After days, weeks and even months of telling everyone about the wonder I’ve been curing in my fridge – Ladies and gentlemen…
Ukrainian salo, or cured pork fat.
If you know anything about me, you know I have a soft spot for a pig, in all its disguises (just see here or here). This porcine love of mine, combined with my Ukrainian roots (read here) meant making salo was inevitable.
Curing pork back fat is an activity of an iconic, almost sacred importance for khokhlov (a derivative but somewhat still a loving term given by Russians to Ukrainians). Although at the same time the love for salo is constantly taken piss out of, looked down on, ridiculed. Any post-Soviet person will be able to recite at least 3 anecdotes about Ukrainians and their love for salo and what this says about the nation.
Dumb, peasant, slow, unsophisticated – they are all there, the terms given by a big powerful nation to a smaller ‘brother’ next door…Salo, of course, is both a symbol of this village-ness and a quiet admiration for the alleged relationship Ukrainians have with their Chernozem, or spurting, fertile Black Ukrainian soil.
I am fascinated by the sheer difference between the way Ukrainian salo is treated as a cultural and gastronomic phenomenon, and the world-famous Italian Lardo di Colonnata. (oh please forgive me my dear Ukrainians) The two products are essentially the same – an ingenious way farmers use every bit of a pig to create something both delicious and nutritious. Lardo di Colonnata is too cured pork back fat, although the Italians have fought long and hard to create and protect Lardo’s unique properties: one would not be allowed to sell cured back fat unless it comes from a specific type of a pig, raised in a particular part of Italy, cured in marble containers. Lardo now has a legal Protected Geographical Status.
There are, of course, some specific historic and political reasons why Italians have come to treat their Lardo so differently from the Ukrainians – in both cultural and physical senses. These reasons go back as far as 19th century notions of nation-building that spread across a large chunk of Western Europe. Linking a seemingly ‘inherent’ love for the soil to love for the nation built bonds between different Italian regions that were hardly there before (remember, Italy was not a unified nation until a century ago, but a collection of independent states, regions). Ukraine is too now building its nationhood, away from Russia, towards Europe…
…what could be more symbolic of ‘Ukraineness’ than salo i wonder?
Well, I might be able to tell you a lot more about salo, both its ‘story’, its meaning and, of course, the eating of it, in another few months as I’m travelling to Ukraine this summer for a bit of research (some people go to Cyprus to lie on a beach; others go to Ukraine to eat fat). For now a taster – my attempts at curing lard- dare to try it at home?
How to cure pork back fat, Ukrainian style
1. You need a good slab of pork fat to start with, preferably with skin still attached, about 500 grs will do.
A disclaimer: I didn’t give clear enough instructions to Rother Valley organics, where I normally buy my meat from, and so they sent various small cuts of back fat, not a whole piece. The result was still ok, but not as good in appearance. Salo should be a chunky square of glistening fat.
2. You will need what Americans call Kosher salt, or big grains of salt, not table salt. I got mine from a good old-fashioned Italian deli in King’s Cross. You will also need Sodium nitrate, only a teaspoon of it, apparently it’s a preservative that could be gotten from any butcher.
3. Cover with a good layer of salt and nitrate, so that you can’t see the fat underneath, perhaps 5 mms?
4. Just put the damn thing in your fridge (or another cool place if you have one – I haven’t) for 2-3 weeks. Perhaps check on your salo once or twice, turn it over, making sure salt still covers it properly.
5. After a couple of weeks you will notice that the fat has hardened – salt has sucked out most of its moisture. You can keep salo in the fridge for a lot longer, dunno a couple of months if now more. However, at this stage of my initial research I suggest scrapping off the salt and transferring your salo into a freezer – this is where Ukrainians normally keep their , together with a bottle of Horylka, vodka, of course.
6. How do you eat salo?
Well, this is the ‘classic’ way if you like:
- take salo out of your freezer, slice thinly.
- slice thickly your black (rye) bread.
- spear your bread with a good layer of Russian mustard (hot but fairly sweet variety, similar to German in fact).
- alternative but strongly advised – get yourself a raw clove of garlic. you can slice it and put the slices onto your bread with mustard or just chomp on it as you go along.
- poor a shot of vodka.
- place salo on top of your bread and eat…..
7. I however started with a slightly different version, since I was still waiting for curing to finish. So I fried salo - most comforting food ever. Sweet sweet fat with traces of salt on a robust slice of rye bread.
Another way – I used to love fried potatoes with little cut-up chunks of salo when I was a kid, eaten straight out of a frying pan, with some dill on top and ketchup.
This is just the beginning of my salo-journey – I will report soon on what salo was like after good 3-4 weeks under salt. And then other glorious ways of using pork fat.
How do you like your salo?