The chain sausage is made with selected cuts of pork that are chopped and seasoned with salt, fennel seeds, dried paprika powder and possibly red chillies, and stuffed into a natural pig casing obtained from the small intestine. This casing is tied at the ends with string and rotated in different ways to obtain the shape with 3 or 4 rings. Once dried, the chain is broken down into small sausages, which take on the classic shape of a small salami that is 3 to 4 centimetres in diameter and approximately 15 centimetres long, each weighing approximately 100 to 150 grams. The casing does not have any mould on it as the product is carefully cleaned at the end of the maturation process. A slice of cut chain sausage has more lean meat rather than fat, so the red colour of the lean meat prevails over the yellow-reddish one that the fat has due to presence of the paprika. The consistency, both to the touch and when chewed, is rather soft and not very chewy. Once it is matured is has the typical smell of a seasoned sausage that is characterised by a prevalence of fennel and a slight smell of smoke and capsicums. The taste is not excessively salty, and it has the aromatic notes of the wild fennel and capsicums.
The chain sausage is traditionally produced in the winter, a period in which there are ideal conditions for an optimal natural drying process. This meant in the past that the sausage was ready to be consumed during the Carnivale period, a period in which Catholic culture allowed a greater consumption of tasty food before fasting for Lent. Since it is a product that can be preserved for a long time in lard or oil, it was also available for the rest of the year, in particular during the harvest period. Currently, in addition to these two preservation methods which are still used at home, the cured sausage is also preserved under vacuum.
These sausages are also used in a variety of traditional dishes. Back when there was a fireplace in all houses, it was customary to wrap each piece of fresh sausage in raw cabbage leaves and to roast it under hot ashes. Pieces of seasoned sausage are also used together with ricotta both in the filling of Easter calzones and in ravioli. In Cancellara it is also customary to prepare sausage meatballs with breadcrumbs, eggs and cheese. Sometimes it is used together with the rind in hearty vegetable soups. Its use in tomato sauces to season homemade pastas is more recent, as in the past, the offal was used for this purpose. As the sausage is produced using the more noble cuts of meat, it meant that it was reserved for more important occasions, especially when there were guests.
In the past, the production method to make the chain sausage was widely used in various parts of the Potenza area (municipalities in the upper Basento and upper Bradano areas). Currently in these areas there are still many families who continue to produce sausages according to the traditional method at home. Butchers and companies that produce and market the chain sausage are now only present in some municipalities of upper Bradano, in particular in the municipality of Cancellara.
In addition to the particular method of intertwining the casings, which affects the gradual drying and compactness of the product, what gives the chain sausage its peculiar characteristics are also the particular climatic conditions of the territory: in the winter months, in fact, rainfall is often snowy, making the climate suitably dry. Furthermore, the conditions that are formed in traditional maturing rooms also play a critical role: being typically made of stone masonry, equipped with a wooden roof, facing north and generally equipped with a fireplace, they allow, in fact, to maintain a cool environment that is not excessively humid.
But another determining factor for the characteristics of the product is certainly the quality of the meat, which comes from pigs whose diet is strictly connected to the territory. In past centuries, when the economic conditions of the vast majority of Lucanian families forced a modest life and a real subsistence economy, each family raised its own pig which guaranteed food supplies for the whole year. The native breeds over the centuries had been selected to be able to use the resources that the territory offered: the acorns of Turkey oaks and regular oaks that characterise the woods of the Lucanian hinterland represented a staple food for pigs, in addition to domestic leftovers and by-products of other farming activities. Even today, several local companies raise black pigs either wild or semi-wild. It is a native breed that has survived by integrating the pasture with grains produced on the farm (barley, oats, soft wheat, spelt, corn).
A fresh pig that weighs around 150 kilograms is used to prepare the chain sausages. After slaughter, the carcass is kept at a low temperature until the next day, when it is then deboned and cut. The cuts used to produce the chain sausage are made up of the shoulder and various other trimmings (pancetta, capocollo) which have had the tendons, nerves, blood clots and soft fat removed.
At this point the meat is traditionally cut with a knife into pieces that just over 1 centimetre long and seasoned on a wooden table called a “tompagno”, with salt, sweet capsicum powder, wild fennel seeds and possibly hot chilli powder. The meat and spices are mixed together by hand.
The mixture is then stuffed into the natural pig casings, which have been properly washed with warm water on both sides and left to remove off flavours in cold water with lemon or orange peels. Each casing is rinsed in warm water just before it is stuffed and tied at one end with a 1-2 millimetre thick string. It is then filled with the mixture and tied at the other end. The filled casing is then pierced with the prongs of a fork or a special salami piercing tool to help eliminate any air bubbles.
At this point, the filled casing is lightly squashed halfway along its length, to form a small empty space that allows it to be spun around and blocked off. This operation is repeated on both sides of the choke point at a distance of about 15 centimetres, thus obtaining two other choke points which are then crossed and intertwined, passing one end of the casing into the formed circle, in order to obtain a real ring. The process is repeated in several points so that 3 or 4 rings are obtained from each casing, which form the characteristic salami chain. In the past the filling process was done by hand, through the use of a funnel, and not by using specialised stuffing machines. This meant that the experience of the operator made it possible to obtain a salami that was adequately compact and therefore well tied, by precisely regulating these rotations and choke points of the casing.
The chains are then hung to dry naturally in special rooms facing north. In the first 2-3 days a fireplace or a brazier is lit which allows temperatures in the room to reach above 15°C, thereby allowing the sausages to sweat and drain. After this, thanks to the presence of small windows that face north, there is a slow and progressive drying process that lasts 25 to 30 days, during which a temperature of about 14 to 16°C and a humidity between 80 and 90% is maintained. When the drying phase takes place in the traditional rooms, and is therefore influenced by the weather, the precautions taken are made possible by a profound experience and knowledge of the production processes. These fundamental steps prevent the rapid drying of the product. These measures include the occasional lighting of the fireplace and the brazier to reduce the humidity of the environment (and this also gives the product the characteristic note of smoke) and also the insertion of spacers between the rings a few days after filling, that are made up of small cylindrical pieces of marsh reeds. These stop the salami from sticking to each other and to allow uniform aeration.
After drying, the sausage chains are undone and the sausages are separated, cleaned of any white mould formed and traditionally stored in lard or oil, in modern times they are also vacuum-packed. Until the mid-twentieth century, families used to use the pig’s bladder for the preservation of sausages. To be used for this purpose, the bladder was washed and then inflated, tied closed, hung and then dried full of air. Subsequently, the part that was tied was cut, so as to create an opening that the various sausages could be inserted into. The bladder was then filled with lard, up to just over halfway, in order to then allow it to be tied closed. The remaining part of the sausage was kept in special terracotta pots, also mentioned in the text of "The Statistics of the Kingdom of Naples of 1811" (by D. Demarco) during the description of the methods of subsistence of the population in the Potenza district, in the curing methods for consumption of meat: “Clay jars are used (…) by the low population” and also “it is customary to salt clay jars”.
It is now well known that the art of producing sausage has its roots in the Basilicata region as early as Roman times. The Romans called it “Lucanica” for this very reason: “We call a minced meat, stuffed into a gut this, because our soldiers learned how to prepare it from the Lucanians”, wrote Marco Terenzio Varrone in the 1st century B.C. in his “De lingua latina” (V, 111). And he is not the only Latin author to mention this product. Salsiccia, as it is called by the local population, is just one of the different products that each Lucanian family over the course of history has learned to make from slaughter of the pig for the family’s whole year of sustenance. As reported in several points of the Murattian Statistics, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the Lucanian peasant families did not have the opportunity to consume meat often, because they sold most of their livestock. However, they did manage to fatten up and use a pig for family consumption. Every single part of the animal was sued. In describing the situation in the Potenza district, the same text reports the following statement: “The farmers use pigs, which are fattened up in their homes, during Carnivale time. (…) The pork meat is salted and smoked, which, like the sausages themselves, are preserved until harvest time. " and also "They make good pork salami, indeed the lard is excellent, these are consumed almost throughout the entire municipality" and finally "They prepare salami in lard, lard, sausages, soppressate, prosciutto, incanterata, even if its feet, ears, snouts, and pickled meats; (…) they are usually of good quality, but they are intended for family consumption, and not for trade."
Often it was the kids who took care of taking the pig out to graze. But the whole family, each with a different task, was involved in the slaughtering of the pig and in the production of all the products that they could make from it. The men took care of the slaughter of the pig, the boning and the division of the cuts, but the careful selection of the meat and precise cuts using the tip of the knife were influenced by the expertise of the females. The women were then indispensable in the mixing and filling phases, so that chains that were all the same size could be obtained. These were then to be arranged in an orderly manner especially when there was no dedicated room available, meaning that they were hung to dry on the ceilings of the houses in which they lived. The children were initiated into the rite of preparing the sausages through the task of piercing the casings with the prongs of a fork to release the air bubbles that were formed during the filling phase. Furthermore, it should not be overlooked that the female role in the production of the sausages was not limited to the moment where the pig was slaughtered, as the women also had to prepare the ingredients that were used to season the meat. It began at the end of summer with the harvesting of wild fennel seeds, which were then washed, dried, shelled, meticulously cleaned of any impurities and stored. In the same period, the best peperoni a cornetto that were selected to be “insertare” into the mixtures were harvested (a neologism that takes up the dialect expression used to indicate the action of sewing the capsicums to form the characteristic garlands), which were then dried in the sun and in the warmth of the fireplaces and finally chopped and powdered. Even today many Lucanian families and some wise chain sausage producers still prepare the ingredients in this way.
Since the time of the Romans, the art of curing meats to preserve them for a long time has spread throughout Italy, with varying ingredients and processing methods. Throughout Southern Italy and in particular in the Basilicata region, the sausages produced differ in the raw materials used (starting from the quality of the meat used to the ingredients used to season them), the characteristics which are determined by the microclimate of the location in which it is dried, and the particular precautions used during the production methods.
The chain sausage is produced in a strictly traditional way (cut using the tip of a knife, with the use of natural pork casings made by the families, hand-mixed and dried naturally in traditional buildings) is essentially intended for home consumption. The companies that produce it for commercial purposes have had to adapt to different needs that are linked to higher production volumes and above all to the hygiene standards that are currently in force. Despite this, there are companies that are particularly careful at maintaining a production that respects tradition, starting with the use of meat from wild or semi-wild farms of native breeds such as the black pig. This aspect is certainly not negligible given the poor yield of these breeds, however it is compensated by the excellent quality of the meat. The other ingredients (capsicum and chilli powder, fennel seeds) are still produced according to tradition. What producers complain about most is how it is impossible to use natural rooms for drying the sausages when they are to be sold on the market, due to the fact that there is no exemption given in current sanitation regulations.
To allow the traditional product to survive on the market, a serious policy to safeguard indigenous breeds is necessary, as well as the approval of exemptions that allow the use of traditional equipment, including wooden tools, and, above all, the natural drying and curing of cured meats.