Prosciutti, salami, salsicce, pancetta, soppressata, cotechini, lardo and so much more!
It’s no wonder that every family in rural Tuscany and the rest of Italy would wait anxiously through the months of December and January for the annual ritual of the killing of the pig.
One animal can feed a whole family for the entire year. The process is more, though, than just slaughtering the pigs for food. It is part of our heritage, of our history, of our culture.
However, in the 1960’s, government regulations cracked down on the practice of home slaughtering due to hygienic concerns. John Caserta sums it up perfectly in a great article in Meatpaper about the pig slaughter in Montenero Val Cocchiara….
“Traditionally, stables were in the village and people would keep their pig under their house, so that every piece of land could be used for agriculture. Eventually, sanitation laws stepped in and the government imposed incentives to build stables outside of town. Nowadays, it’s illegal to slaughter pigs in this traditional way. Pigs are supposed to be sent to a government-sanctioned butcher. There are signs around saying “You’re not allowed to kill pigs.” But it’s expensive to send the pigs to a butcher, and people say that the meat doesn’t taste as good.
For a while, there was some embarrassment about being too much of a villager, not being able to afford people to do things for you. But that’s changing. The people who are killing their pigs are happy and proud that they know how to do it. It’s not a sign of poverty, as it was in the 80’s and 90’s; it has now become a point of pride.”
By this time in the winter, people everywhere are getting ready. Phone calls are made, e-mail are sent, appointments are scheduled: “Is it this Sunday? Next one? O.K. Let’s meet at the exit of Valdarno at 6:00 a.m. It’s done we have a date”.
The ceremony starts early in the cold morning. By the time we get there, the pig, a beautiful animal of almost 100kg, is already dead. It’s throat had been cut, and men are now pouring hot water all over its body to skin the thick fur. All you can see is an intense vapor.
I will skip butchering part, as its pretty graphic and purely technical. If you really want to learn how to butcher a whole hog though, you should take a class at the Meat Hook…..those guys are serious about pig.
Anyway, lets get to the interesting part: the transformation of the different cuts.
The two thighs are carved, then carefully massaged with salt and pepper. In six months they will be two succulent “prosciutti”.
The shoulders get the same treatment and will become “spalle”… a leaner version of the prosciutto.
The tenderloin is also put under salt to produce the “lombo”… a cold cut that we like to eat fairly fresh, dressed simply with oil and lemon.
People are getting hungry, so it’s time for “quality control”. We put some of the ribs on the grill to see how good this pig really is! They are superb. The fat melts, tenderizing the meat, which is so flavorful that it needs almost no salt. On the side, we have “migliaccio”, a sort of pancake made with pig blood, salt, peper and parmesan cheese. Yummy.
Now that our stomachs are full, let’s keep going.
image from Hobson’s Choice blog
The belly is saved, of course, to make pancetta. Most pancetta you find in the States is rolled, however, in Florence, we leave it flat. After covering the belly with salt, pepper, juniper berries, bay leaves, thyme and rosemary, the belly put skin side down in a container and left flat to cure for about a month.
The two cheeks are also prepared in the same manner to make the even tastier “guanciale”.
Now, it’s time for the not so fun part of the job…cleaning the intestines. After removing any residual matter, the intestines must be cleaned, thoroughly and carefully. After the last wash, they are ready to be used as containers for salami and sausages.
Since the pork chops and bottom rounds have already been divided among the workers, whatever is left over (like the head, including the ears) is used to make “soppressata”. The parts are boiled for a few hours, then taken off the bone and chopped, lightly dressed with lemon zest and parsley, and then put into a thick cloth sack, which is left hanging to let the excess liquid to drip away. After it has stopped dripping, the sack is pressed and rolled, and then hung in a cool dry place … and as soon as the next day, its ready to be eaten, and should be eaten within the month.
The final part of the four legs are perfect as “involucro” for the “zampone”. For us “zampone” and also “cotechino” (savory sausages full of spices) mean Christmas time. We eat them for the festivities. They are slowly boiled and served with lentils or mashed potatoes. I put them on the menu at Locanda and they will stay until the early spring.
Most of the pig has now been cut and processed. But the job is not yet finished. The innards are what we call the “fifth quarter”. Liver, heart, kidneys, and lungs are the precious reward for all our hard work, and are consumed, grilled or stewed right away.