“I began when I was just a kid; my father said I had a special gift at guessing the weight of an ox. I’d lift him up carefully and was rarely off by even a kilogram. This was at a county fair in Inzago, where I lived. And we Mottas would always take home the prize.” Recounting this memory is Sergio Motta, the Lombard butcher who is changing the way Italians eat meat.
In 1963, his father Giuseppe opened the first butcher shop is Inzago - a small town between Milano and Bergamo – together with his mother, Carla. Sergio grew up between the streets and the shop, which has virtually gone unchanged for the last 40 years. It’s still bursting with dried meats, cold cuts and salamis – as well as countless ribbons and medals they’ve won over the years.
“We have a series of barns around the Piedmont region – I go every Sunday evening to have a look,” says Motta. “I choose each one personally and bring them out to pasture myself. They are taken to the slaughterhouse at dawn on Mondays, which is where my brother Galdino – a veterinarian – takes over. He oversees all of their health matters, paying special attention to their diets. Nutrition is everything – and not just for humans.”
Of course, the careful selection of meat is important, but Sergio Motta has achieved so much success because he’s spent his career re-educating Italian palates. He’s overturned the traditional timeframe of meat aging. But what, exactly, is the process and function of aging meat? “Aging meat is the time between when the animal has been slaughtered and when it becomes sold. In general, mass distribution allows for just a few days – a week maximum. But in my butchery, the process can last for months. The taste intensifies and with Piedmont meat, it reacquires that authentic, meaty flavor that is hidden among the fibers. With the right amount of time, and in the right temperatures, this flavor really comes out.”
One day I challenged him. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted real cooked prosciutto,” I tell him. And Sergio accepts the challenge, as he also sells cold cuts of pork and beef – counting on specialists in Langhirano for prosciutto and those in Busseto for coppa and culatello. But cooked ham, or Prosciutto Cotto, has become a large part of his business as well. He safeguards a secret recipe that comes from an old supplier, one who salted the ham intravenously. Inevitably, Motta eventually opened a restaurant not far from the butcher shop.
“People come into the store and ask for noble cuts of meat – usually from the rear quarter. But all parts of an animal are just as noble – from the cheek to the tail. So I thought I’d open a restaurant that served everything: offal, and intestines, and the head. Boiled meats, or rotisserie done in a large, antique fireplace.” The entrance can be a surprise if you’re not prepared: a large refrigerator with a crystal wall. Inside hang huge cuts of Piedmont beef or gigantic hams that have been aged up to five years. He calls this meat cooler, “the cellar of dreams”.
And the most popular dish? “Our knife-cut tartar”, replies Motta. “It’s served in a small tower of three dishes: plain tartar, tartar seasoned with just oil and salt, and then the last one – fully garnished with anchovy cream, capers and egg yolk. “