Friday, February 22, 2008
The Great Speck Hunt
On the taxi ride from Bolzano to the ski resort of Corvara in Alta Adige region of Italy (formerly the Sued-Tyrol of Austria), we asked our local driver where we could find the best speck. Speck, which confusingly means “bacon” in German but comes from the same part of the pig as ham, is cured in a way that is absolutely unique to the region combining the salting methods of the Mediterranean with the smoking techniques of northern Europe.
The driver thought for a moment and suggested we try the local butcher. That was the answer we expected. Of course, no self-respecting local gives out the name of his favourite mountain farmer who still makes genuine speck according to a year long process of brining, smoking and ageing but we were not interested in buying any old speck made quickly and artificially from any old butcher. Never mind, we thought, we have seven days to find the real deal. Let the Great Speck Hunt begin!
As a specialty of the Alta Adige/Sued Tyrol region, traditional speck dates back to the days when isolated mountain farmers would slaughter pigs in the autumn so that there would be plenty of meat for the winter when they were snowed into their houses. The old method took enormous patience and involved salting the meat for roughly two months in aromatic brine containing juniper and other secret family ingredients and then cold smoking and hanging the meat for another five to six months in the fresh mountain air.
Many years ago, when we lived in Austria, we had our first taste of traditional speck which was the beginning of a life long obsession. Speck has a smooth, light and elegant taste, unlike any other cured meat, which is a rich addition to soups, pasta, vegetables and seafood but our favourite way to eat speck is either in a dumpling (Speckknoedel) or simply sliced thin and eaten with good rye bread. Speck works wonderfully with red wine and the locals will tell you that it is impossible to get drunk if you eat speck while you are drinking. Sadly, this has never been our experience.
Regardless, every time we visit Austria or the Alta Adige, we dedicate our self to the task of finding and acquiring good traditional speck. This year, our strategy was to ask the chef at our hotel, Parkhotel Planac. Having danced the night away with him last year during Carnivale, we hoped we had enough of a relationship that he would cut us in on some special speck action. At first, he hoped we would be happy with the product being served in the hotel’s dining room. As speck goes, it was fine, but not the speck we were seeking. “The hotel’s speck is good but we’re after special speck, you know the one that is still made slowly and carefully by mountain farmers.” His eyes lit up. He knew we knew. “OK, he said, I’ll see what I can do.”
A few days later, our speck-trafficker was back with good news. A 7.5 kilo side of Bauernspeck (farmer’s speck) with its own certificate providing the name of the farmer, the farm and the region had been found. The certificate went on to say that our speck was from a specially selected, naturally reared pig with an optimal proportion of fat that was particularly valuable because it was produced in such small quantities. Eureka! More good news was to follow. This extremely handsome and noble piece of meat was very correctly priced, costing only €4 more per kilo than the stuff they were selling in town (we checked). We were thrilled, the Chef was proud and the speck was magnificent.
Back in London, we tasted this year’s speck and can report that it is absolutely superb, one of the best we’ve found. Thanks to the Chef at Hotel Planac, we now are aware of the organisation which certifies the producers who rigorously follow the artisanal methods of production. Using the organisation’s website, we can now buy speck with assurance of its quality without having to dance the night away with a chef. In a way, we’re sad about that, but we are still in pursuit of that elusive farmer who continues to makes speck at home in his Raeuchkuchl who will take pity on our speck-obsession and let us have a piece of the top secret, not-for-sale piece he is saving for his family. Let the Great Speck Hunt continue.
CONSORTIUMSÜDTIROLER - SPECK - ALTO ADIGE
Rittnerstrasse 33/AI - 39100 Bozen
Tel. 0471 300381
Fax 0471 302091
If you live in an European Union country and would like to purchase traditional certified bauernspeck over the internet, click here, but be aware that the website is only in German and Italian.
Photo courtesy of the Alta Adige Speck website