Every year, spread over the first ten days in May, the Festival of the Coppiette is held in the town of Marcellina, some thirty kilometres north east of Rome in the province of Lazio. Organized by the Committee of the Butteri (mountain herders), it mirrors simultaneous celebrations dedicated to the Madonna del Ginestre. However, the committee is concerned less with hunger of the soul and more with that of the stomach.
Coppiette are strips of meat that have been dried, cured with salt and pepper and then seasoned with fennel and pepperoncino (hot Italian chilli peppers). South East of Rome, in the province of Frosinone, the locals include garlic and white wine to make coppiette ciociare. This is simple fare and was part of the staple diet enjoyed in times past by both farmer and humble peasant. It has some close relatives. Coppiette would have been understood as jerky to the pioneers opening up the American West in the nineteenth century, and to the native Indians the settlers encountered. The Dutch voortrekkers (meaning literally fore-pullers) who made the great trek across South Africa to escape the British in the 1830’s and 1840’s, were sustained by something strikingly 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 Lazian farmworker, after a day in the field, chewed on coppiette and was quickly revived by a concentrated shot of energy and nutrients. These ‘sticks’ of meat packed away to almost nothing in his pocket; they were also inherently stable because all the excess fat and moisture had been removed. Nestling 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 cured meat depends on the location. The cowboys and native Americans cut strips from beef and game species including buffalo, deer and moose. In South Africa biltong made from beef remains the most common variety available, but today the Afrikaaner also uses ostrich and game species including kudu, wildebeest and springbok. In the Lazio region of Italy, horse and donkey were the common options available. Today most coppiette are made from pork.
However, with their aversion to pork, the Jewish community makes its own version using beef. A good butcher might be able to sell you some coppiette using meat sourced from the prestigious Maremmana, a breed of cattle reared in Maremma, former marshland straddling southern Tuscany and northern Lazio. If you visit the small town of Genzano, residents might offer you their own rare speciality using meat from the donkey.
In times past, no part of the animal was wasted; today butchers, and those still making it in the home, concentrate on the sinewy muscle tissue surrounding the ham, shoulder or abdomen. Strips 10-15 centimetres long and 2 centimetres thick are cut from the carcass and seasoned in wooden vats, before being gently cooked for half an hour in a refractory brick oven fired by brushwood. Any excess water is drained off and the meat is baked for a further half hour before being left to dry for up to 48 hours in wire cages.
Coppiette, like their South African relative biltong, differ from jerky in this respect. While the latter is dried in the sun or over fires, biltong and the most traditional coppiette are air-dried in the cold months of winter. Lazio makes its speciality year-round and in other months it follows the jerky method and employs a special drying room. In both instances, the dried meat is tied together with string in pairs, or coppiette (meaning ‘little couples’) and matured for two months. After a final, very light smoking the finished product is bagged up or packaged in trays ready for sale in taverns, butchers’ and wine shops.