Plate of different Italian cured meats

This is the story of the sausage-loving Italians who smuggled banned meat into America

Italians are undoubtedly among the most foodie people on earth. During any visit to Italy, every meal has the potential to become an event in and of itself.

From pastas and pizzas to risotto and ragu, the country’s culinary heritage is evident wherever you go and in whatever you eat. A brief conversation with any Italian about the correct way to eat spaghetti is all you need to know that these are people who take their favourite foods very seriously.

Salami catering platter with different meat and cheese products Credit: Alpine Bakery and Trattoria

In different regions across the country, there are culinary techniques that the Italians arguably execute better than anyone else. Among the dark arts that they’ve managed to master is the preparation of a huge number of world famous cured meats and hams. Cylindrical sausages of salami, bruised red bresaola and salty slices of parma ham are all exported and beloved by millions around the world. However, for all their meaty magic, Italian hams were not always welcomed with open arms.

For much of the 20th Century, it was illegal to import meats of any sort into America. For decades, this meant that Italian holiday makers were often forced into smuggling sausages past security guards and sniffer dogs in order to sample European delicacies at home. So serious was the situation that a 1971 film, Lady Liberty, featured a character arrested after attempting to sneak a mortadella through passport control.

Lady Liberty film still Credit: IMDb

While this ban was a mild inconvenience for the fortunate tourists who could afford the trip to Italy, it was disastrous news for the thousands of Italian families who made their way across the Atlantic throughout the 1900s. Unable to legally bring culinary treasures with them from their homeland or reproduce the food with limited American ingredients, it was clear that enterprising meat lovers would have to get creative.

Group of Italian immigrants Credit: The Malting Pot

Fortunately, one substance that was not banned by US authorities was cheese. This gave a group of inventive immigrants from the small town of Vallo di Diano an idea. Using a traditional local favourite known as caciocavallo, cheesemongers came up with the ingenious solution of hiding pork products within the cheese itself.

The result of this plan was the astonishing looking “caciocavallo dell’emigrante” - or, “caciocavallo of the immigrant”. Featuring a spicy pork soppressata sausage at its centre, this cheese looks more like something used to smuggle drugs than transport ham. Taking its name from the rope that ties around a horse’s neck, traditional caciocavallo was shaped specifically to be easy to transport during the middle ages - somewhat apt, considering the purpose for which it would later be used. However, thanks to the hardline approach of US authorities, for years this was the only way that Italian migrants could enjoy the comforts of home.

caciocavallo emigrante Credit: Gastro Obscura

The US ban on importing Italian meats was not lifted until 2013. However, as more advanced screening techniques developed, the success of “caciocavallo dell’emigrante” became more limited. Today, there are only a handful of Italian cheese makers who continue manufacturing this extraordinary cheese. Nevertheless, “caciocavallo dell’emigrante” serves to remind us of the incredible lengths people will go to get a bite of their favourite sausage.

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