Few tomatoes remain in our garden, the grapes are in and as the days grow colder, we head towards olive-gathering time. The olives will be in and milled for oil before the coldest days arrive. The cold weather brings reminisces…like this one:
This inordinately cold winter is perfect for pig slaughtering time: once the pig is slaughtered and turned into prosciutto, capocollo, salami, pancetta (“little tummy”, ie, bacon), sausages (all cured with salt, not via smoking), the cold weather assures (one hopes!) that the meat cures well. Warm weather is hazardous: a renegade fly could survive and burrow into the meat. (La tragedia happened to us one year: we sliced into the first of our two magnificent prosciutti in July and maggots crawled out. Frustration, anger and also tears: we had bred the sow and raised the litter’s chubbiest piglet to adulthood – and to a prosciutto-end.)
Walking down our road through the woods yesterday, I caught whisps of smoke rising from behind Gigetto’s house. Their fattened pig had met his demise: the smoke was rising from the fire built out back under the soot-blackened copper cauldron (an essential element of any farmhouse: ours now holds a plant but at one time, boiling water bubbled in that cauldron at pig-slaughtering time).
I remember our first pig slaughter and waking up early to feed the fire under our cauldron, hanging in the fireplace. The first task of the day of slaughter: the boiling water is poured over all the pig immediately after slaughter so that the hair can be easily scraped off the skin. The skin then becomes cotiche (and don’t miss tasting cotiche e fagioli or lenticchie e fagioli – beans or lentils with pigskin – if ever in our area in the cold season!).
The water was at a rolling boil just as I heard Adamo’s raspy voice greet Pino. They were just under the kitchen window, outside of our pig stall (NB pig stall right below the kitchen – not optimal!). I knew that our pig, Zsa zsa, was done for.
In those days, Adamo – who farmed most of the year – became a pig butcher or norcino during the winter months (a way to make a little extra cash – if a fatiguing way: he could slaughter and help cure as many as 150 pigs in just 2 months!). Norcino means “the man from Norcia” as that mountainous medieval town in southeastern Umbria is famous for its sausages, prosciutto, pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese)… as well as black truffles! And penne alla Norcina (recipe to follow at the end) is perhaps the most typically “Umbrian” of all of our pasta dishes: made with Umbria’s famous sausages.
The Umbrian sausages are made with simply the pig meat seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of wine, garlic. This mixture would come rolling out of Adamo’s grinder and into the pig’s intestines (sausage casing) which we had rinsed out with our vinegar (all of the Umbrian farms have vineyards and therefore each home has wine and vinegar) and then fit like a stocking on to the mouth of the grinder.
A farm neighbor, Marino Pica, once told me about pig slaughtering when he was a boy (40 years ago), the time of miseria (“misery” is a poor translation; “hard-living, poverty” work better). In the busy farm kitchen the eve of the slaughter, the children eagerly eyed the sausages, knowing that they would soon be grilled. That night, though, Nonno decided that there could only be one sausage per child as the meat would be needed throughout the year (the sausages could be hung to dry in the store room off the kitchen). The norcino working at the grinder saw the hungry eyes peeping over the table top as the meat slipped out into the casings. When no one was looking, he cut off a few sausages and slipped them to Marino. The children scrambled out the door and down the steps. They went out to the fields in the icy cold, made a fire and roasted the sausages.
Miseria is long gone here in Umbria and in Italy in general. But the pig-slaughtering still remains a winter tradition in rural areas, though the conclusion has a twist.
The slaughtering process is basically the same: the pig is dragged out of the stall (as the pig must drop onto clean grass) by tying a rope around the snout. (I still remember Zsa zsa’s frantic squeal – muffled by the pillow which I stuffed over my head. I had fled to our bedroom.) The norcino then shoots the pig in the forehead and it drops to the ground. The throat is slit, blood gathered (for a sweet sausage – which we never appreciated! – sanguinaccio) and then the boiling water is poured over the carcass and the skin scraped. The pig’s feet are tied and the carcass is hauled up a tree limb to facilitate the quartering. The following day, the farm family and friends gather to assist the norcino in the day-long preparation of the prosciutto, capocollo, pancetta, lard (once used for soap-making – as well as in cooking), salami and sausages.
But as miseria is now a past woe and benessere (“well-being”) has arrived, the family freezer nowadays stores much of the meat: conserved as pork chops, pork roast, ribs – and less of the meat is destined to capocollo, sausages and salami.
How wonderful, though were our off-the-kitchen storerooms in winters of past years. Icy cold (no heat anywhere in our houses except in the kitchen) and hanging from the old oak beams: pecorino cheeses, braided onions and braided garlics, grapes drying to raisins – all of which then had to make space for the huge prosciutto (2), the shoulders (2, as well – and quite hefty, as well!), salami, strings of sausages (about 100 from a single pig), salami, brown-paper-wrapped capocollo, barbozza (“cheek” – great in legume soups!), coppa (“head cheese”, flavored with orange peel), and pancetta. Jars of lard lined up on the shelves along with the jars of tomatoes, bandiera (“the flag”, ie, green peppers, red tomatoes and white onions), artichokes under oil, roasted peppers, figs in honey, stuffed figs in brandy and all the homemade fruit juices (pear, peach, plum – and mixed) as well as jams.
I’m sure that much of Gigetto’s pig will end up in the freezer in the garage. So much colder than the storerooms of old – in all senses.