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 porchetta, a 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. 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. Raised 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.
Although Italians did not invent the grill they certainly are among the cultures of the world that have perfected its use. The life of the fire, il fuoco vivo, in the gastro-history of the early Italians and their contemporaries held a special attraction. The Etruscans, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines were grilling spit roasted meats and small birds since ancient times. The tradition of grilling is still a significant part of regional Italian cuisine. Porchetta, a whole roasted pig, is one of the most common street foods in Central Italy and almost every family cook and chef has a recipe for arisoto seasoning (herbs and blended spices for grilled or roasted meat and poultry).
Lo Spiedo Bresciano, one of the city of Brescia’s signature dishes, follows an ancient tradition where small song birds (thrushes, meadowlarks, finches) were caught in nets in the countryside, plucked and cleaned then spitted, wrapped in lace fat or a bit of pork loin and grilled over an open fire. Our Nonna told us about doing this when she was a young girl in the Veneto.
In fact a word often associated with grilling (“marinade”) comes from the Italian marinare, a verb which means to put a food inside a fluid or sauce for some hours in order to let the liquid soak into the food. A traditional Italian marinade would be made using about a 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil to 1/4 cup lemon juice, red wine, balsamic or wine vinegar; adding herbs such as oregano, basil, fennel seeds, parsley, thyme or rosemary, ground black or crushed red pepper and several cloves of crushed garlic.
According to research by Kansas State University, soaking meat in a spiced marinade for an hour or more before grilling inhibits the formation of up to 87% of HCA’s (harmful compounds formed during exposure to the high heat of the grill) due to the antioxidants in the spices and the higher water content in the meat (more moisture prevents many HCAs from forming).
So before you take up with the life of the fire visit the garden, open a bottle of wine and pour yourself a glass and use the rest to mix up an Italian marinade.
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)