You Had Me at “Oink”

Anyone who knows me knows I like pork. That means I like pigs. I live in the Midwest region of the US and pigs are probably the most common farm animal in this part of the United States. Two states away from my home state is Iowa, the second largest pork producer in the United States. Two  other Midwest states closely follow. But my fondness for pigs was taken to another level after taste traveling in Italy where it would be difficult to overstate Italy’s insatiable taste for pork. Salami is very  Italian and almost always made with pork. Italian prosciutto is iconic and porchettaporchetta 3a whole pig dusted with a seasoning of salt, herbs and spices, rolled or folded tightly shut, wrapped with twine and put in the oven or spit roasted is found at almost even festa and street market.

I’m fascinated by Italy’s heirloom breeds like the Tuscan Cinta Senese resurrected  and raised by Raymond Lamothe at Azienda Agricola Casamonti near Castellini in Chianti (Siena). The Cinta Senese are named for the white “belt” (cinta) around their midsection.cinta senese pig Raymond and his butchers transform the cured hams into prosciutto that rivals prosciutti from Parma or San Daniele. Once endangered, interest in this ancient breed (their gastro-history dates back to the Middle Age and Renaissance) was reignited by Raymond and  we are the happy beneficiary of his efforts.

So when I heard about the Mora Romagnola pig, a breed from Romagna near Ravenna and Russi, with their dark brown-black coat (mora means “blackberry, mulberry or moor”) and almond shaped eyes – they had me at Oink. In 1949, there were around 22,000 examples of the breed, but 12 years ago, this number had been reduced to less than 15 and the breed nearly disappeared. Mora Romagnola pigRaised in a region known for wheat and flour, breeder Mario Lazzari and a group of dedicated estate pig farmers saw the beauty and benefit of preserving and protecting this culinary and cultural taste of Italy.

Gold Eggs and Ham

The color of gold has been used to describe the culture and cuisine of Italy for centuries. The illuminated halos of gold in Renaissance paintings and the golden tiles of the mosaics of Ravenna are indelible examples of  the brilliance of Italian art. The golden balls of the Medici bankers were image makers long before branding became a market strategy.  Gold merchants span the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio, Florence’s bridge of bling, and the Doges of Venice wore stiff horn-like bonnets (corno ducale ) made of  golden brocade. The high-fashion emporia and chic boutiques of Milan’s Qaudrilatero d’Oro (Golden Triangle) have made the color of gold a design icon. Italian chefs create culinary alchemy with golden grains of saffron flavored risotto and “liquid gold” from Italy’s extra virgin olive oils while fields of yellow sunflowers have Italianophiles longing to bask under the Tuscan sun.

But perhaps the most dramatic symbol of Italian gold is not found in the Vatican museums or the jewelry shops of Florence and Rome but in the farmyards near Pisa where Paolo Parisi has taken the lowly egg and elevated it to the status of Italian gold. Parisi’s heritage bred Livornese chickens, fed on a foraged diet supplemented with scraps from the production of cheese from the goats on his farm, are said to produce an egg of such extraordinary flavor (sweet almonds) and texture that they carry a price tag of  €8, or $11 for a half dozen. What makes this egg the richest egg in Italy? The fresh taste and a golden yolk that is softer and richer in fat than most with the capacity to incorporate three times the amount of air than the average yolk when whipped. This means that your pasta, zabione, creams ,custards  and carbonara will be golden in flavor and appearance because the yolks of Parisi’s eggs are intensely – fluorescent gold! Parisi also raises Cinte Senese pigs, an ancient breed native to Tuscany known for their heritage flavor. Giving new meaning and color to one of the world’s most famous culinary parings – eggs and ham

And if Parisi’s commitment to eco-sustainable farming methods wasn’t enough his eggs are lovingly housed in a carton made from an organic fabric embedded with small seeds of marjoram. Plant, harvest and then cook “L’uovo assoluto” a Parisi recipe for eggs made with foglie di maggiorana (majoram)shown on the backside of the pack. Brilliant.

A Square that Turns into a Shell and A Pig as a Symbol of Good Government

In the central valley region of Italy known as Tuscany there is a medieval town called Siena set within a landscape of the burnt sienna of a Renaissance artist’s paint brush. The colors of Sienese landscape are as rich and deep as the traditions and history of its people. Mario Batali once said that “nothing can prepare you for the breathtaking beauty of the main piazza in Siena – nothing” and I definitely agree with him. However it can also be said that nothing can prepare you for the number of tourists that are milling around the main piazza (Il Campo) of Siena. Overlook it! Siena has become a brightly shinning blip on the tourist radar and like many of Italy’s more popular towns and cities can be a little overwhelming at first glance. Don’t let this keep you from discovering the medieval charm and delicious cuisine of Siena.

In Siena you can discover the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo), one of the most unique places in the world, where a square turns into a big concave shell. The paving is made of red bricks arranged in fishbone style, divided into a sunburst pattern by nine strips of travertine (in memory of the Government of the Nine, who ruled over the city from 1292 to 1355). And to remind the citizens of Siena about the benefits of a good government and the risks associated with one that is bad, there is a  fresco (dal 1339) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted in the Sala dei Nove (Salon of Nine or Council Room) in the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall), an allegory, on the effects of Good and Bad Government. Scenes from the city of good government depict the virtues of Peace, Fortitude, Prudence, Magnanimity, Temperance , Charity, Faith, Hope, Justice, Security and a landscape of plenty including a series of dancing citizens and activities relating to farming  and animal husbandry. There is a Cinta Senese pig being lead into town, a symbol of the goodness of the land. In the contra fresco, the virtues have been replaced with Fear, Cruelty, Treason, Fraud, Fury,Tyrany, Pride, Vainglory, Avarice, Division and War. The village is deserted and uncultivated, houses are on fire and the pig is missing.

The plentiful abundance of Siena includes some of my favorite regional Italian food and wine. You must try the pappardelle col sugo di lepre (hare), ribollita (hearty vegetable and bread soup), pici (thick, chewy spaghetti), crostini di fegato (toast with chicken liver spread) Chianti Colli Senesi, Brunello di Montalcino and Vin Santo wines and Sienese sweets like panforte (a chewy fruitcake like confection) and ricciarelli (an almond paste cookie). Of course don’t forget to try the pork.

Signore Pig

The Italian pig is revered. One of Italy’s most famous salumi comes in the form of cured hams known as prosciutto crudo. The celebrated hams of San Daniele, Parma and Toscana are so valued for their flavor, aroma and methods of preparation that they are given DOP aka PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) certification, the Italian government’s seal of approval that they are a product of a food tradition that can occur nowhere else. DOP certification sets out strict rules regarding the genetic make-up and breeding of pigs that will be wearing the ducal crown (the trademark of Prosciutto di Parma) or those whose hams are elegantly shaped like a Stradivarian violin (Prosciutto di San Daniele).

Porchetta, a suckling pig rolled up and spit roasted (girarosto) over a wood fire with salt, pepper, garlic and wild fennel has a gastronomic reputation that goes back to the time of the ancient Etruscans. Just about every sagra or street fair in Italy will have a porchetta on the spit with a line of Italians strung out waiting for packets of sliced pork (maiale) to eat on the spot or take home.

Signor Pig is treated very well in Italy. He was always respected as a symbol of plenty. The Cinta Senese or Sienese Belt Pig (named for a white belt around their chest) is pictured in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzentti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall) titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo (the good/wise government). In the contra fresco il cattivo governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing and in the quarries of Michelangelo the cured lard of Colonnata (Lardo di Colonnata), with the intoxicating flavor of aromatic spices and herbs is an artisanal delicacy thinly sliced and served over warm Tuscan bread that can be described as nothing less than inscensual.

So when you’re seeing a savoring Italy make sure to arrange an introduction to Signore Pig at the local trattorie.  He’s dressed in many ways (sausage, salami, prosciutto, arista di maiale) and although he may be called Stinco in Bolzano he is most congenial and not to be missed.

*You can make any piece of meat in the porchetta style along as you have roasted it in a wood fire oven and stuffed or even marinated or cooked with fennel (preferably wild)

A Medieval Pig

It’s almost summer and that means a day at the grill. Italians love to cook over an open flame. Wood fired pizza, the infamous Tuscan T-bone (bistecca alla fiorentina) and one of Italy’s all-time favorite dishes arrosto di porchetta allo spiedo (spit roasted suckling pig).   Pork based Italian dishes have been part of the culinary history of Italy since the time of the Etruscans. Pigs and their rogue cousins, the wild boar (cinghiale ), have been made into salame, salumi (the most famous being prosciutto) and sausages for centuries.  Italian sagras (street fairs) often feature spit roasted pork and traditionally every Italian family in Parma kept a pig that was butchered in the late fall for feasting and celebration. The Italian pig has inspired many cookbooks including Daniela Garavini’s book Pigs and Pork: 90 Recipes from Italy’s Most Celebrated Chefs and many regional specialties including Lardo di Colonnata, an artisanal delicacy made from a layer of fat from the back of the Cinta Senese pigs native to Tuscany.

But the lowly pig was to achieve elevated status during the Middle Ages and Renaissance at the banquet tables and boardrooms of some of Italy’s most powerful families. Cinta pigs, raised in and around Siena as early as the 14thcentury, are depicted in a famous fresco by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1338) in Siena’s Palazzo Comunale (town hall). Titled L’Allegoria del Buon Governo a Cinta pig is led into a town that prospers under a good and wise government.  In the contra fresco il Cattivo Governo (the bad government), the pigs are missing. And at the medieval banquet table the pig was rubbed with aromatic spices and herbs and anointed with wine.

Here is a recipe right up my grill, a regional preparation from the town of Arezzo, located in the middle of four valleys in southeastern Tuscany. One of my favorite Seeing and Savoring Italy sites, the locality and customs of cooking make it an evocative setting for sapori della Toscana, the flavors of Tuscany. The recipe is a grill friendly version of the traditional spit roasted whole suckling pig and uses the holy trinity of medieval spices (cloves, nutmeg, coriander and black pepper). Basting the pork with red wine as it grills prevents the meat from drying out and “imbues it with a subtly sweet flavor”.



Porchetta con Spezie Medievali

(Garlic Studded Pork Loin with Medieval Spices adapted from The Italian Grill cookbook by Micol Negrin)

6 garlic cloves, peeled

1 ½ t coarsely ground sea salt

¾ t coarsely ground red and black peppercorns

1/8 t ground cloves

1/8 t ground coriander

1/8 t freshly ground nutmeg

2 fresh rosemary sprigs (leaves only) + a bundle of fresh rosemary sprigs for basting

3 pound boneless pork loin (with a layer of fat on top)

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 cup red wine typical of Tuscany


Using a mini food processor or a mortar and pestle crush garlic with ½ t salt, ¼ t peppercorns, nutmeg, cloves, coriander and rosemary leaves until a paste forms.  Using a sharp paring knife, strategically make a series of tiny slits into the top portion of the pork loin (6-8 in total). Using your fingers, press a small amount of the spice mixture into the slits. Rub the outside of the loin with olive oil, season with salt and pepper and the remaining spice mixture.

Heat the grill to a medium flame. Grill pork loin until that outside is browned and cooked all the way through to an internal meat temperature of 175 degrees.  While grilling baste the meat with the bundle of fresh rosemary dipped in the red wine, anointing the pork every 10-15 minutes. Remove the pork to a cutting board and cover with aluminum foil to rest for 10 minutes. Slice on the diagonal.

Serves 4-6