As you may know by now, I came to Italy about 9 years ago to learn how to make the various types of Pecorino we have today.  Shortly after my arrival, the lady who hosted me sent her, maid “Loredana”, to the market to put some food in my fridge.  And she came back with this beautiful bread, a pile of mandarins, a few apples, and an assortment of these very, very, very, thinly sliced meats.  I could not identify any of them, and had no idea what to call them.  My roommate Giovanni, an Italian, referred to them as “affettati”, which translates to “sliced”.  

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He proceeded to described them and they all had names!  I, growing up in a typical single mother family, had absolutely no palate for these things, and gave them all to Giovanni for his enjoyment!  Often, almost every meal I had in Italy was accompanied by an assortment of these “see-through” meats.  Slowly, I began to like them, but wasn’t crazy for them.
Then several years later, Luisa and I got together and I was re-introduced to these “see-through” meats.  But this time, for some reason I was really, really, curious about them.  Luisa, growing up and living the major part of her life in Italy, was completely passionate about these cured meats, and knew each and every one of them intimately.  Each one had its place, what to eat it with, how to serve them, how to use them in a plethora of dishes and so on…I love to eat, which has never been foreign to me,  the love of agriculture, and the love of handcrafted products.  These artisanal cured meats became my next passion as Pecorino did 9 years ago…   

Antipasto Misto with Salame Toscano, Prosciutto, Capocollo, Crosini and Pecorino
Porchetta made by Raffaele
Antipasto Misto
So the mission started…First, I pinned down Raffaella, who is Luisa’s mother.  This woman is an enormous wealth of agricultural knowledge.  She lived on a farm in the Tuscan hills, post World War II.  Making these cured meats, raising chickens, pigs, rabbits, milking 60 sheep by hand, making a few forms of cheeses was all part of survival, not some trendy farm model.  But even today, if I ask her a question related to her agricultural experience, she is almost closed in answering.  These are obviously hard memories and don’t synapse a warm fuzzy life on a farm.  I could easily write a thousand stories all relating to Raffaella, but maybe some other time.  Anyway, Raffaella would always have something hanging in her “cantina”, a leg of prosciutto, a form of Capocollo, and maybe a string of hand-tied sausages.  Luisa and I were off to find a few chucks of meat. We found them and brought them back to the house and Raffaella, without hesitation, proceeded to carve, press, rub, and rinse these slabs of meat as if she does it every day, like a professional butcher.    Absolutely, no hesitation, no “hummm, what do I do now”, just slow and methodical steps.  I was trying to write, ask questions, via translations by Luisa.
Old well being used as a Cantina. Luisa's mother grew-up using this well
The house where Luisa's mother was born
Old well being used as a Cantina
As it turns out, when we returned to the States, I needed to have these recipes, or hieroglyphic-coded notes approved by the Cornell Food Venture Center in order to be approved to produce and sell these cured meats.  This office was extremely nice, very interested, and very helpful in guiding me through the bureaucratic steps.  They explained to me they had a very limited experience dealing with traditionally cured meats, but they would scientifically alter, add, delete or insert into the recipes what they felt would be safe.  
At this time my thoughts were…Raffaella has been making these cured meats for generations, literally without controlled refrigeration, without scientific measurement, and without a laboratory.  Not only has she made these cured meats, she knows exactly what she’s looking at, she knows exactly when to do what, and knows exactly when things are going wrong.  Why? Because it was a necessary way to feed a family, and to continue a food culture.  I almost felt insulted these recipes, these timeless family traditions might be altered.  As it turns out, Cornell approved the recipes, (“Brava Raffa!”) with very small adjustments.
Our first attempts at curing meats at Dancing Ewe Farm taught Luisa and me what was necessary to produce cured meats by hand. Besides lacking the subtle effects of the Tuscan hills’ climate and soils, we sorely missed Raffaella’s special touch.   We knew then that in order to perfect our recipes we needed to invest in specific aging rooms, and the highest quality sources of meat and spices.
Our following winter in Manciano we were asked to help Luisa’s uncle Zio Franco, home- slaughter a few pigs.  Almost every farm in the country side in the “Maremma” has a few pigs for friends and family.  And when it’s slaughter time, everybody comes together and has a job and an important place: whether it is tending the fire, to keep a 55 gallon steel drum of water boiling, or sharpening knives, etc.  Even, Zia Vima has her place!  She wandered up to the barn, where this all was taking place, in her house coat and house slipper- type shoes, knife in hand, holding a pan of water.  She takes a few snips of meat, a few snips of what looks like fat, and then wonders back down to the farm house.  The “boys club”, remained at the barn, until everything was completed and order was restored.  We all washed up using a garden hose and headed to house for lunch.  Those few snips of meat and fat, Zia Vima secretly grabbed turned into a beautiful celebratory lunch for everybody including a few neighbors.  Ho mangiato come un maiale! 
After lunch, Zio Franco, knowing I was very thirsty to learn as much as I could, asked if I wanted to meet the local butcher, Raffaele Giannarini.  Raffaele, a butcher who learned from his father, is an artist.  Part of his business is to carve and age local families’ prosciutto, because it’s very difficult to have prosciutto come out consistently good using simply a cantina.  Every year is different depending on the temperature, how humid the winter and spring are how hot the summer is etc.  So, Raffaele generously offers this service to the local people.
The following day I met Raffaele.  He is a couple years older than me and speaks really fast with a strong accent from his native nearby village.  To this day, and after several years working with Raffaele, I can barely understand him.  How we manage together, I don’t know.  He is equally as passionate about his craft as I am with our cheeses.  That afternoon, he carved both hind legs of Zio Franco’s pig, into perfect culinary sculptures of prosciutto, tagged them and put them directly into the cooler covered in salt.  After Luisa and I finish the olive harvest, and the pallets are under way to the States, I spend a few days a week or when time permits, working with Rafaele in his Macelleria. Raffaella, Luisa’s mother, and Raffaele the local butcher are directly responsible for my cured meat education.  

Prosciutto aging at Raffaele's Macelleria
First 6 months of the aging process for Prosciutto at Raffaele's
Raffaele hand tying Porchetta
Porchetta oven ready!
Our Capocollo aging
Beautiful plate of Affettati