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Coppiette – Italy’s Answer to Beef Jerky

Every year, spread over the first ten days of May, the Festival of Copieta takes place in the town of Marcellina, about thirty kilometers northeast of Rome in the province of Lazio. Organized by the Committee of the Buteri (mountain shepherds), it reflects simultaneous celebrations dedicated to the Madonna del Ginestre. However, the committee is less concerned with the hunger of the soul and more with that of the stomach.

Coppiette are strips of meat that have been dried, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then seasoned with fennel and pepperoncino (hot Italian chili peppers). Southeast of Rome, in the province of Frosinone, locals include garlic and white wine to make coppiette ciociare. This is simple food and was part of the staple diet enjoyed in the past by peasants and lowly farmers alike. He has some close relatives. Coppiette would have been understood as jarring to the pioneers who opened up the American West in the nineteenth century, and to the native Indians encountered by the settlers. The Dutch voortrekkers (literally meaning front pullers) who made the great journey to South Africa to escape the British in the 1830s and 1840s sustained themselves on something remarkably similar—they called it biltong.

It’s not hard to understand its appeal. These dried meats are rich in protein and residual fat. They also have high levels of salt added during the drying process to inhibit any bacterial activity. The tired and hydrated farmer from Lazia, after a day in the field, chewed a pith and was quickly revived by a concentrated dose of energy and nutrients. These “sticks” of meat pack almost nothing in his pocket. they were also inherently firm because all the excess fat and moisture had been removed. Nestled in the dark recesses of a pack or pocket, they could last for days or even months.

Then and now, the raw material used to make the sausage depends on the location. Cowboys and Native Americans cut strips of beef and game species such as buffalo, deer and elk. In South Africa biltong made from beef remains the most common variety available, but today the Afrikaaner also uses ostrich and game species such as kudu, wildebeest and springbok. In the Lazio region of Italy, the horse and donkey were the common options available. Today most coppiette are made from pork.

However, in their aversion to pork, the Jewish community makes their own version using beef. A good butcher might be able to sell you some jerky using meat that comes from the famous Maremmana, a breed of cattle raised in the Maremma, a former marsh that stretches across southern Tuscany and northern Lazio. If you visit the small town of Genzano, the residents may offer you their own rare specialty using meat from the donkey.

In the past, no part of the animal was wasted. Today, butchers, and those who still do it at home, focus on the muscle tissue surrounding the ham, shoulders or belly. Strips 10-15cm long and 2cm thick are cut from the carcass and seasoned in wooden tanks, before being gently roasted for half an hour in a fireproof brick oven fired from bushwood. Any excess water is drained off and the meat is cooked for another half hour before being left to dry for up to 48 hours in wire cages.

Coppiette, like their South African cousin biltong, differ from jerky in this respect. While the latter is dried in the sun or over fires, biltong and the more traditional coppiette are air-dried in the cold winter months. Lazio makes its specialty all year round and in the remaining months it follows the jerky method and uses a special dryer. In both cases, the dried meat is tied together with twine in pairs or coppiette (meaning “little pairs”) and matured for two months. After a final, very light smoking, the finished product is bagged or packed in trays ready for sale to taverns, butchers and wineries.

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