Finocchiona, a Machiavellian meat
Of all the wild herbs in Tuscany, wild fennel has always been one of the most widespread. It grows in fields and along country roads. It’s not a particularly graceful plant, but its yellow flowers have always exerted charm and, once dried, a taste that flavors salads and delicate meats, not to mention herbal teas and calming infusions. Most interesting of all are the countless seeds which, in their mature form, have always been used in finocchiona, the queen of all Tuscan charcuterie. Its domain has now spread through the peninsula and to foreign shores, protected for a number of years by the PGI quality status.
Finocchiona’s origins remain shrouded in mystery, but it seems fairly certain that the salami comes from Florence or the surrounding countryside: both Greve in Chianti and Campi Bisenzio claim ownership. Whatever the truth, it is found in Tuscan and non-Tuscan dishes. Still, countless myths and legends swirl around this salami.
For example, some say that one Niccolò Machiavelli was most partial to finocchiona, to the extent of citing it in some of his writings. Perhaps more plausibly, it’s said that it was customary for Chianti wine merchants to organize table-groaning blowouts of finocchiona – because, so went the thinking, buyers were less likely to distinguish wine from vinegar if they had binged on these delicious but overpowering morsels!
Fennel seeds are rich in anethole, an unsaturated, aromatic chemical with anesthetic properties for the taste buds, especially when it comes to alcohol. Hence the advice to quaff a good wine with a slice of finocchiona, but it would be unwise to uncork a bottle of something heavy. It could turn out to be a grave disappointment.
But how and when was this wonderful salami created?
We are most definitely talking about a product that dates back to the early Renaissance, even the late Middle Ages. The most likely theory pertains to the Florentine butchers. Faced with strong smells, typical of meats hung for long periods, it’s believed that the butchers decided to add fennel seeds: useless as a preservative, but excellent at masking unpleasant aromas. Nowadays there’s no longer the same need to cover faults, as butchers are judged by their ability to balance flavors with aging potential, besides of course the goodness of used pork.
And here we come to a crucial point. The meat in finocchiona is 100% pork, lean and fat, most of it from the cheek, belly and shoulder. It is ground fine and seasoned with salt, pepper, red wine and, naturally, wild fennel seeds (foeniculum vulgare Miller). The mix is then packed into a natural skin and left for a week or so in a cool, aired environment. It is allowed to mature in the cellars for no less than 5 months. Traditional finocchiona comes in sizes that vary between 1 and 3 kilograms.
Finocchiona or sbriciolona?
Sbriciolona differs in that it is ground rougher than finocchiona; more importantly, it is given much less time to age, only a month or so. At the end of that period, the salami is very soft, and needs to be cut thick: sbriciolarsi means ‘to crumble’, and that’s exactly what sbriciolona tends to do! Naturally, the question of finocchiona versus sbriciolona divides Florentines into her old tribes of Guelfs and Ghibellines. It’s a matter of taste, in the end, and there are a great many who will passionately express their preference for one, but privately admit that both are actually pretty darn good.
Good Ghibelline that I am, I ally myself with the finocchiona party. I find sbriciolona a little bit lightweight, both in terms of aroma and flavor; but I’m far from turning down a nice slice of fresh unsalted bread with a bit of sbriciolona on top.
Finocchiona doesn’t have any particular recipes that call for it. No traditional dish explicitly demands it. Over the years, I have made various attempts to create dishes based on finocchiona, but I have to confess that none of them have ever entirely convinced me. Still, I would recommend sprinkling them into a beef and pork ragù or over a hamburger. If you do like finocchiona and want to use a typical Tuscan salami in your cooking, you need another versatile product that can be cooked. In which case, head to the Sieve valley and get yourself a bit of the legendary Bardiccio, but that’s another story, which even our editor doesn’t quite know inside out…
[In the images: Tuscan cold cuts, with finocchiona from the Bottega del Vino in Poggio Casciano]