Bresaola is of ancient origin and yet the etymology of the word is somewhat uncertain. Certainly the term contains a reference to salt and harks back to the extremely ancient, even prehistoric technique of salting the meat of wild animals, venison primarily.
Since 1996, it has been guaranteed by the European PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) trademark, which controls certified producers in the Sondrio province in northern Lombardy.
The statistics relating to this world-famous Italian product are truly amazing: about 13,000 tons of bresaola are produced on a yearly basis whilst as many as 8,000 tons are destined for the export market (2015 figures).
Where is it produced?
Its typical production area covers the entire province of Sondrio, two main valleys situated in the heart of the Alps: the Valtellina and the Valchiavenna. Here the average temperatures are rather low and the air is dry: a perfect combination for this unique cured cold cut.
How is it produced?
Basically, three cuts of beef may be used, from bovines certified as being at least 24 months old. Top quality bresaola is made from heart of topside, the best cut. You can spot it on account of its “droplet” shape. The second best cut is silverside, which is very large and may weigh from 2 to 5 kilos: it is leaner and suitable for carpaccio (served with rocket leaves and parmesan shavings dressed with extra virgin olive oil) as well as being slightly dry. The third cut is eye round, also very lean, and more tapered in shape than the other two. It must be said that authentic bresaola is entirely processed by hand. First of all, the cuts are selected and any fat is removed. Then comes the salting process, which is also the most important step.
You can tell a poor quality bresaola from an excessive presence of salt. Each producer prepares his own secret spice mix which has to penetrate the tissue to give the meat its aromatic flavour. As well as salt and ground pepper, wine, spices and sugar may be added to facilitate the “good” microbes largely responsible for curing the product. The salting mixture often varies from one producer to another and is handed down from generation to generation. However, the real secret is the manual massaging of the meat to ensure that the ingredients are absorbed evenly and thoroughly. This lasts about 15 days and is repeated at intervals of 48 hours according to the season, the size of the cut and the altitude of its production site. During this phase, the meat acquires its flavour and loses part of the free moisture in its muscular tissue. Then, the bresaolas are washed and subsequently stuffed into natural or synthetic casings. The final ageing phase takes place in special rooms with controlled temperature and humidity. The bresaolas are stored from 2 to 4 months at a temperature of approximately 20 degrees centigrade and an air humidity of 70%.
How to enjoy it
A great bresaola has to be tasted "just as it is"; at the most, it will tolerate a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil produced from a mild cultivar. Apart from being used as a filling for bread rolls, it can be served as an excellent carpaccio and seasoned to taste. Wrapped around ricotta quenelles aromatized with chives, it makes a delicious appetizer. It teams up well with fresh broad beans and primo sale cheese or with the bitter notes of olive paste. The right wine to pair it with is an aromatic white from the Valchiavenna to fully enhance its spicy notes.