Martina Franca and her capocollo

The colour is a rich rich red, emphasized by streaks of white, white fat. Marbling, it’s called, by those who know a thing or two about meat. The smell is the smell of woods and Mediterranean shrub, of boxwood and thyme, of Turkey oak, wood and herbs: all the things that go into smoking it. It brings a smile, learning that the Itria Valley has just the right microclimate to explode the theory that Puglia is not the place for charcuterie. And this charcuterie has the most romantic of origins, made solely by hand and memory, a sum of movements that were inherited by watching and learning, long before they were codified in writing. The master worked and the apprentice observed: very often the former was the father and the latter the son. We are talking about Capocollo di Martina Franca, the crown of Pugliese charcuterie. This salami is produced in an area that extends beyond its namesake city to include Locorotondo and Cisternino: a troika of beauty that would be worth a trip just for themselves. But thanks to capocollo, they’re worth at least two.

In northern Italy it would be called coppa, in central Italy lonza. Capocollo is the triplet that has had to fight hard to win fame in the hamper of Italian salamis. But by no means is it the poor relation: it has its own character, and such strength of personality that in a few short years it has made up for all its neglect, and achieved celebrity status of its own. It is an icon of taste, one that everyone agrees on, dividing neither class nor generation. Try giving a seven-year-old a capocollo sandwich; or ask an Italian grandmother, staunch guardian of tradition, to add a thin slice of capocollo to her brasciole, as she makes the ragù for the Sunday orecchiette.

It pleases the palate of both construction worker and cardinal; it just needed to wait for its time to shine. That moment arrived in 2000, when the Slow Food movement finally recognized capocollo as something worthy of the highest echelons of taste. With a handful of master salami-makers from the area, Slow Food developed the golden rules for the product: not only must it be completely faithful to tradition, it must also be free from any corner-cutting (and indeed, from chemical additives) that smack of industrial production. Furthermore, all parties in the supply chain must be adequately remunerated.

But how do you recognise capocollo, the original? The identikit put out there by the self-regulatory bodies (read: the producers’ association) talks about “a piece of pork that is anatomically from one part of the animal, taken from the cervical muscles between the head and the start of the vertebral area”. So much for the cut: what about the cleaning and shaping processes? Salting is required sooner or later, as it is crucial for conservation, and the meat must also be marinated in vincotto (from Martina Franca, naturally): this lends the meat its first aromas, and then helps to dry it. The first two phases should take no less than twenty days to complete. After that we really get into the meat of the preparation, the stages that determine the quality of the final product. After the twentieth day, the capocollo is ready to be stuffed in pigs’ intestines, and after resting for another twenty days or so it is ready for the penultimate stage, namely, the smoking, over a bed of shrubby herbs. And then finally we have the seasoning: this is the stage of the game where you can tell the true artisan from the one who just wants to make a quick buck, for a good capocollo has to mature for no less than 90 days. It must be tried to be believed.

One final word. Capocollo is one of those delicacies that you can chew over by itself, like a haiku or a line of blank verse (for example); it doesn’t need to be a sandwich filler. Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with a good slice of bread, especially if it’s Altamura bread: it’s a wonderful Pugliese union on the table. But the two partners-in-crime that help capocollo really express itself to the fullest are figs and the aforementioned vincotto, a cooked, sweet, syrupy wine. Roll them up together in a fresh, fragrant slice of capocollo: the pungency of the meat is softened by the sweetness of the wine and the fruit, which also adds a touch of extra freshness.