It’s What’s On the Label

Posted July 9, 2013

While in New York City for the recent Fancy Food Show, many of our friends visited some of the swanky and trendy new restaurants. The presentation of the menu was generously seasoned with vivid descriptions of the offerings.

“The entree this evening is braised boneless breast of Kalahari ostrich. The ostrich was hand fed lollipops. The ostrich is seasoned with a reduction of turnip, the turnips being hand-picked by leprechauns on an enchanted isle in the North Sea.”

In truth, nothing that fanciful, but what it came down to was the provenance of the ingredients. For that is how a good chef begins his or her menu: What is good, fresh, and available. One could grab any old hunk of meat, and with liberal seasoning and careful preparation, turn in a respectable dish, but at the end of the day, it would be what it was – an old hunk of meat.

When Oliviero Colmignoli began Olli Salumeria, he was replicating recipes that had been passed along his family for generations. They were recipes from Italy, and the first step was always determined by the availability of quality pork. The salumiere would visit with the local farmers and find just the right pig. This pig would have been raised free to roam and root, eating nuts and grains that were native to the area. The resulting pork would have a taste and aroma that would reflect the area in which it was raised. The first step for Olli when he began in America was to find that pork.

Olli visited several farms from around the country, and inspected countless sides of pork. The farmers that he chose reflected what he was raised with in Italy – pigs grown with one goal in mind: quality pork. His farmers believed in healthy pigs first. If you allow a pig to be a pig, you get good pork. There are things that you can feed it to make it fatter, grow it faster, or improve your yield, but these were things that went against the basic nature of the pig. The farmers that Olli chose allowed their pigs to graze naturally, eat what naturally occurred in their diet, and they decided to forgo the antibiotics and hormones that are rampant in large, commercial farms. The pigs that he chose tasted like pigs, and reflected their healthy environment.

But were they “organic?”

As you browse the aisles of your local mega-grocery, you will see a variety of labels that advertise and trumpet the “naturalness” and wholesome nature of the product. But these can be extremely misleading.

A box of crackers that says “All Natural” in actuality is just a box of crackers. Just about everything that we use in food is based upon some sort of mineral or compound that started out as a natural thing, and has been reconstituted to provide some other benefit. The benefit is often a better yield for less cost or an expanded shelf life. Arsenic, for example, is a naturally occurring chemical. It is also a known poison, if ingested in proper amounts. Large-scale commercial poultry farmers mix it into chicken feed, as one of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning is a pinkness of the flesh. This gives your chicken a “fresh” pink hue, but there isn’t enough arsenic there to poison you (depending, of course, on how much chicken you eat). So one could argue that the chicken was “All Natural.” Raised from an egg, ate and lived, and a natural product used in the feed. Healthy? You decide.

Another misnomer is the label “Made from Organic Ingredients.” Great. Let’s go back to the chicken. Said chicken was hatched from an egg, then ate organic grains. Then the farmer mixed in some arsenic to make it pink. He did, in fact, use organic ingredients, but he added something that clearly was not organic. The label is honest, but misleading.

So what is organicolli-salumeria-its-whats-on-the-label-allnatural-salumi? An organic product is grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or a host of other contributors, chief among them genetically modified organisms, or “GMO.” This includes antibiotics and hormones, which we already refuse to condone. But getting that designation is hard to do.

We have some friends who own a small nursery where they grow Japanese Maples. It’s a wonderful property, and one of their other passions is beekeeping. Honey, like pork, will reflect the flavors and characteristics of the area where it was produced (what the bees ate). If the bees frequent fields of clover, you will taste it. If fruit trees are in full blossom, you’ll know it from the taste of the honey. The folks at Bearer Farms run a pretty clean and honest operation, and like us, use techniques that haven’t change much over the past 200 or so years. But they are very clear that their honey isn’t organic. They use no pesticides or other chemicals to increase their yield or boost production, but they can’t vouch for the bees. Bees like to roam, and Bearer Farms has some neighbors who are not organic. There is a very real possibility that their bees roamed into a neighbor’s field to sample some non-organic clover, so no label.

But enough of that. Let’s talk about the pigs, and how this relates to us.

Until now, we could say with complete honesty that all of the pigs we used were raised humanely, were pasture-raised, and were not treated with hormones or antibiotics. Happy pigs. Some of our farmers supplement with a variety of feeds. They are still committed to the welfare of the animal, and know that we’re only buying high-quality pork, but they could not say that all of the feed was GMO-free. In order to certify that something is organic, there is a multi-step process. The farmer has to certify that the pig was raised without chemical help. The feed grower has to certify that his grains were grown without chemicals and pesticides. We, in turn, have to certify to the USDA and FDA that we’re producing salame without the use of any chemicals or preservatives that violate the tenets of being “organic.”

It’s not so easy.

Over the past several months, we’ve forged relationships with farmers who have made that commitment. They, in turn, are buying feeds and growing foodstuffs for their pigs that are free from chemicals and GMOs. When we were at the Fancy Food Show earlier this month, we unveiled a line of salami that is truly “organic.” It is made from all-natural, chemical-free, pasture-raised, organic pork – pigs that ate all-natural, organic feed, and using all-natural, organic recipes and processes that Olli’s family has been using for generations.

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