The art and science of Italian charcuterie.
Photo and styling by Fred + Elliott
At home, Olli Colmignoli keeps a prosciutto di Parma ham on the kitchen counter, mounted on an antique vertical slicer. Family, guests, everyone passing through the kitchen rotates the handle to shave off a few slices of the soft and salty cured ham for a traditional Italian snack. “It’s sort of like Buddhists walking past and turning the prayer wheel,” he jokes. “We go through a full ham every two to three weeks.”
Colmignoli, age 37, is the founder of Olli Salumeria, which he and partner Chip Vosmik started in 2010 in Mechanicsville to sell Italian-style craft charcuterie. Today, Olli Salumeria is the largest producer of organic salume (plural of salumi, or salami) in the U.S., selling various organic and non-organic hams, lardo, coppa, guanciale and other classic Italian cured meats.
The cured meats of charcuterie, like Olli Salumeria’s salume and prosciutto, were originally processed for long-term storage before the advent of refrigeration. In this traditional process, the “charcutier” mixes a yeast culture with fresh ground pork shoulder and fat, adds spices, then ferments and dries the salume for at least six weeks. During that time the meats lose about 50 percent of their weight in water, concentrating their flavor and texture. Today, we cure meats primarily for their intense flavor and dense texture, still using those old-world preservation methods.
In late 2015 Olli opened a larger operation in Oceanside, California, where Colmignoli now lives, visiting Mechanicsville frequently. On a recent tour of the Virginia operation, the first thing I notice upon entering is the wall of smell—a blend of salt, spice, sweet and smoke. Colmignoli, tall and tanned, walks through the prep rooms, narrating events in his warm Italian accent.
He stops by the spice rack—eight-foot tall shelves filled with large plastic jars of paprika, turbinado sugar, juniper, rosemary, nutmeg, peeled garlic cloves, cumin and more. He pours out a palm full of fennel seeds, rubbing them to release the oils, then adds a spoonful of fennel pollen. “Smell,” he says as he holds out his hand. “The pollen is milder, that’s why we use a blend.”
Strings of bite-sized salumini in their natural collagen casings hang from metal racks, resembling burgundy red Mardi Gras necklaces. Larger Norcino salami hangs in the fermentation room, coated in fluffy white mold. The three drying rooms full of salume smell yeasty, reminiscent of a cheese cave or wine cellar.
Olli controls temperature and humidity with a system imported from Parma. Meats here are aged at a lower temperature and higher pH level than what most American producers use, which makes for a slower cure, less water loss and a slightly sweeter taste.
“You experiment,” says Colmignoli. “You regulate the yeast by how much sugar you feed to the starter culture. The more sugar you put in, the more acidic it gets because the yeast eats sugar and creates lactic acid.” Colmignoli oversees the continual tweaking of spices, temperatures, humidity and pH levels. “Science only takes you to a certain point,” he says. “Every time you change something, you taste it. Taste is an art.”
Colmignoli learned that art from masters. His great-grandfather and grandfather, Innocenzo Fiorucci, were shoemakers by summer and salume makers in the winter. After WWII, they moved the cured meats business from the family’s home in rural Umbria to Rome, and expanded. Until recently, the U.S. forbade importing Italian cured meats, so in 1986 Innocenzo sent his son-in-law, Colmignoli’s father, to the U.S. to open Fiorucci’s American facility in Colonial Heights.
Colmignoli was then 9 years old. He attended St. Christopher’s School briefly, back-and-forthing frequently between Richmond and Rome. He eventually joined Fiorucci’s operation in Virginia (which has since sold), but left in 2009 to launch Olli Salumeria.
Walking the line between American tastes and memories of his family’s cured meats in Rome, Colmignoli has developed a unique hybrid type of salume.
“Italians go for very mild, sweet, just the flavor of the pork,” he says. “For example, the Norcino, that is named for the town where my grandfather was born. It is the most Italian. Just meat, a little white pepper, garlic, salt. It’s the one I eat at home the most, and when my family comes to visit from Italy I give them that. But it’s the lowest selling salumi we make. People here like spicy, garlic, more garlic! So we take the same basic Norcino and add a ton of garlic, or a ton of chilies and that makes it more for the American market. The key is finding that line, bringing it as close as you can to the Italian flavor I grew up with, but staying relevant in this market.”
One commonality Italy and the U.S. share is the tactile appreciation of a rustic charcuterie board; fingers are the best tools for digging into a colorful spread of salty cured meats, fatty cheeses and sharp pickles.
“I eat it with my hands, and I also like to rip my bread apart,” Colmignoli laughs. “It makes my wife very mad.”
What to Drink
Virginia’s beer lovers are in luck because beer’s bubbles and acid add refreshing balance to cured meats and fatty cheeses. Try a fruity Saison like Alter Ego from Norfolk’s Smartmouth Brewing Company.
Italians often choose a fizzy Prosecco to pair with charcuterie, but a full-bodied red can create its own new flavor pairings with each sip. RdV 2012 Rendezvous, produced in Delaplane, is a low-tannin blend, including Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, and we found that its deep cherry notes extended the fruit highlights of our board.
The best cocktail accompaniment to charcuterie is the classic Negroni (equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, garnished with orange peel). Its citrusy bitterness holds up well to the meat’s powerful smoke and salt. Each sip will refresh your palate in true Italian style.
Build Your Board
The classic way to enjoy charcuterie is by building a board—an assortment of meats, cheeses, fruits, pickles, mustards, jams, breads, olives and more that offers guests enough variety so that they can each create their own little tasting adventure. Maybe a grainy mustard would be good with a slice of prosciutto. Or a smear of plum chutney could park the flavor of a firm aged cow's milk cheese. How about trying that same chutney with a slice of chili-hot coppa? Here are a few ideas to get you started.
Choose three to five different meats with a variety of flavors ranging from mild to strong, and a mix of textures. For example, prosciutto’s silky mouthfeel is a nice counterbalance to firm, aged salami like fennel-studded Finocchiona, cayenne-spicy Calabrese and mild bite-sized Norcino. Add a note of the unexpected, too, like applewood-smoked wild boar salami.
Two or three cheeses of varying textures and milk types will expand the board variety. We chose the Vermont Creamery’s “Bonne Bouche” goat cheese for its smooth texture and mild flavor, and a firm, nutty Parmigiano-Reggiano for its sharpness and the textural punch from tiny flecks of crispy acid crystals that are created in the aging process. We also added an Italian Gorgonzola for its out-there funkiness.
Keep it simple with slices or torn chunks of a rustic French-style loaf like Richmond’s naturally leavened Billy Bread. You could also add a crunchy cracker with a simple flavor, like a rosemary flatbread.
Tantalize the entire palate by adding something sweet, something spicy, something textured and something sour. Mustards, fruits, honeys, pickles and nuts are all fair game. We turned to some old favorites with tang and texture, including Virginia Chutney’s plum chutney and Maille’s mild grainy mustard. Then we added a few sides, including herbed olives, crisp apple slices and cipollini onions to create crunch.
Where to Buy
Be sure to ask your charcuterie purveyor about the producers of your feast—it's always fun to share a great backstory with your guests.
Belmont Butchery, Richmond BelmontButchery.com Eli’s Provisions, Roanoke Facebook.com/ElisProvisionsRoanoke Feast!, Charlottesville FeastVirginia.com Olli Salumeria, Mechanicsville Olli.com Red Apron Butcher, Fairfax RedApronButchery.com
This article originally appeared in our Oct. 2016 issue.