Struggling with the January detox? If you're sick of salad and craving a meat injection, then head to Italian institution Cantina del Ponte in Shad Thames, which is celebrating all things meaty this winter. Executive chef Claudio Gottardo is passionate about all things porcine, and, keen to flag up the regional differences of Italian cured meats, he's devised a monthly menu of meaty treats for January, February and March from Italy's northern, central and southern regions, each with an accompanying pasta dish and glass of wine from the respective regions.
Italy's top cured meats, such as Parma and San Daniele ham, have come to be viewed as luxury items, but were conversely born out of necessity, the meat being cured as a means of preserving it through winter. Kicking off 2012 in style, I was invited to try out all three meaty menus for size, beginning my journey in Northern Italy with a platter of Bresaola, Prosciutto, Lardo and Speck. Made from the top part of the leg of beef, Bresaola is salted for three weeks then air-dried for three months until it darkens to almost purple and develops a sweet, musky smell. Fast becoming the meat of the moment, the melt-in-the-mouth Lardo is devilishly decadent, made almost entirely of pearl white fat, taken from the layer of fat just under the skin of the pig's neck. Once considered a peasant snack, the meat is cured using salt, pepper, sage and cloves, resulting in a silky, almost bone marrow-like texture.
We end the platter with shreds of Speck from Alto Adige on the Austrian/Swiss border. Combining seasoning and smoking with lashings of fresh air, the resulting ham is aged for at least 22 weeks and has a moreish, bacon-like character. Our first pasta dish is a pair of pesto-green gnocci balls rich from the sage butter and threaded with parsley and parmesan. To match, the sommelier pours a glass of Alpha Zeta V Valpolicella 2010, bursting with juicy red cherries. Unmistakably Italian, its palate is laced with leather and liquorice.
Our second meat plate takes us down the boot to Central Italy, and the delights of Wild Boar Salami, Parma ham, Mortadella and Culatello. Deriving from the Latin for salt (sal), wild boar salami, a typical dish from the Maremma, is made from a mixture of mince meat, fat, salt and spices. The sausage is cured in the traditional salting method for over a month, giving the meat an incredibly rich, gamey flavour. Italy's best-known cured meat, Parma ham, dates back to the Middle Ages, while the candyfloss pink Mortadella harks back to the Roman Empire. Made from minced pork shoulder, fat squares are added as the meat is seasoned. The result is pleasingly porcine.
The pear-shaped Culatello comes from Emilia Romagna, and is only made between October and February, when the region is enshrouded in fog. Taken from the thigh of adult pigs, the meat is aged for a year until it becomes ruby red and develops its signature sweetness. Accompanying the meat is a dish of penne with cured pigs cheeks in a spicy tomato sauce, and a generous glass of Frentano Montepulciano de Abruzzo 2010, that bursts with ripe raspberries and blackberries, its voluptuous body balanced by dusty tannins.
For the final furlong of our carnivorous feast, we move to Southern Italy, turning up the heat with Spicy Salami, Porchetta, Nduja and Soppressata. Hailing from Naples, the salami is made of minced pork and chili peppers, salt and spices cured for three months. Porchetta meanwhile, is a light pink meat made from a whole pig, which is drained, boned and seasoned with salt, garlic and copious herbs then roasted in a wood fire oven for six hours.
The exotically-named Nduja is a soft and spicy salami from Calabria made from smoked pig fat and chili peppers. Traditionally a peasants dish created to use up the scraps of the pig, it's best enjoyed slathered over toast. Last to be tasted on the platter is Soppressata, which has been produced in Basilicata for three centuries and derives from noble cuts of ham seasoned with salt and whole peppercorns. To match is a bowl of broccoli-green orecchiette (little ear) pasta from Puglia with bitter turnip tops and anchovies, and a glass of La Casada Salice Salentino 2009. Spicy, savoury and seductive, it proves a perfect pairing for the undulating waves of meat. Earthy and bursting with sweet cherries and stewed plums, it charms at first sip.