onsider this: Prosciutto, salumi, coppa, soppresatto, mortadella, pancetta, porchetta, fegatelli, lardo and salsiccia. Each one derives from the humble hog.
Menus that do justice to all the parts of the pig have been the trend in Britain and the United States since Fergus Henderson of London’s Saint John Restaurant published his 1999 book “Nose to Tail Eating” (“If you’re going to kill the animal,” he wrote, “it seems only polite to use the whole thing.”) Since then, chefs have streamed to Italy, home to the preservation of pork. Here, working with the “whole hog” is part of daily life.
Historically, the motive was war. Owning land, a small garden, and raising animals was central to ensuring a family’s self-sufficiency and survival. But there was no refrigeration. Preserving meat became an art form whose chief was the Norcino, or pork butcher, called in by locals not only to slaughter the beast but to preserve the meat.
Traditionally the pig was killed each January 17 to honor Sant’Antonio Abate, the patron saint of animals. The same day, fresh blood sausages and roventini, blood crepes, were made and eaten. Hams and shoulders were prepared for prosciutto and spalla. Ribs and loins were trimmed and readied for cooking while left-over bits (the parts considered less nobile) were ground up for salami and sausages.
But recent warming trends are damaging the old tradition. The territory around Parma, where prosciutto is king, depends on cool, hillside breezes to dry the ham. Temperate winters can prevent the pork from aging correctly. Last year, for example, unseasonably high temperatures cost my neighbor all his prosciutto (his lovely hams were usually hung with pride in the guest room, windows opened when needed to provide the proper aeration.) This year, my friend Susan was still waiting for the cold weather in March. She owns an organic farm in Chianti where she raises Cinta Senese pigs. It’s April now. Better luck next year.
Diet is another factor. Some hogs are fed whey, which is also used to make Parmesan cheese. Taste a paper-thin slice of culatello from Zibello and it all but melts in your mouth. Most of the meat is cut away and only the aged and dried heart of the prosciutto used. Foodies call this sublime prosciutto flavor Umami, one of the five basic tastes. Perhaps that’s why culatello groupies dress in robes to worship the precious preserved pork.
Then there’s Lardo di Colonnata, pork fatback aged in marble boxes, infused with secret herbs and spices. Tuscan marble workers created it as a defense against winter cold. Americans call the delectable lard white prosciutto. It’s sliced thinly and served on hot toasted bread.
Among my favorite pork treats is Calabrian ‘ndujua. This is pork fat is mixed with chili powder and aged in casings, then lightly smoked. I eat mine straight on bread, but it is usually added to pasta sauces for an extra kick of flavor.
I’m probably lucky my local market doesn’t usually sell ciccioli, the fried pork bits to which I’m addicted. Made correctly, they’re light and crispy, full of the essence of pork (and great with beer.)
Remarkably, more than 30 kinds of Italian preserved meats have the European Union’s DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) and IGP (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) labels, an impressive display of the uniqueness and diversity of pork products.
Not all pork requires aging.
Porchetta, the whole boned-out hog, spit-roasted and stuffed with it’s own liver and garlic, pepper, rosemary and salt, provides the most popular street food in Italy. In Panzano (Chianti), master butcher Dario Cecchini does his signature roast chine of pork (arista di maiale) in three hours using a half of a small pig, which he seasons, rolls, and cooks in a professional oven.
The recipes I’ve included here are for those of us with normal ovens. I’ve included my market porchetta, using pancetta. Though I can buy this ready-to-roast in Florence, succulent from the fat, I still make it as a once-a-year treat, letting potatoes roast in the same pan.
Also explore the cheaper cuts. Though not all of us want pig’s ear salad or blood sausage every day, remember that slow stewing and careful flavoring can yield some tasty surprises.
You can also age pork at home and make pancetta. My blog is dedicated to pork recipes and experiments. When in doubt I know one thing for sure: Pork is my “other” white meat.
MAIALE CON ACETO
1 kg stewing pork; 1-2 shallots; 2 cups red wine vinegar; rosemary; sage
olive oil; Salt
Peel the shallots and cut in half.
Cut the pork into small bite-size cubes.
Brown in olive oil.
Chop the sage and rosemary and add to meat.
Season with salt.
Add one cup of vinegar, cover and let stew.
If meat dries out, add more vinegar, then water.
Cook for 40 minutes or until meat is tender.
Adjust seasonings at the end.
The pork belly, called pancetta fresca is laid out flat. I got this recipe from Vasco Landi (see photo), one of the oldest butchers at Florence’s San Lorenzo market.
1-2 kg pancetta fresca; fresh pork belly without the cotenna (skin); Tuscan herbs.
Lay out the piece of fresh pancetta.
Season well with Tuscan herbs.
1 cup fresh rosemary needles
1/2 cup fresh sage leaves
2 cloves fresh garlic, sliced
Fine Sea salt
TUSCAN HERBS, basic blend
Remove the rosemary needles from the branches and the sage leaves from the stems.
Spread out the herbs on a wooden cutting board, add the garlic and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of sea salt.
Using a mezzaluna or large knife, chop in a rocking motion until the herb mixture is almost a powder.
If the mixture seems too wet, add another teaspoon of salt.
Spread the mixture on the cutting board and let dry over night.
When dry, the Tuscan herb mixture can be kept in a tightly sealed jar on your shelf. It does not need to be refrigerated. Try creating your own blends! Change the proportions of the herbs; add thyme, lemon peel, orange rind, fennel seeds or fennel pollen.
When using this mixture, remember that it already has salt.
Roll and tie the pancetta tightly with cotton cord.
Place in a roasting pan and cook for 2 1/2 hours at 200 degrees.
If you want potatoes, add them one hour before the pork is ready.
I let it sit for about 20 minutes and then cut thick slices. Fabulous. Try leaving the crispy skin on.