Everything is used but the squeak

PHILIPPA DAVENPORT, UNA GRANDE GIORNALISTA E NOSTRA AMICA INGLESE, VENNE A TROVARCI DIECI ANNI FA E SCRISSE QUESTO ARTICOLO SUL FINANCIAL TIMES. LO RIPROPONIAMO PER LA STRAORDINARIA ATTUALITA’.

This is the story of a transformation from bristly pig on the hoof to fresh and cured meats of unsurpassed excellence. It is the story of men who raise, kill and convert their livestock into larder staples with the greatest care and respect. It is a story that bears frugal witness to the truth that every bit of a pig can be used except its squeak.

I have always felt it important to see a pig killed on the farm where it was raised. When the opportunity finally arose, I was lucky enough to find myself in the company of three pig slaughterers and curers happy to show me the specialities of various regions of Italy. Eugenio Panzetta (whose wife is Calabrian) and Bruno Ferro work on the estate of Le Silve di Armenzano in Umbria. Giorgio Calabrò, from Le Marche, is a Slow Food hero whose fresh sausages and cured meats are famed throughout Italy. If anyone could make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, it must be he.

Le Silve di Armenzano is a 320 hectare estate of rolling fields and woodland, surrounded by mountains, in the Monte Subasio National Park. It is home to deer, wild boar, porcupines, wolves and mouflon (I saw the first three) as well as farm animals. The pigs are truly free-range, rootling happily through enclosed areas of oak wood, feasting on acorns, wild herbs and the occasional truffle. Supplementary maize, barley and wheat are scattered in the same place each evening so the farmers can keep an eye on them.

The night I arrived a trio of pigs had been corralled into a capacious holding pen near the feeding station. When we went there next morning, Eugenio threw something on to the ground our side of the wire fence. Three inquisitive snouts poked through. Bruno slipped into the pen and lassoed one of the pigs, catching the rope between jaw and snout. It squealed indignantly. The pig was drawn aside and led out, still protesting noisily.

The lasso tightened, the captive pig calmed down. Its mates, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, seemed unconcerned and other pigs that had drawn close hoping for extra rations drifted away. Bruno stilled the pig. Eugenio held a stun gun to its head and shot it. It staggered and fell. The hind legs were tied and raised by a forklift tractor, allowing the throat to be slit and the blood to gush freely. It was as sudden, swift and accurate as death can be.

When the bleeding stopped the fork- lift carried the pig to the farmyard. Wood smoke drifted from a barn where a fire crackled on the concrete floor. Over it hung a huge drum of simmering water, topped up regularly via a tap in the yard. The pig was weighed, hosed with cold water and laid on a slatted trestle table.

I had no idea that the ceremony butchers used to call “dressing the carcase” was so thorough and thoughtful – I doubt it often is these days. But the performance I witnessed was deeply impressive, carried out with quiet gravitas and immaculate attention to detail.

Steaming water was poured over the corpse of the handsome, one-year-old, 190kg, crossbred Large White/Duroc castrato. Sacking was laid over a small area at a time and ladled with more hot water, slowly, repeatedly, until the skin was pink and the bristles (traditionally made into paint brushes) were soft enough to pull out or shave. Trotters were manicured and soaked in a catering-size tomato tin of hot water to ease the removal of the toenails (saved to make glue). Ear and snout were delicately blowtorched to singe whiskers that razors could not reach safely. The men worked together in perfect harmony, rarely speaking, never hurrying, always respectful of the pig and each other.

I feel sick at the thought of operating theatre scenes in TV hospital soaps and I don’t much care for plucking and gutting a pheasant but the anatomy lesson that followed the pig’s ablutions was as sweet, clean and precise as Savile Row tailoring. No stench, no ghastly gore, nothing to offend the squeamish.

The front of the pig was cut open from the neat little gash where the throat had been slit, up to the snout and down to the tail, sometimes cutting cautiously between two fingers placed inside the pig to protect its innards. The sides opened like a cupboard to reveal contents as pristine as a medical text book illustration. Bowels and bladder were tied. Intestines, heart, lungs, spleen and the rest slid, or were lifted out, into basins for washing and salting.

Cutting down the back was a sterner task requiring an axe-like knife and hammer, patience, strength, steady hands and an accurate eye. My admiration for Panzetta soared. He did not huff, puff or sigh. Slowly, calmly, he cut a flawless line as straight as a Roman road. The pig’s head was severed and the two sides of the carcase were separated.

Smallholders hang their carcases in a well-ventilated place for two or three days. One night in Le Silve’s chiller was enough to set the meat. It emerged the next day firm and no longer baby pink. Dead pig had become pork. Ready for butchery and cooking.

This is the busy-busy part, with everyone sharing the tasks and partying at the same time. The pace quickens with so many curing processes to be started and so many perishables needing immediate attention.

Fingers grow numb from massaging salt into joints, and washing and rewashing bladder, rectum and intestines in icy cold running water. Brows sweat in a blur of bubbling vats of boiling meats and rendering fat, glowing braziers and the high-speed flash of chopping knives.

Bread, wine and a succession of porky titbits keep the team going. Blood fried with onions makes a hearty snack. Lungs, rectum and much else are grilled for crostini. The spinal cord, richer than bone marrow, may dress pasta. Slivers of heart and liver, dusted with fragrantly powdered fennel flowers, rolled cigarette-style in caul and grilled, make melting mouthfuls.

I remember making pork scratchings many years ago as I help to render the fat from round the kidneys, and the web of membrane, as beautiful as fan vaulting, that holds the intestines together. They yield liquid gold lard and solid nuggets called ciccioli and sfrizzoli. We salt then snack on the crispy-chewy solids and spoon the liquid lard into the pig’s bladder, knotting it at intervals, like a string of sausages. When solid it can be sliced as needed for cooking or put to household use. I doubt this real lard is combined with soda and fine clay nowadays to make soap, or used as a hand-cream, but some vets still recommend it to treat cows with mastitis.

I was intrigued to compare Coppa di testa from Umbria and Le Marche to an English pig’s head brawn. Both make use of most of the pig’s face (but not the fatty rich jowl, with its thin seam of meat, that becomes guanciale in Italy, or Britain’s meatier Bath chap) plus tripe, tail and various trimmings, all boiled together for hours.

Interestingly, whereas an English brawn majors on the resultant gelatinous liquid, all juices are deliberately squeezed out in Italy, leaving a dense slab of assorted shredded meats and seasonings that naturally glue together when lightly pressed. The result is a rich mosaic of textures and colours, cleverly tempered by allspice and dried orange peel. The liquid is thrown away because, I am told, any toxins in the meats will have been drawn into it.

Another delicious surprise for me was salsiccia pazza (literally mad sausage), devised by the frugal Marchigiani during the second world war. For these a small amount of fresh pork meat and fat is eked out with tripe and boiled potatoes, seasoned with garlic and wine. It didn’t sound promising and the mixture looked as bland as mass-produced English bangers, I thought, as I watched Calabrò tamp the ingredients down into the hopper of the mincing machine with a pig’s trotter. But it tasted terrific and just goes to show that sausages don’t have to be 100 per cent meat to be top class. Mind you, the meat used must come from a top-class pig.

Prosciutti and spalette (shoulder hams) are made all over Italy to fairly similar recipes. Spalette are generally less sought-after and cheaper but regarded as greatly superior by Calabrò and others. I comment on how heavily he trims the joints as he cuts them from the carcase. It gives them good conformation, he explains, and the trimmings are excellent for salumi and fresh sausages.

Panzetta tells me that the bones are invariably left in hams in Calabria because flies can be problematic there. Hot weather and insects also account for the use of more spices and garlic in the south. Both possess antiseptic qualities, he reminds me, as he seasons the mix for a prized 80 per cent lean pork salamesoppressata calabrese, with whole black peppercorns, fennel and chilli peppers dried in the sun and ground by his mother-in-law.

N’duia is another Calabrian speciality. This salame is soft, quicker to cure and economic with its mix of fat and lean pork, lungs, tripe, tongue and white wine. Softer still is Le Marche’s ciauscolo, a traditional poor man’s salame with a high fat content that sometimes includes offal. Minced to a very smooth paste, it is deliciously spreadable. If the mixture sticks to your fingers as you make it, you know the ratio of fat to lean is right, says Giorgio, seasoning some with white wine and garlic, and using fennel flowers for the rest.

Each man carries his own box of treasured spices, along with his knives. They tend to weigh the spices carefully but judge the meats and everything else by eye and by touch, not scales. Perhaps that is why the seasoning seems always to be perfect, never brash or insipid.

The fat sausage-shaped muscle of meat from the top of the neck is massaged with salt in the first step to making what the Umbrians call capocollo and is known as lonza in Le Marche. Various salami are prepared, including salame lardellato, studded with diced back fat tossed in sea salt and pressed into the minced and flattened meats, rather as butter is dotted, folded and rolled into the dough when making rough puff pastry. Such riches.

It is exhilarating and humbling to be allowed to join the team temporarily. I am struck by the knowledge and natural understanding of food these people have. They expect to wait six months, a year or more for a salame or ham to come to proper maturity. They see that as a proper investment and recognise it would be a false economy to try to speed things up. Tying up capital for so long is expensive but, wisely, they believe quality counts for more than low cost. Besides, the savour of really good foods means less is needed to satisfy. A good slice is better than four that are low grade. And nothing is wasted.

I agree and just wish the message would rub off on Britain and America, where far too many pigs are reared in atrocious conditions, take nightmare journeys to slaughterhouse factories and make very poor eating. To add insult to injury a fearful proportion of that meat never reaches the butcher’s shop but is shamefully pulped for dog food or goes into the nastiest end of the ready-meal catering trade.

The pig is our most intelligent farm animal and more prone than cattle or sheep to produce bad meat if ill-treated. Le Silve’s livestock was clearly well reared, in tip-top condition and spared the stress of travelling to an abattoir.

The death I witnessed could not have been better. The dressing of the carcase was exemplary, the butchery and the end products were second to none. As I left I spotted a group of piglets snuffling and playing together in the undergrowth. There at least, the next generation of good eating is assured.

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