Michele Sabatino is a butcher and salami maker that I first met in October 2006 during the edition of Terra Madre that I designed with Carlo Petrini. It was the first time that 3,000 between cooks, farmers and students came to Turin from all over the world to discuss the future of our food systems. Michele represented the butchers in Italy, with several others. Over the years his contagious thrill and skills in working nose-to-tail have invested prominent food personalities like chefs Paul Kahan and David Nayfeld as well as Eli Zabar’s butchers in NY.
Michele in his laboratory with chef David Nayfeld.
Michele belongs to a generation of artisans—humble, knowledgeable and wise—that has become every day more rare and precious. Furthermore, he is coming from a part of Italy, Gargano, the spur of the Italian boot, that is rarely traveled to and known but that provides Italy with some of the most authentic food and rural traditions. Like the rare citrus fruits and olive cultivars, the wild breeds of cow, pork and goat populating its National Park as well as the richness of its sea life and fish.
He has tireless enthusiasm for food artisans and is a guardian of Apulian customs and rural traditions.
This is an extract from a short interview I had with him in the last days.
Livio: Describe your activity as food artisan?
Michele: I’m a butcher working with local meats. I am at the foothills of Gargano promontories where we have the ancient Podolica cow breed and the Garganica goat. In my daily work I try and keep the traditions of my parents and the people of Gargano alive. My small butcher shop started by selling fresh meat and slowly moved to the curing of different sorts of meat. We even cure sheep’s meat which was historically present in the territory often moved between the plains of Foggia and the mountains of Abruzzo and Molise. Over the years I have followed the passion for breeding myself and today I am a proud breeder of the indigenous black Dauno pork. We are supplied by 5-6 local farms, or masserie, including Masseria Paglicci in Rignano Garganico.
Podolica cows in Masseria Paglicci.
Michele prepping some fresh bites.
L: What’s your client base like?
M: One third of my customers come from my town Apricena, a village of 13,000 inhabitants; another 3rd come from nearby villages like Manfredonia, Barletta and Foggia. Finally my meats are sold to restaurants, even some prestigious ones like il Luogo di Aimo e Nadia in Milan; we also sell a little bit online all over Italy including in Roma and Torino.
L: When did you see things changing after the pandemic of Covid-19?
M: Between the 12th and 13th of March things changed drastically as people were not allowed to leave their houses and restaurants had to close after the decree of the Italian government.
L: What has changed in your day-to-day activity?
M: I have seen a major change and drop of consumptions and orders. Because families are not allowed to meet up and spend time together anymore the customs and habits of meat consumption have changed. Birthdays and ceremonies have been canceled from the everyday life of Italians so the consumption has shifted towards a more conscious buying behavior focused on the everyday. Quantities have dropped, restaurants stopped ordering from day one and I reckon I have worked at 60% less of my average standards. In my routine before Covid I would print 70 receipts per day, today I don’t get to 30.
L: How long can you stay in business in this situation?
M: I could probably go on like this for another year or so—with shorter shifts of my employees and workers and dedicating myself more to the breeding of the animals. I could still make it to breakeven—but my hope is that things will become closer to before and buying behavior will go back to a semi-normality in 2 or 3 months.
Michele serving at his counter during Covid-19.
L: What do you foresee in the future?
M: I am seeing more consciousness in my clientele, in the use of the meats bought at my counter and a new discovery of the values of being together and cooking together. Kids are being taught how to cook meat or a meal in the family. I receive phone calls from everywhere asking for my meats and salumi, and this tells me that the quality—of the meats in my case—is increasingly looked for and my job as an artisan is better perceived than what it used to be. Today my efforts, as well as the life of the animals I butcher, are considered with higher respect than in the past.
Michele preparing vacuum-sealed meats for his clients.
L: What’s your wish for the years to come?
M: My wish is that consumers and society will treasure and remember what nature gives us. I hope this will not be forgotten. The air we breathe and the food we eat requires human attention and we can’t live without taking care of our land.
L: What have you learned from this experience?
M: The messages I am collecting from this moment made me realise there’s no difference between people. We all need each other. I need people to work with me, to come into my store, to buy, consume, and appreciate my product. Our objective should be to do our best to make others feel and be better. Egoism will take us nowhere. Loving and caring for others is the only way and salvation for humanity. Poor families are buying meat from me for their kids and shopping at the supermarket for themselves. They come back and say that the kids finish their plates and don’t even bite into their parents’ meat….
L: Are you expecting help from the state?
M: I hear there is some help for professionals but I hope there will be some real discounts on taxation for this fiscal year or the possibility of borrowing money at 0%. These kinds of measures would help food artisan activities to stay alive and overcome the most difficult moments we are all facing.
L: Finally please nominate or suggest a person that you would like to see us interview.
M: Chef Fabio Pisani, Aimo e Nadia.
Bread maker Antonio Cera, Forno Sammarco.
Breeder and cheese maker Giuseppe Bramante, Masseria Paglicci.