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THE CURE: Define “Local”

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“DEFINE LOCAL”
Daniele, Rhode Island and
the Possibilities of Pork
BY CHRIS AMIRAULT
PHOTOS BY CHIP RIEGEL

No smoke here, though. Just meat, meat whose richness, depth and complexity belies its short list of ingredients: pork, salt and time.

Stefano Dukcevich, my affable guide, jostles me back to the world beyond aroma. “It’s something, isn’t it?” he says with a smile. He should know: He and his brother Davide are the third generation of Dukceviches running Daniele, the Pascoag, Rhode Island, company that brought prosciutto here in the 1970s and continues to make a wide range of Italian porcine products.

Croatian refugees, Stefano senior and his wife, Carolina, landed in Trieste, Italy, during the last moments of World War II. Stefano started the business selling his wife’s salumi from his bike to area shops and restaurants. Thirty years later, his son Vlado built the first factory producing prosciutto in the United States. I’m standing with Stefano, Vlado’s son, in the newer 2004 facility, hairnet on and eyes closed.

I sigh and open my eyes. To my left is a computerized atmospheric control mechanism that regulates airflow, humidity and temperature.  In front of me, past thick sliding doors, hang yards and yards of hams lined up, down and sideways, lounging dozens of feet in the air in a massive, pristine stainless steel room. It’s jarring, all this steel and technology built to duplicate Italian seasons, so I shut my eyes again to enjoy my fantasy: I’m in a cave in Parma, Italy, the air dripping with a wet spring chill, surrounded by innumerable haunches of sweetly aging hog.

It’s an appealing fantasy, quality products whose creation stories evoke their terroir, a fantasy that bedevils Daniele. By the standards of any other industry, they are as local as local can be. Employing over 300 folks at two facilities and currently pouring out millions to build a state-of-the-art facility, Daniele is busy strengthening its Rhode Island roots while watching other companies sever theirs.

Daniele’s curse? They produce food—really, really good food. Their mortadella uses jowl fat instead of back fat, a seemingly minor detail until you feel that sensuousness spread throughout your mouth.  Their smoky chorizo makes you pause in mid-chew to savor the complexity that only comes from quality, care and time.  Daniele’s charcuterie stands with that from Paul Bertolli’s Fra’ Mani and Armandino Batali’s Salumi lines, redefining the possibilities of industrially produced products. And that’s no accident. The brothers Dukcevich, their prosciutto master Phillipo, and everyone else I met at Daniele are pignollo, detail-oriented perfectionists who only want to make the best. But food-obsessed consumers don’t merely want food; we want a story that connects us to it. Let’s face it: However happy Vlado’s Reserve prosciutto makes your tongue, the phrase “industrially produced product” may trip it right up.

In contemporary Western food culture, “local” and “artisanal” go hand-in-hand, a marriage of inconvenience for Daniele. Indeed, a quick trip to Stop & Shop’s deli section will convince you that Daniele’s products are artisanal. As Davide explains, “Most of our competitors take their flavor from additives. We take the flavor from the meat.” The proof is in your mouth: their Old World Sopressata Veneta exudes so much porky goodness that you’ll have a hard time returning to most over-seasoned salumi, whether it comes from Rhode Island, Italy, or anywhere else.

But at the moment, unless your radius for “local” meat extends 600 miles to the Ohio state line, where several family hog farms produce top-of-the-line pork for Daniele, your story has a geography problem. The Dukceviches are working with Rhode Island partners to change that, and it’s a daunting task.

“Yeah, we’ve had our challenges, to be sure,” says Brandon Bouthillette, who’s overseeing Blackbird Farm’s fledgling pork production.  We’re standing amidst mud, stumps and fencing in their newly built hog pasture, across the street from their original Smithfield, Rhode Island farm, and admiring the 20-odd heritage Berkshire pigs that are destined to become lardo, bresaola, salame di felino and more as part of Daniele’s new local line.

As the free-ranging foragers crowd into the Smithfield shade, the pigs seem about as local as can be. But their added grain feed comes from upstate New York, as no farms in Rhode Island produce quality hog feed, a sad fact Brandon learned the hard way. When they’re ready for Daniele, Brandon takes them to an Athol, Massachusetts, slaughterhouse.

Breed, lifestyle, feed, slaughter, butchering: They all are critical components to producing the pork at the center of high-quality charcuterie, and our local farms are just now figuring it all out, not always finding local solutions. Meanwhile, Daniele needs orders of magnitude more for their weekly prosciutto production than all the hog farms in Rhode Island could currently provide.

While they’re still figuring out just what makes “local” local, Daniele has locale down pat, specifically the locale of Parma, Italy, replicated within its awesome prosciutto rooms. Some rooms manifest fall, just after the kill, where the hams are bathed in a thick coating of salt, cool temperatures and the high humidity necessary for this initial stage. In others, it’s winter, when desalinated hams are subjected to cold temperatures and low humidity to promote air contact and thus substantial drying. In yet others, spring brings cool, dry air and a healthy coating of lard to retain just the right amount of moisture.

Standing there surrounded by computerized hygrometers and HVAC systems, I’ve drifted off once again. Whatever the distractions of industrialized charcuterie production, it’s impossible not to be intoxicated by the nutty, sweet aroma of cured meat that envelops you like your childhood blankie. Indeed, whatever your take on the messy definitions we all have of “local,” it’s hard to find fault with Daniele’s, especially when you close your eyes, open your nose and breathe. eR

A regular contributor to Edible Rhody, Chris Amirault is the director of eG Forums, the online component of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters.

Look for Daniele products at grocery stores, fine food shops and delis across Rhode Island or visit them at www.DanieleFoods.com


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