A Boaring Time in Italy

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 )photoas 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.

 

Pasta Takes the Bite Out of Winter

rabbit hunt

I think it’s time for a substantial winter meal. One that is plentiful, generous and abundant with the bold flavors of wild game and toothsome pasta. In Italy this would translate into a classic Tuscan peasant dish known as coniglio alla cacciatora, hunter’s rabbit stew. Traditionally served with long fat strands of hand-rolled pici or broad pappardelle pasta this dish was also made with the meat of a hare (pappardelle sulla lepre).

Hare and rabbit are both readily available in Italy. Italians find it tasty, lean, inexpensive and perfect for cooking alla cacciatora, the long, slow stewing method with a sauciness and fall-off-the-bone flavor.  A substantial primo piatto this dish needs little to accompany it to make a hearty meal other than a full-bodied red wine and some briny local olives.  In Italy the pasta is placed on top (sulla) of the cacciatora then gently mixed ever so slightly creating a subtle mingling of flavors.

If you can, use wild rabbit or hare for a more traditional dish with an earthy, richer flavor than farmed rabbit which is more delicate. In Italy, wild game dishes made with rabbit, hare, cinghiale (wild boar) or duck (anatra) are traditionally served with a thick rolled or broad pasta to absorb the flavor of the stewed meat. In Umbria stringozzi pasta is typical and very similar to Tuscan pici.  Both are types of “peasant” pasta that resemble fat spaghetti. All are thick pasta that go well with rich robust hunter-style sauces that take the bite out of winter.

Coniglio alla cacciatoraHunter’s rabbit stew

Serves 4-6

  • 7 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • Flour for dusting 1 rabbit
  • 1 rabbit, chopped into large pieces
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 1 carrot, chopped
  • 1 stalk of celery chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
  • 2 small bay leaves
  • sprig or 2 or parsley
  • 1 cup of red or white wine
  • 2 ounces of tomato paste dissolved in 1 cup of water
  • meat broth or water
  • coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

Season the rabbit with salt and pepper. Dust the pieces of rabbit with flour and sear over medium high heat in a deep skillet suitable for a stew with 3 T extra virgin olive oil until golden brown. Remove the rabbit pieces and set aside. Deglaze the pan with the wine scraping up the browned bits with a wooden spoon. Allow the wine to simmer and the alcohol to evaporate for a minute or two, then pour it over the browned rabbit and reserve.

In the same pan, add the remaining 3 T of extra virgin olive oil and sauté the soffritto (chopped onion, carrot and celery) over a gentle heat until the onion becomes transparent and soft.  Add the garlic and herbs and continue cooking a few minutes until fragrant.  Add the tomato paste to the pan and cook until the paste slightly darkens, about 5 minutes. Return the reserved rabbit and wine to the pan, adjust the heat to medium low and stir to mix about 10 minutes or until the rabbit begins to release its juices.

Simmer the rabbit partially covered, basting it occasionally, adding water or broth, if the sauce is getting too thick or dry. Cook until the meat is tender and begins to just fall off the bone (about 1 .5 hours).