FoodStuff: Italians do it better

By John Lethlean
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World famous Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, with bistecca fiorentina, the classic steak of Tuscany

World famous Italian butcher, Dario Cecchini, with bistecca fiorentina, the classic steak of Tuscany [©Dario Cecchini]

The most famous Italian butcher in the world, Dario Cecchini, at his butcher shop in Panzano, Italy

“What are you doing in this part of the world?” says the man suddenly at my side, taking me by surprise as I gaze through a glass counter at the pile of dogs-food-turned-new-millennium-dinner-party-staple - lamb shanks - thinking about dinner.

There is a tone of faint hostility to the question, a kind of canine territorial thing going on. The man, a chef, has sidled up in a butcher’s shop to interrogate the wayward restaurant reviewer. The sub-text is clear: I know you don’t live around here so what are you doing on my patch?

This from a Frenchman!

Is this to be my Bonfire of the Vanities moment? Have I taken one too many wrong turns off the Kew Junction? But for once, rather than um and arr like a blithering idiot when taken by surprise in a butchers shop by an acquaintance, I have a ready answer.

“Simple. We don’t have an Italian butcher where I live.” It explains everything. And to anyone in love with food, this would be – should be – a complete and self-contained response. Italian butchers are not like others. They are as necessary to life as a great local café, a good music store, bookshop or bakery, a Target and hardware shop where they can make sense of your Meldrum like mumblings of DIY dilemmas. There are things you get at the Italian butchers you simply cannot find in the vanilla-flavoured meat emporia of my home turf. And for these, I must get in the car, drive north, and risk the dirty looks of locals who can smell an interloper over the pungent aroma of curing pork any day of the week.

Well bad luck.

I don’t mind a bit of domestic food tourism and when I visit this particular altar of Italian butchery, I make sure to get the most out of the communion. And, I must confess, there are times when I wonder if the giddying sight of essential nitrate-laden pork products dangling from stainless racks doesn’t induce some kind of temporary retail madness. Because I’m good at the choosing and spending: not so when it comes to planning the week and freezing/packing away etc. I have been accurately accused of eyes bigger than my stomach numerously.

Essential one: pork and veal mince. Now, I know I’ve previously confessed my problem with mince - in a general sense - but pork and veal, the essential base of great Bolognese, is the exception. Understanding that one simply has to go with the other, the good Italian butcher premixes for his spaghetti-loving customers. Obvious, really.

Essential two: pork and fennel salsicce – sausages. There are probably more kinds of fresh Italian sausages than there are rusted Alfasuds, but to me, pork and fennel is THE quintessential Italian fresh sausage. But maybe that’s because fennel and chilli are the flavourings of the south, and most of Australia’s Italian migrants came from the southern provinces. And while there are plenty of pork and fennel sausages out there in mainstream butchers and delis, Madonna’s T-Shirt was spot on: Italians do it Better.

Essential Three: pancetta. Good pancetta – or cured pork belly – is a bit like garlic or olive oil. The starting point for a lot of wonderful things, the drums and bass of cooking. Knowing you have pancetta in the fridge is to sleep just a little better.

Essential Four: prosciutto. It needs no explaining. But what a lot of people fail to recognise is that there is good prosciutto and poor. At a real Italian butcher, the prosciutto won’t have come out of a plastic bag supplied by a major smallgoods manufacturer. And it will be sliced and packed correctly. With it, you have antipasto, pizza and even an indulgent sandwich pretty well sorted.

Essential Five: salami. Yes, you can buy salami anywhere; which only goes to remind us why we should buy whole, house made calabrese whenever we see them hanging there, all dark and knobbly and so clearly not made in a factory. Better make it two.

Essential Six: tripe. Well you just don’t see it often enough, do you, so why ignore it when you do? And it’s so easy to cook. A kilo of tripe is several meals when nobody else in the household will touch it.

And Essential Seven: a cotechino sausage. I actually made one of these once, or a sanitised version, anyway, because I certainly didn’t use a pig’s head. It’s one of those things nice to tick off the list, but I can’t see a repeat performance anytime soon. Best to buy them when you can, and being what they are, you’ll almost certainly only find them at an Italian butchers. Poach, slice, serve with lentils and salsa verde… and don’t tell anyone it’s made with a pig’s face, mostly.

But hey, does that stop anyone eating a little frankfurter at a kid’s party, or hot dog at the footy? Of course not; most of us try to ignore the realities of the food processing industry.

A visit to the Italian butcher is a far more honest experience. If you have one nearby, cherish him (or her, as the case may be). And if you see me in there procrastinating over a bit of cured pig’s cheek, be gentle. I’m just hungry.


From a collection of John’s food writing 2005-2008.

Follow John Lethlean and Necia Wilden on Twitter as they eat and drink their way around Australia

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