In these cases, following the rules isn’t enough, the gentle guidance of an experienced hand is essential in understanding the process. At first glance, making “soppressata” might seem to fall into the first category of lessons. Comprised of only four ingredients, it looks deceptively simple to make. But upon closer inspection, it reveals itself to be an instinctual recipe requiring the hands of a true master to produce a mouth-watering result.
Traditionally, in Italy, generations of family members would gather together to prepare “soppressata ” in country kitchens. It was a practical recipe that was conceived out of necessity. Meat wasn’t always plentiful - curing the coarsely ground cuts of fresh pork was a way to preserve it for longer periods of time and allowed farmers to use every scrap of meat that was available. In addition, “soppressata ” was easily transportable, making for a tasty lunchtime break for labourers who were busy working the fields. By contrast, North America provided a completely different set of living conditions. Immigrants had to adapt to city living. Gone were the expansive gardens and the livestock, replaced by farmer’s markets and the local butcher shop. The role that “soppressata ” played within the Italian diet was also transformed. No longer an essential food, its preparation became a ritual. It is a time-honoured tradition that unites generations and acknowledges a family’s roots, a means of paying tribute to one’s past while enjoying the companionship of relatives and friends.
Frank Reda has grown up making soppressata. As an only child, Reda laughingly jokes that he had no choice in the matter - the process requires many hands and it was impossible to pass his duties over to other family members. But beneath the humour, there is a hint of familial pride. “When I was a kid, I remember my parents, Pasquale and Maria, my uncles and aunts and friends coming over to help,” he reminisces.
“The basement kitchen was filled with people talking and laughing. In a single day we were able to make over 200 soppressate!”
They are truly the stuff of legend, inspiring feelings of delight, envy, jealousy, love and pure unfettered joy. These “soppressata ” have such a gravitational pull at parties that guests will leave all other food untouched, hovering giddily over Maria’s platters. The attention has reached such epic proportions that some husbands have been forbidden from bringing out the “soppressata ”on special occasions lest it steal the focus from the hard work of the hostess.
But just what is Reda’s secret? Perhaps it lies in the yearly cooking rituals and traditions that were handed down to Pasquale and Maria from their parents when they were living in Pantanolungo, a small mountainous region of Calabria. Rituals and traditions that the couple kept up after they stepped off the Queen Frederica in 1959 in Halifax and moved into Montreal’s Chabanel district. Perhaps it lies in the cuts of meat that Maria has been buying from the same butcher since the year she immigrated. Even the “spago”, a special cord that is used to tie the “soppressata” is brought specifically from Italy. Or perhaps it is found in her cantina, a cold room which manages to achieve the right degree of frigidity while holding the damp that might adversely affect the drying of the meat at bay.
Five years ago, after the passing of Frank’s father, on the insistance of Frank’s son’s, the tradition continues. Frank and his two best friends, Rocco Tassone and Tony Di Guglielmo have participated in this yearly task. A special guest, known simply as the “soppressatore”, is also invited to ensure that the size, shape and consistency of the sausages are absolutely flawless. The process is a rather laborious one, so the group typically gathers in the early hours of a wintery January morning. While the recipe is a simple one, it is experience and love of tradition that have raised the process into a true art form. A rectangularshaped wooden container, known as the “mainna”, is filled with freshly ground pork. The meat is carefully salted using a ratio of 25g per kilogram.
The formula is incredibly strict - there must be enough salt to preserve the meat, but not enough to interfere with the taste. Maria then adds the final ingredients that she has prepared the previous summer: a generous amount of spicy sundried flakes of red chile pepper and a sweet red bell pepper paste.
The meat is thoroughly mixed, then small portions known as “braciola” are fried in olive oil for all to taste until everyone deems the meat seasoned to perfection. An assembly line is then formed with each person appointed a specific task. The first is in charge of shaping the meat into fist-sized balls. The second person takes the meat, places them in a meat-grinder and gently begins filling the pork intestines that form the casings for the 10 - 12 inch “soppressata”. (These casings have been carefully washed several times in order to ensure that all harmful bacteria has been removed.) Meanwhile, the “soppressatore” is carefully overseeing the process. He judiciously monitors the casing, certifying that the meat is densely packed, checking for air pockets and tying off the ends once the casing has been sufficiently filled. Finally, a fork that is specially reserved for the occasion is used to prick the “soppressata” to allow for drying. The workers diligently apply themselves, stopping only for frequent sips of homemade wine and to tell a story or two. Once the casings have all been filled the “soppressate” are placed in a crisscross pattern in a large basket. They are weighed down overnight to ensure that all excess water is released. The “soppressate” are placed in the cantina for three months and then vacuum sealed. They are then packed away for all occasions or as a treat for a drop-in guest.
For all of their efforts, the gang is rewarded with a delicious home-cooked meal prepared by Frank’s mom. The menu, which hasn’t varied in years, holds as much ritual and tradition as the rest of the day. Along with her homemade pasta and tomato sauce, a portion of the “soppressata” meat is specially reserved for the meal. The “braciola” is served with rapini and homemade bread. Following plenty of homemade wine and a strong cup of espresso, everyone returns home exhausted, falling immediately into bed with visions of beloved “soppressata” dancing in their heads. Good food always inspires cooks to ask for the recipe. Sometimes it can just be scrawled on a piece of paper and handed over to the recipient. Sometimes, however, a little bit of reading between the lines is required. “Soppressata” is about tradition, it is about learning a technique that has been handed down from generation to generation. It is about standing in a kitchen while sipping homemade wine with family and friends. It is about embracing one’s heritage and making sure that one never lets it go.