Prosciutto, pancetta, salami, salsicce, coppa, barbozza. The names unite in an enticing rhythm, so appealing to your ear.
Even if you’re a vegetarian.
When I dropped in recently at the house of rural neighbors Peppe and Gentile, their daughter Paola and her husband Leandro were putting finishing touches to many of these items: “gifts” from the two pigs papa’ Peppe (88 years old) had raised and Leandro had butchered two days prior.
Like his father, Leandro is a norcino.
On the late 13th-century fountain in Perugia’s main square, the month of December is represented in two sculpted panels depicting the pig slaughter and the butchering by the norcino. Capricorn is represented in the upper left-hand corner of the first panel and in fact, Leandro had butchered the pigs on the last day of the period of Capricorn.
Traditionally in Umbria, the butchering of the pig takes place after the feast day of Sant’Andrea (November 30th) and before the feast of the patron saint of animals, St. Anthony Abbot (January 17th).
For the ancient Romans, il norcino was the expert in the butchering and castration of pigs as well as the transformation of the meat into various cuts for aging cooking. Due to his notable manual skills, il norcino also came to the aid of those with tooth problems such as abcesses as well as simple bone fractures.
In the Middle Ages, the butchers in the small mountain towns around Norcia, in southern Umbria, were so adept at the butchering of pigs and creation of pork products that they worked all over central Italy during wintertime.
Norcino today does not indicate a person from Norcia – called a “nursino” (from the Roman name for the town, “Nursia”) – but rather a pork butcher or the owner of a norcineria, a shop offering a variety or pork products (and not only):
Leandro is a retired stonemason now and becomes a norcino only in the winters, turning the pork meat into prosciutti and insaccati (literally, “in the sack or bag,” i.e, salamis and cold cuts) just for family.
He and wife Paola were busy at work making salsicce (sausages) in the cantina area when I arrived:
Ten fat salami were ready to hang for seasoning – until Easter when traditionally, the insaccati are first tasted. Leandro had rinsed out the pig intestines with red wine for use as casings for the sausages (others had been used for the salami):
Outside the door, the pig’s skull, ears, snout, bones, cartilage and la cotica (pig skin) – in rural culture, every part of the animal is used, no waste! – for coppa boiled in a blackened huge copper cauldron.
The coppa is not cured and is consumed fresh, spices and orange peel (here in Umbria) added.
As Paola and Leandro worked, we reminisced about the days years ago when Paolo’s uncle, Zio Adamo, had been il norcino for all of the rural people in our area who raised pigs (everyone), us included. Adamo worked long hours daily in the colder winter months (December, January), the ideal time for the pig slaughter.
And here you can see Adamo, his wife, Antonia – and Pino and me at the time of our first pig slaughter. That pig had been fattened up with acorns to assure buonissimi prosciutti:
In the years we had farmed our land and raised pigs, I remember spending many days in November and December gathering acorns under our oak trees, including in 1979 when I was pregnant with our first son, Keegan (born January 6, 1980):]
Peppe – now 88 – had gathered acorns for months for the two pigs slaughtered this year. The prosciutti (salt-cured hams) of the other pig he had raised was already salted and spread out below slabs of pancetta (bacon) just off the work area of Paola and Leandro: