A sharp crack pierces the brisk autumn air. The harsh cries of many men resound through the forest, the barking of dogs, another sharp crack in the distance then loud cheers. The serenity of the countryside in Italy changes this time of the year when dedicated hunters follow a centuries old tradition spending a healthy day in the country to hunt the wild boar. Seeing and savoring Italy during this time of the year is invigorating. The deep colors of the autumn landscape open the estates and reserved hunting areas in Tuscany and Umbria for organized wild boar hunting. An ancient sport, the boar hunt in Italy goes back to Roman times where the fierceness and strength of the boar made it a worthy opponent. Images of wild boars, alone or as part of a hunting scene have been discovered decorating a wide range of historical objects. There is a marble statue of a wild boar made by Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca (1577-1640) that sits in the Uffizi in Florence as testimony to its hallowed position.
The Italian love of wild game and their preference for rustic cooking makes cinghiale (wild boar) a popular dish throughout the region. In fact, cinghiale is so popular in Tuscany that it is considered by some to be (unofficially) the national dish. Eating cinghiale follows a food tradition of a time when hunters (cacciatore) went into the chestnut forests and mountains to hunt the wild boar and bring it home to feed their families. Wild boars still roam the forests and vineyards and in autumn local hunting clubs continue the hunt. I have driven through Tuscany and Umbria during this time of the year and heard the sounds of hunters shooting in the distance. It was unusual at first to be so close to the origin of the food we find on our tables. In the US we are removed from the process of providing food and the thought of hunting as a source of protein seems archaic and unnecessary. Yet hunting in Italy, as in most of Europe, follows an ancient tradition and the seasonal sport of hunting is not considered to be politically incorrect or inhumane.
Italians take great pride in the preparation of wild boar and consider it to be a specialty. There are many recipes that use the meat of the wild boar with stewing (scottiglia di cinghiale) or braising being preferred as the meat can be tough if not properly cooked. It is often prepared alla cacciatore (hunter style) and served with pappardelle. The rich thick noodles are a perfect background for the strong, robust flavor of wild game so you often find this type of pasta served con lepre (with wild hare )as well. Italians also like sausages, prosciutto and salami made from wild boar meat. I have eaten wild boar in Italy many times and like it very much. It has a strong flavor but not unpleasant rather rustic and bold. Shops in Italy that sell wild boar meat often display a stuffed wild boar’s head outside their store front that can be quite startling to see at first. If you are unsure about eating wild boar and would just like a taste look for a sagra in Tuscany or Umbria. These seasonal food festivals celebrate regional culture and cuisine with music, dancing, games, exhibits and of course food. In the small medieval Tuscan town of Suvereto, 90 km from Florence, the Sagra del Cinghiale (Festival of the Wild Boar) is held every December with exhibitions and medieval pageantry with food stands and local restaurants serving wild boar. There’s also a Sagra del Cinghiale in Certaldo. Capalbio and Chianti . . . well you get the idea. Wild boar is very popular. The traditions surrounding the eating of a particular food is a reason to celebrate in Italy so if you happen upon a sign along the road that says “Sagra del Cinghiale” or “Sagra del whatever” you should stop and go.