A few years ago, a traveling version of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival came to town and set up shop at Chene Park. It was the genuine article, a live sampler of Nawlins music, culture, art and food.
There were crawfish pies — the real deal; killer gumbo, dark and thickened with filé powder; thick, spicy jambalaya; shrimp and oyster po’boys, all stuff that I love. But the advertised item I was drooling for happens to be one of the finest sandwiches of all time, a monster that was created in New Orleans and quickly became a staple, though still not commonly known outside the region.
The muffuletta. It sounds like simplicity itself — several lunchmeats, one or two cheeses, and olive salad on a round Italian loaf. But to be a true muffuletta, every element has to be just so. And when that road show came to Detroit, I was hugely disappointed to learn that moofs had been taken off the menu. The reason was very frustrating: They couldn’t find the right bread. Everything else was on hand, but without exactly the right loaf, the vendors wouldn’t put them out. New Orleans food people are that way.
First, the name. If you want to say it like a native, say mahf-uh-LODD-uh, although pronouncing the first syllable as “moof” or “muff” are acceptable. There is a long rivalry between two Italian markets in New Orleans over bragging rights for the original, but the one that pops up most in conversation and online, the one recommended to me before my first New Orleans visit and the one I stick with, is Central Grocery, on Decatur in the French Quarter, which traces its version to 1906.
Italy was and remains a major contributor to the unique cultural mix in Nawlins, which was built on multinational immigrant labor, and as a generally live-and-let-live haven for outcasts (the Cajuns, or Acadians, were cast out from their home in Nova Scotia, where many settled after their exile from France).
Down there soaking up jazz with my dad, we found our way to Central Grocery, ordered a muff to split (they’re big enough to share with one, two or three others), grabbed a couple of cold Abita beers, and went outside to sit on the curb and eat in the sun. The curb was a good choice; these things are luxuriantly messy.
I asked about the bread and was told it was just a round Italian loaf, and conducted many fruitless experiments with a variety of bakery loaves and many from my own oven. They were good, but they weren’t right.
Then I discovered that the muff bread, more specifically, is Sicilian. I couldn’t find this simple, rustic loaf around here, but I learned to make it and, splah-dow, the missing piece of the puzzle was found.
Here’s the formula for an authentic muffuletta:
Split one 9- or 10-inch round Sicilian loaf (topped with sesame seeds) horizontally. Pull some of the soft center out of both halves and save for another use. Drizzle some of the oil from the olive salad on both sides. On the bottom, lay on a quarter-pound each of thinly sliced Genoa salami, ham, mortadella and provolone cheese. Generously top the meat and cheese with olive salad, replace the top half and shove it down to flatten a little. Now, chow.
Central Grocery will ship big jars of its olive salad, and there’s really no substitute. But the closest I’ve found is online at gumbopages.com/food/samwiches/muff.html.
The loaf is simple pane siciliano, made with a biga, a spongy, mildly fermented yeast starter. This, and equal measures of all-purpose and fine-ground semolina flours, are essential. Although I can no longer find the Web site where I got the golden recipe, I’d be happy to e-mail it to any of you who ask.
It’s well worth the trouble. Enjoy. Ah know dat you will.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org