Since ancient times Piacenza and its territory have always had humid, continental weather with a narrow temperature range. This weather encouraged sheep-rearing and stock-farming. As a matter of fact, the province of Piacenza proved to be the ideal natural environment for pig farming, and, therefore, for the manufacturing of cured pork meats: pigs do not like direct sunlight and excessive heat, but they thrive in woodlands with plenty of water. It is only thanks to a relatively temperate climate that it is possible to fatten pigs in a balanced way. The firmness of fat is closely related to the speed of growth and the outdoor temperature: if the latter is extremely cold, pigs do not put on much weigh, and, as a consequence, their fat becomes softer. As for maturing, all four main valleys of Piacenza offer ideal climatic conditions for the production of PDO coppa, salame and pancetta piacentina.
The earliest traces of pig farming in the province date back to around 1000 BC. Prehistoric finds, mixed up with animal bones, which on closer inspection turned out to be pig bones, have been dug out in the area of Piacenza "terramare", between Montata dell'Orto (Caorso) and Castelnuovo Fogliani (Alseno). The Romans also seemed to appreciate pigs, as can be inferred from a bronze charm in the shape of a small pig, now displayed at the Civic Museum of Piacenza.
Images of pigs can also be found inside the Abbey of San Colombano in Bobbio, in the valley of Trebbia, where a beautiful twelfth-century mosaic shows the "sacred ritual" of pig slaughtering. The same subject decorates the crypt of the church of San Savino in Piacenza.
It was in the farmhouses of the Po Valley that the salting and maturing techniques were perfected and passed on to the rest of Italy and to France. Since then, the delicate process of the salting of pork meats has followed very strict rules, with excellent results. Giulio Landi, a writer and intellectual from Piacenza, in his food treatise, Formaggiata di Sere Stentato (1542), wrote: "Salt from Piacenza is of such excellent quality that the saveloys, the mortadellas, the black puddings, the "zambudelli", the sausages and all sorts of cured meats, which are locally produced by our women, are delicious, very delicate and with an excellent taste; they certainly are the best cured meats in Italy...”.
At the beginning of the fifteenth century, cured pork meats from Piacenza were sold in Milan and all over Lombardy, because local shopkeepers liked them better than the meats from other places in the Po Valley. Already well-known outside the borders of the Duchy of Piacenza, in the first decades of the eighteenth century our local cured pork meats were highly appreciated in the elite circles of France and Spain, thanks to the diplomatic work of Cardinal Giulio Alberoni from Piacenza, minister of King Philip V of Spain and his wife Elisabeth Farnese. Generous gifts of cured meats from his hometown can in part explain his success with the powerful people of the time and they certainly helped him bring major manoeuvres of international diplomacy to a successful conclusion. For instance, in 1711, he managed to persuade the Duke of Vendôme, general of the French army, to enter the service of King Philip V of Spain, thus giving the Spanish army another chance… all that, apparently, by means of a basket of local products! This and other curious anecdotes about Piacenza delicacies used as diplomatic tools pepper the epistolary exchange between Cardinal Alberoni and Ignazio Rocca, who also came from Piacenza and was the Minister of Finance for the Duchy of Parma. On one occasion the cardinal, wanting to impress the court of Spain, asked the minister to send him "only raw cured meats, small and ordinary, lean but with a little fat, in other words, the cured meats sold in shops in Piacenza… like the ones manufactured by Mr Mazzari, and other shopkeepers like him...”.
In the early twentieth century, local production of cured pork meats started to develop on a semi-industrial basis, and export was made possible by the excellent standard of packaging.
In recent years, consumers’ demand has increased considerably, and a number of qualified manufacturers now work in this field on an industrial basis. Time goes by and new technologies advance, but the different stages of the production of good cured meats are still carried out according to traditional methods, in small family-run plants as well as in large factories. All products are manufactured in the traditional way, according to old procedures handed down from generation to generation of experienced pork butchers, called "massalein" in the local dialect. For this reason, the excellent quality of the Piacenza cured pork meats has remained unvaried over time.
The Consortium for the Protection of Piacenza Typical Cured Pork Meat Products was established in 1971 to promote and safeguard three typical products from Piacenza, namely PDO coppa, salame and pancetta. The 19 members represent 100% of local producers, who work according to the strict rules and regulations, which have been registered by the EU in Bruxelles in compliance with Regulation 510/200692 and prescribe a traditional manufacturing process for the three PDO. For instance, dry salting is one stage of this traditional method; this means that salt must be rubbed on dry meat and not on meat that has been put in brine. PDO Coppa Piacentina must be wrapped in a special greasy pig skin. The quantities of the different ingredients shall not exceed the levels set by the regulations.
Each PDO salame piacentino, as well as each PDO coppa or pancetta piacentina, is checked and certified by E.CE.P.A., the Body for the Certification of Agri-Food Products, that works in collaboration with teachers and experts from the Department of Agricultural Studies at the Catholic University of Piacenza. Each piece is numbered (progressive numbering makes it possible to track down the production batch and the pig itself) and branded with the European Union PDO logo. It is then branded again with the logo of the Consortium, a cornucopia full of salami and a coat of arms on a red background that recalls the coat of arms of Cardinal Giulio Alberoni.
The PDO Certification
Protected Designation of Origin – is a European certificate for the protection and promotion of typical local products. It is granted to those products whose entire manufacturing process takes place in a limited geographic area.
The PDO seal of quality is granted only to those products manufactured according to specific regulations, and after statutory tests. A series of supervisory bodies, authorised by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, control that each stage of the manufacturing process, up to commercialisation, is carried out in compliance with the regulations. This is a guarantee of quality for both the consumer and the producer. The PDO certification for Coppa Piacentina, Salame Piacentino and Pancetta Piacentina are granted to those cured pork meats that meet the conditions set by the rules and regulations compiled by the Consortium for the Protection of Piacenza Typical Cured Pork Meat Products, registered by the European Union in Brussels in compliance with Reg. EC 510/2006, and ratified by EEC Reg. 1263/96.
These three delicious PDO products can be sold only if they are numbered and branded with the PDO logo, that warrants the origin and the quality control established by law. The label must show the company name of the Piacenza manufacturer, as well as the following words printed in clear and indelible letters: Coppa Piacentina/Salame Piacentino/Pancetta Piacentina “Protected Designation of Origin” together with the PDO acronym, checked and certified by the Ministry of Agriculture. All cured meat manufacturing companies are scatterei through the four valleys of the province of Piacenza, which are named after the rivers Arda, Nure, Tidone and Trebbia. All four valleys are worth a visit for their well-preserved castles, their artistic churches and their impressive natural beauty. However, if the aim of your trip is not only that of pleasing the eyes and the mind, but also that of enjoying life through a taste of local culture, then you should head towards one of the many cured meat manufacturers in the province.