I recently visited West Side Market in Cleveland, Ohio. The 1912 structure, with its 137-foot domed clock tower, is ringed by fresh vegetable, fruit and specialty food stands.

The panoply of specialty and ethnic foods in the 125 vendor stalls is impressive, especially the enormous array and diversity of smoked, cured and salted meats and sausages. Polish, Czech, Hungarian and German meat specialties that reflect the region’s settlers all but eclipse both familiar and lesser-known Italian deli products. Dotted among the kielbasas, bratwursts and Pick salami, vendors sell Spanish chorizo and Serrano ham, Irish or Canadian bacon and Middle Eastern-style halal smoked meats. It is a testament to the old and new food cultures in the U.S. that emphasize the global origins of preserved meats.

Back to the Farm
Most of the products at West Side Market bear the names of local butchers who are on site, selling hand-preserved meats made with fresh ingredients. These pork, beef and lamb specialties never lost popularity in Ohio’s ethnic enclaves, similar to the way traditional Italian deli cuts remain a staple of Boston’s North End.

In recent years, however, a better-informed American public has been more willing to sample preserved meats that have no bearing on personal upbringing but simply impart flavor or style to dishes. This is largely thanks to television food personalities who prepare recipes, write cookbooks and provide inspiration to those who want to experiment in the kitchen. Awareness has also been heightened by young chefs electing to cook in smaller communities far from coastal food capitals. Their trendy menus of antipasti and tapas-like dishes expose a broader spectrum of diners to items like Italian guanciale or traditional Cypriot or Greek loukanika sausages.

Increasingly, chefs and consumers are embracing local products and artisanal cooking methods like drying, salting and curing their own meats as part of a commitment to authenticity. Some of these homemade products have not been seen in America since earlier immigrants made their own to perpetuate traditional family foodways. Others have never been seen here before. This has sent would-be butchers back to farms or to pros to learn how to make signature meat products.

Ariane Daguin, president of Newark, N.J.’s D’Artagnan, has noticed a huge interest in curing or preserving meats, from both professional and amateur cooks. “People have questions like how to preserve duck breasts, use nitrites or how to make their own salaison (salting) mixture for a dry cure. It’s a time-consuming, labor-intensive process, she says. “Yet, there is definite interest.

Acorn-Fed Iberian Hogs
Shoppers want to know the culture behind specialty meat products such as jamón Serrano. Banned from importation until 1990, it is made from mountain-raised, acorn-fed Iberian hogs and is traditionally dry cured. Redondo Iglesias USA, Long Island City, N.Y., which imports the flavorful ham, has seen sales grow nearly 40 percent between 2004 and 2005, notes Paloma Hsieh, marketing manager.

The Redondo family has raised the animals for three generations near Valencia. “Everyone says Spain is the next Italy, says Hsieh. “At first, it was chefs and travelers who had been there who appreciated how distinct the ham is. But as Americans are buying into heritage food experiences, they want genuine ingredients.

Overall, Italian cured meats are in high demand. Spurred by an interest to make the better-quality salami of his youth, Armandino Batali (father of Food Network’s Mario) opened a salumeria, Seattle’s Salumi Artisan Cured Meats, seven years ago. (In Italy, “salumi is the general term for salt-cured meats. These products are sold in a salumeria.) More than 80 chefs use Salumi’s 14 products—which comprise seven kinds of salami, including fennel-laced, Tuscan-style salami, or finocchiona, and culatello, famed in Emilia-Romagna.

Speck, a relative newcomer to the U.S. market, is a cured, lightly smoked and spiced ham distinct to the Alto-Adige region of northern Italy near the Austrian border. The ham is deboned, then cured with a blend of salt, pepper and spices and smoked for just one week at cool, low temperatures.

Due to the region where it’s made, speck’s curing process combines German smoking techniques and dry air curing used in Italy, explains Sal Di Palo, one of the owners of Di Palo Fine Foods, an icon in New York’s Little Italy. Di Palo was the first U.S.-based retailer to carry speck. “We have Italian customers who are happy to see the authentic version they remember and we have other shoppers who are curious to experience the product, he says. Di Palo offers in-store samples and recipe cards as well as educates customers on the subtleties between speck and other cured meats. “We explain how the product is experienced in Italy and offer usage suggestions, such as in a panini with arugula, notes Di Palo.

Speck from Alto-Adige has a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) under the European Union’s European Authentic Taste program. Other domestic and international versions are available. For instance, Lincoln Park, N.J.’s Abraham North America imports a speck ham made in Germany as well as its Westphalian ham prosciutto, in which the knuckle of the hind leg of pork is deboned and cold-smoked over beech wood chips. Westphalian hams are then cured for up to six months.

Parma Gateway
“With the variety and quality of cured meats getting better, sales and consumer interest are up, says Richard Rosenberg, cured meats buyer for Bethesda, Md.-based Balducci’s. “Spanish and Italian products have been in the market the longest and the quality is excellent, so they sell best. There is a lot of interest in Iberian ham.

Customers’ heritage, local demographics and travel all contribute to the meats’ popularity, says Gauri Thergaonkar, retail manager of Zingerman’s Deli, in Ann Arbor, Mich. Prosciutto di Parma has acted like a “gateway product. “It’s grown in popularity and recognition, thus opening the doors to other less familiar Italian products, Thergaonkar continues.

Even familiar meats are evolving and enjoying a resurgence. Passion for bacon, America’s quintessential flavoring ingredient, has reached cult status. Once thought of primarily as a partner to scrambled eggs or pancakes, bacon is now more than a side dish. Sales of artisanal bacon from cinnamon and sun-dried tomato flavors to pepper bacon varieties to tofu versions are on the upswing.

D’Artagnan introduced its wild boar and duck bacon at last summer’s Fancy Food Show. The different varieties are finding a receptive audience with chains like Wegmans, as well as specialty food shops. “Not only do they consistently re-order the products, they are putting them in more stores, Daguin notes.

Speck and Greens
To boost recognition and sales, some retailers incorporate cured and dried meats in prepared food dishes. “Our sandwiches might feature salami from Columbus, smoked ham from Niman Ranch or bacon from Ham I Am, among others, says Thergaonkar. “Some of our seasonal salads include potato salad with bacon, greens with prosciutto San Daniele or speck, and melons wrapped with prosciutto di Parma.

Savvy retailers know that they must go beyond simply explaining how to slice or prepare the product to produce sales. It is equally important to disseminate information about the region of origin and how to use and serve it appropriately. Like the butchers in front of their stalls in Cleveland’s West Side Market, a little conversation and a small taste go a long way toward seducing customers to try these delicious meat products.

Joanna Pruess is a regular contributor to Specialty Food Magazine and author of Everything Goes Better with Bacon.