Salt

Salt

By
Stefano de Pieri
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740661713
Photographer
Earl Carter

‘No salt, no flavour’, my mother used to say. Not that she was driven to use salt to excess; she simply knew that salt brought out flavour when used appropriately and judiciously.

It seems to me most appropriate to begin Modern Italian Food with a chapter on salt. Salt is one of the oldest known preserving agents; salted meats and fish go back to the dawn of modern gastronomy. Salt-mining or harvesting and salt trading played as much a part in modern economic development as other minerals. The ability of the Venetians to harvest salt and to exchange it with their northern European neighbours for money or goods is well documented. Conversely, we know that in countries like England salt was so valued that it was stored in the same way as jewellery.

Modern medicine tells us that salt hardens the arteries and that this can damage our cardiovascular system. This is probably true in the same way that wine can be bad for you when it’s consumed to excess. The combination of excessive salt consumption, a diet high in fast food and soft drink and a sedentary lifestyle do contribute to health problems. But this is not a problem with the salt itself: it is a dietary problem, most likely rooted in social causes.

My focus here is on ‘good’ salt, the carefully selected salt that we use to flavour or enhance a balanced and exciting diet. To begin, the choice of salt is important: it is not simply a case of all salt being the same. The sources of salt can be very diverse – straight from the sea, from rocks or from ancient sea deposits. Each will have a small trace of different minerals, which provide for some flavour complexity. For example, in my part of the world in northern Victoria, locally harvested Mildura salt comes from ancient seawater deposits and is very flavoursome. Its high magnesium content gives it a pretty pink hue. When flaked, Mildura salt has a pleasant crunch, while its taste is regarded as ‘sweeter’ than most other salts.

Mildura salt – marketed as Murray River Salt – is also a good substitute for expensive imported salts, as is Horizon salt from Pyramid Hill, a little further north of Bendigo in Victoria. There is no need to buy Maldon sea salt imported from England (a country that could never make salt in the past), even though it might be interesting to have both at hand for comparison. Australia is the most salinity-affected country in the world and the thought of importing salt makes me cringe. However, in the interests of gastronomy, do have a look at French grey, wet sea salt or Sicilian sea salt, all of which are available from specialist stores.

In the area of north-west Victoria, around the Hattah and Pink Lakes, salt-mining goes back to the late nineteenth century. Afghani camel-drivers were known to have started an industry there, which relied on Murray River navigation for the transportation of the product to various inland ports.

As for me, whenever I dress a ripe red tomato with some Murray River flaky salt, I cannot help but think of the old days of paddle steamers and camels and let myself be carried away by a little bit of romance!

Water

If you are interested in food, I hope you are also interested in where it is grown, how and by what methods. Inevitably, you will have to look at how it is manufactured or transformed, transported and delivered – and by whom, and at what price.

These are all exquisitely political issues. Unfortunately, as food becomes entangled in fads and fashion in a more and more complex economy, we lose sight of where it comes from. Australians, who live mostly in the big coastal cities of our continent, have only vague ideas about where and how food is grown. Many are unaware of the nexus between food and water; in my darkest moments, I imagine most of the population of Australia mentally drifting away from the physical reality of the land they live on.

We must revere our waterways as they are the primary source of our food; equally, we must relinquish all unnecessary activities that are detrimental to the long-term wellbeing of the rivers, the environment they support, and the communities that depend on them.

To achieve this, green politics should be as much a part of each political party’s language as are welfare and education. Green politics is not a middle-class luxury any more – if it ever was. It is a must for each and every farmer, and each and every city dweller. Green is not a dirty word. The removal of most trees to make room for pastures and farming has done enormous damage to the soil. As water falls from the sky – or irrigation, for that matter – and isn’t absorbed by trees, it makes the salty water table rise.

The vast Mallee country in north-west Victoria is a typical example of the slash-and-burn approach to land use. Geologists know that under the Mallee there is a huge water table with salt at five times greater than that found at sea level. The removal of trees allows rainwater to top up this vast bubble of underground water, which, as it expands, in geological time, will need to escape somewhere, possibly into the Murray River.

Should it matter to us whether or not rivers live or die? It should, especially if it can be shown that its death is caused by humans rather than the cycle of nature. It should, because it is the integral part of a complex river system that defines much of the character of Australia itself.

The natural environment is the site of the spiritual connection between people and nature. We have celebrated enough the deeds of the white settlers, their sacrifices and achievements in opening up the outback. It is now time to consider, in the light of contemporary knowledge, how the disasters caused by the age of optimism can be contained.

Baccalà

When I am mildly upset with my children, I call them baccalà. That translates roughly into something like ‘duffer’ or ‘dill’ or the more colourful ‘dag’. Baccalà is salted cod, or morue if you go French. I was happy to learn from the authoritative book by Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world, that the Danish word for cod, torsk, also has the colloquial meaning ‘fool’ and that in nineteenth-century England cod meant ‘a joke or prank’.

I recommend Cod to all who are interested in the history of food. It documents the role that cod had in the economy of northern Europe and North America; it shows its influence over the cuisine of many countries; it highlights how culture in general can be shaped by a single ingredient; and it focuses on the tragic fact that the most important fish in history is facing extinction.

Australians are not passionate about cod, probably because we are geographically removed from the cod’s sphere of influence. Yet I thought that there was enough of Britain’s influence over early Australia to support a mild interest in salted or dried cod. The fish preserves well, and if it preserves well it can travel well, which may have helped in the old days.

It may be that, unfortunately, to desalinate a cod or to tenderise a dry one, far too much water is required, and Australia is not water-rich. Many European farm-houses or city squares have the advantage of fountains pouring water continuously.

I often tell my children about the so-called ‘baccalà run’ I enjoyed every Friday on my way to school. The stink emanating from the tub of cod outside the fishmonger’s shop was so strong we’d block our noses and run past it screaming in unison. The ‘baccalà run’ became such a ritual it was not unusual to see thirty or so kids running past the fish shop screaming and laughing hysterically.

Salted or dried cod is not hard to find in Australia now, mainly because all the Latino races and the Greeks like it a lot. The most precious air-dried cod is a variety called ragno, which I have found at the Mediterranean Supermarket in Melbourne, a favourite food haunt.

One of the problems with dried baccalà is that you need to bash it with a mallet before softening it in water for up to five days – and I suggest using the garage during the winter months if you wish to experiment. Baccalà dealers overseas have tenderising equipment and sell baccalà ready to go, if not outright cooked in two or three styles.

Salted baccalà is a lot easier to handle and only takes about 24 hours to desalinate with frequent changes of water. It is versatile, once reconstituted, because it can be fried, baked, cooked with tomato as a casserole, or boiled and used in a salad.

Pork

I once saw a photograph in a pig farmers’ magazine of a Belgian breed of pork ‘assembled’ some years ago for maximum meat content. It looked shocking. This animal had none of the familiar attributes of a piggy: a nice, friendly face, pinky complexion, curly tail and dainty trotters. Babe did not need to go to the city to get to see the dark side of things: all he had to do was to go to his nearest library to read what is happening to his relations all over the world – and here in Australia.

Had Babe seen what I had, he would have immediately touched his behind, to check if he too had a bum hanging out like some baboons in the zoo. Then he would have looked at himself and flexed his muscles to detect any sign of becoming like a body builder on steroids.

The pig in question could only move, I’d imagine, like a body builder gone silly. Its muscle looked like such that its movements – if allowed – would have to be short and jerky movements, with none of that trotting pace of healthy pigs roaming around in the open. Nothing like the proverbial pig of St Anthony, the pig that moved about freely in the old Italian village, fed by everyone and given to the priest as a form of payment when nice and fat.

There is no fat in modern pigs. No one wants to know about fat any more. It is bad for you, they say. The more meat on a pig, the more profit, because there is no use for fat. Pigs are now bred for meat only, at the expense of flavour. Whether you like it or not, fat is flavour and, what’s more, you do not have to eat it if you do not want to. You can leave it on the plate, or you can eat it sparingly, but pork without fat is tasteless.

Not only that, the genetic pool is being restricted by favouring only certain types of pig: those that put on 2 kg a day, those that conform to the market necessity of the most meat, achieved as quickly as possible to be sold competitively and with a margin on it.

What I worry about is the disappearance of animals that taste better and would taste even better if fed properly. To maintain demand, there has to be some need and I suppose that would not be too difficult to achieve. Consumers have to be prepared to pay a little bit more and not to allow themselves to be brain-washed about fat.

I stand in supermarket queues and perv into people’s shopping trolleys. It is a sport I enjoy. I do not mind waiting for 20 minutes or more. Defamation laws prevent me from writing what I think about what I see. Some products would certainly cause obesity and cardiovascular problems, but none has received the attention that pork has, or has been transformed to the same extent in the name of health.

It is very hard for professional cooks to deal with pork, let alone modern pork. In the past there was a bit of a fad for pork fillet covered with dried fruit sauces, but mercifully, that soon died. Asian restaurants, particularly the Chinese ones, use more pork on average, because in their tradition they have wonderful recipes and amazing skills at transforming the meat – think about those delicious little morsels at yum cha. Pork is found in some modern Australian restaurants in the guise of the Italian sausage cotechino, but as a dish, roast pork, for instance, is only found in bistros catering for a diminishing clientele.

There are few producers out there who do exceptional things, but they tend not to be too well known. Some do not even want to be known at all, because they cannot gear up for a significant production in a very adverse market situation.

These matters are complex and they reflect, once again, the contradiction of mass production with the wishes of the cook. Other countries address the problem differently, so there are models out there for better pork produce.

The latest research shows that pork fat has much less cholesterol than butter, fewer calories than olive oil and is a good source of protein. Italians have known this for a long time, but it seems that the Americans have just discovered this. So they are finally tasting, in up-market restaurants, thinly sliced pork lard – the very same snack that I enjoyed after school, before the daily soccer encounters with my mates!

Salt

Salt preserves anything, and smallgoods such as salame and prosciutto would not exist without salt. Nor would sausages. Minced pork, mixed with a little salt and black pepper, is the basis of the so-called continental sausages, such as the famous ones made by my friend and fellow Trevisano, Gianni Gianfreda (known as Jonathan), proprietor of Jonathan’s butcher shop in Melbourne.

Pork mince cured in the same way as for salame is the base for many pasta sauces, risotto (in the winter), frittata or for stuffing. Instead of stuffing the mince into the gut casings – as with traditional salame or sausages – you can simply mix the meat with salt and pepper, roll it into a sausage shape, wrap it in clingfilm and store it in the fridge.

The mixture will not keep very long (perhaps a week) but you can use it in so many different ways. It is particularly good as a sauce for fettuccine, made into a tomato or cream sauce, and it makes a deliciously hearty winter soup.

Select the best pork available, preferably from the shoulder, where there is a natural mixture of lean meat and fat. Get your butcher to mince the meat coarsely, and make sure the animal was a female (sow). Male pigs are not castrated in Australia so their meat has a strong urine smell and flavour.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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