both the Greek, mainly through Greek colonies in southern Italy and Sicily, and the Oriental worlds. Though they never built as formal an empire as the Romans later would, Etruscan influence spread throughout the Italian peninsula, into the Po River valley, Latium, and Campania. By 650 B.C.E., the Etruscans were the dominant culture in Italy and key to maintaining this dominance were strong and well-traveled routes of trade. Archaeological evidence from the fifth century B.C.E. Etruscan settlement at Forcello of Bagnolo San Vito in the Po River valley tells us that charcuterie products -- things we would recognize as prosciutto, pancetta, salami, and sausage -- were among the more heavily traded items. There we find not only some of the earliest examples of large scale, non-nomadic agriculture on the Italian peninsula, but also of wholesale production of a variety of prepared and preserved meat products for trade.

Rome, under the rule of Etruscan kings until 509 B.C.E., inherited much from Etruscan culture, including the long tradition of charcuterie. Roman cuisine tended towards the simple and the spicy and pepper was their most popular spice. The pepper used to by Roman chefs was likely not black pepper or Piper nigrum, but rather long pepper or Piper longum that has a more resinous taste and a bigger and longer-lasting heat. Roman charcutiers developed a wide variety of fresh and dry cured spicy sausages including pendulus, which was a large slicing sausage, and hilla, which was a very thin sausage that was an ancestor of the dried sausages still enjoyed in the Italian mountain country. In one of the oldest known Roman cookbooks, De re coquina, first-century C. E. foodie Marcus Gavius Apicius offers a recipe for the smoked Lucanica sausage from southern Italy: "Pound pepper, cumin, savoury, rue, parsley, mixed herbs, laurel berries, and liquamen, and mix with this well-beaten meat, pounding it again with the ground spice mixture. Work in liquanum, peppercorns, plenty of pate and pine-kernels, insert into an intestine, drawn out very thickly, and hang in the smoke." Romans also made quick and simple sausages from tripe and other by-products. These were cheap and consumed by the poor of the city. Romans also began the tradition of sausages as festival food. Circelli, tomacinae, and butuli were among the sausages eaten during the many and various orgiastic festivals and sacrifices that dotted the Roman calendar. Because of this pagan association, the early Christian Church prohibited the eating of sausages in Rome for many years. The Romans even gave us the origins of the word sausage: it comes from the Latin salsus, meaning, “salted.”

Roman feast scene

With the distended cataclysm that was the fall of Rome and the slide of the Mediterranean world into the Medieval period, the art of charcuterie, somewhat expectedly, went into a sort of decline. It lived on in the villages of the countryside, where the pig remained a vital resource and prepared pork products became a kind of currency. Many farm families continued to make and sell their own sausages in town. The pig was so central to Medieval Italian life that land was often measured out not in area, but in the number of pigs it could adequately support.

Italy's countryside: The village of Assisi as seen from Mt. Subasio

Between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries Italy sees a resurgence. These are the Renaissance years, when ancient learning is rediscovered and new knowledge is gained. The art of charcuterie was no exception. This is when many of the Italian sausage products began to take the forms that we would recognize today. These professionals started organising themselves into guilds or confraternities and started taking on important roles within the society. Bologna saw the establishment of the Corporazione dei Salaroli or the Guild of Salters, Florence, during the reign of the Medici, saw the rise of the Confraternita dei facchini di San Giovanni or the Confraternity of Saint John’s Servants. They began as an association of pork butchers before turning their influence towards patronage and art. In 1615, Pope Paul V, recognised the Confraternity of Pork Butchers dedicated to the Saints Benedetto and Scolastica and, later, his successor Gregorius XV elevated it to Archconfraternity, which, in 1677, was joined also by the University of Norcia and Cascia Pork Butchers and Empirical Pork Physicians. Graduated, blessed and patented, norcinos increased their fame also outside the Papal State. This was when the famous norcino -- the pork butcher of Norcia -- emerges. The fame of the norcino figure continued on unchanged until the aftermath of the Second World War.

The norcino and his craftwork from the Renaissance to today

The genealogy of sausages and peppers becomes a curious one then. It seems likely it is a New World invention as I‘ve yet to find a close match in the long Italian culinary tradition. Its closest ancestor in the ‘Old Country’ is probably salsicce arroste: literally, roasted sausages. This Calabrese recipe calls for a long and thin sweet-and-salty pork sausage called salsiccia lucana to be rolled into a tight coil, wrapped in foil or damp wax paper, and roasted in the ashes or a hearth or fire for about twenty minutes. The roasted sausages are then uncoiled and served with warm toasted bread. It is a wonderful method for cooking sausages as it allows them to cook in their own juices and retain much of that moisture and deep flavour. Immigrants brought it over from Italy, adapted it for charcoal barbecues and propane grills, and still use it today.

Regardless of its origins, sausages and peppers seems to me one of those quintessentially Italian foods. Its vibrant colours, rustic simplicity, and rich, lusty flavours all speak to something primal in the Italian character. The appeal of the dish lay in the simple combination of the spice and saltiness of good Italian sausages with the caramel sweetness of cooked peppers and onions and the tang of tomatoes. Of all the different and delicious things I can cook, this dish is easily the most popular with my family. For my Nonno's eightieth birthday this past weekend, all he asked of me was to make sausages and peppers for his party. I was more than happy to oblige.

Sausage and Peppers:

Sausage and peppers is a relatively easy thing to make. The first step is to find good quality Italian sausages. Use the pasty and plastic stuff you’re likely to find in the supermarket freezer and you’ll end up with something that tastes phoney and dull. Your best bet to find good Italian is to seek out an Italian delicatessen or quality local butcher. In London I’ve found the best sausages are available either from Chris’s Country Cuts or Field Gate Organics. Both can be found in the downtown city market. Concerns about growth hormones and chemical pesticides aside, Field Gate offers a really interesting product. Leaner and less salty than most Italian sausages, they still offer a rich and subtle flavour. Probably the best Italian sausages I’ve found come from Romano’s Italian Deli in Amherstburg. It will take a bit of trial and error and exploration to find the best ingredients in your area but that extra bit of effort to acquire the best of ingredients is almost always worth it. It elevates a meal beyond a function of necessity, turning it into a bit of adventure and artistry. We always need to eat, we don’t always need to settle for good enough.

Once you’ve found a good Italian sausage, you’ll want about one-and-half to two pieces per person. The choice between sweet and spicy sausage is entirely a matter of preference. I usually opt for a ratio of two sweet sausages to one spicy one, it gives a dish that has a bit of heat but really tends towards sweetness. After the sausage, you will want to find one full pepper and about half an onion for every three pieces of sausage. I prefer red, orange, and yellow peppers for their sweetness and generally avoid green peppers for this dish if possible. Finally, you will also need a can of good tomatoes, olive oil, sea salt and cracked black pepper, a bit of fresh basil, some garlic, and a good semi-sweet Italian red wine.

First, pour a glass of wine to set the mood. Set your sausage in the pan on medium high heat to cook, rotating them so that they brown evenly on all sides, about one or two minutes on each side. Next, cut the sausage into small pieces, no longer than a half an inch each, and return to the pan. Next, slice onions and peppers into long thin strips and add to the pan. Saute the peppers and onion in the fat from the sausage until the onions become soft and translucent. Remove sausage, peppers, and onion from the pan and deglaze with some of the wine. Lower the heat to medium and add a splash of olive oil to the pan. Saute some garlic with sea salt and, if you like, the tiniest pinch of crushed chilli pepper. Once the smell of garlic and olive oil begins to fill your kitchen, add the tomatoes and bring them to a simmer for ten to fifteen minutes. Next add back in the sausage, peppers, and onions and continue to simmer until cooked, about another thirty or so minutes. At this point add the chopped basil and whatever salt and pepper you feel the dish needs. Because different kinds of sausages are salty and spicy in different kinds of ways, it can be difficult to know ahead of time how much salt and spice will need to be added to the dish.

The last, best thing about sausage and peppers is the panoply of ways you can enjoy it. Pile the sausage and peppers and sauce high on fresh Italian bread, serve it alongside grilled polenta (polenta that has been left to cool in a loaf pan or bowl, sliced, and then grilled, or atop a hearty pasta like Rigatoni or Pappardelle.

PS -- To all three of my readers, I apologize for the long delay between posts. I hope to get things back on to a regular schedule. Also, sorry for lecturing. I don't blame you if you skipped the history lesson and headed straight for the food.