Patchwork: Tuscan traditions reveal lost culinary arts
It is an unusual nursery school conversation. A teacher and I kneel down to where my son Charles holds his latest rendering of our family in his four-year-old fists. Four figures, one very tall (John), two medium sized (Charles and me), and one exceptionally small (the little brother), stand in front of a tall house with four windows and a front door.
Two trees, grass underfoot, some birds on the wing, a guinea pig, a sun and one fluffy cloud complete the scene. A typical childhood drawing with one exception: in the “attic” suspended from the roof are two nooses.
I had always heard of Prosciutto di Parma and assumed it meant an uncooked, dry-cured ham from Parma, Italy, which is true. But there is more. The pigs raised for these particular hams are fed the whey from parmesan cheese. Here’s a local tip: Blue Ledge Farm offers whey-fed pork, the whey coming from their goat cheese. Look for it at the farmers’ market.
Prosciutto is made from the hind leg or thigh of a pig.
Prosciutto is best made where it is cool and fairly dry.
The origins of the word prosciutto are from words meaning “to dry thoroughly.”
The aging of a prosciutto ham is complicated. It has to be cool, and not too dry. It is made in the winter and can take up to two years to cure properly.
There are records of people making prosciutto over a thousand years ago.
Prosciutto is served sliced paper thin with: melon (great combination of sweet and salty), or fresh figs, or in light pasta dishes (with cream and peas on tortellini — yum!), or on simple pizzas (say with mozzarella and artichoke hearts), or shaved into salads (along with parmesan cheese, for example).
His teacher had been alarmed. “What are these?” I ask in as innocent a tone as I can muster while she remains silent.
“Oh, those are Daddy’s prosciuttos.”
“Prosciuttos?” sputters the teacher. I relax. Stupid me. Of course they are Daddy’s prosciuttos. Charles had watched the butchering in the kitchen, the brining, the dousing in brandy, the patting with crushed black peppercorns, the wrapping in muslin cloth and a protective screen (so mice won’t nibble), and finally the hanging in the attic. This house’s attic, unlike others we have lived with, is not too hot, and not too cold — it is, in fact, perfect, well-ventilated and dry.
Prosciutto. Made in Middlebury. Prosciutto di Middlebury. Hmmmm.
That was 19 years ago, but the memory came flooding back this August when Charles, now 23, returned from a farm internship in Tuscany, Italy, where he worked with pigs for the summer, and learned about Italian sustainable organic farming practices and witnessed the production of salumi (dried cured meats). It seems the childhood fascination with his father’s culinary experiments in our attic has become a passion.
Near Siena, on 1,200 acres of conserved land both wooded and cleared, the farm where Charles interned practices sustainable management of the land, using traditional methods of mostly organic agriculture, and forest management practices such as coppice cutting.
Forty acres of grain and legumes are cultivated for human consumption and animal feed. From 700 olive trees, five acres of vineyards (mostly San Giovese grapes), and extensive vegetable gardens, olive oil, red wine and vegetables are produced, with fresh meat (beef and pork) and meat products, eggs and honey. From the forest come not only wild berries, mushrooms and cinghiale meat (wild boar), but firewood and the wood needed for farm projects: fence posts, trellising poles for the vineyard, and timbers for buildings. Twenty-five acres of coppice chestnut trees are cut every year in a 20-year rotation cycle.
The farm specializes in raising traditional local breeds of meat animals that they’ve brought back from near extinction: Cinta Senesepigs (a black and white belted pig) for their special brands of sausage and air-cured ham, and Calvana cows for their meat, along with heritage breeds of donkeys, ponies and sheep. Aiming for an almost complete agricultural cycle, the crops feed the animals, the animals produce the manure used for fertilizer, and the animals and crops feed the people who provide all the labor. And there are farm products to sell.
Charles worked with the pigs. And described them to us when he got home: “These pigs are different from Chinese white pigs, which are mostly what you see in Vermont. At the time they began to bring them back in the late ’80s, there were fewer than 100 left in the whole world, with only six breeding boars. So they crossed them with an Eastern European black pig, no Chinese stock at all, to add some genetic diversity. Unlike the pigs around here, which take nine months to reach slaughter weight, it takes them 18 months to reach slaughter weight, which is why the breed had been discarded back when pigs were being raised in more industrial settings. They took too long. This meat is leaner, and it has its own particular flavor.”
Of course it does. I think of the range of maple syrup flavors from the different parts of New England, even different sugar bushes in the state; the different flavors of local honeys; the subtle differences in the same varieties of vegetables raised in different places.
Here’s what contributes to the unique flavor of the Cinta Senese pigs. They forage in the woods, where they also stay cool during the hot summer months (their wallow is in the woods), and in meadows. They also feed on kitchen slops (no meat, no citrus) and a special flour composed of barley, black beans and cracked wheat, milled on site. Why the flour? Charles explained that it is a constant food source throughout the year (as wild foods fluctuate) and keeps the weight of the pigs and the quality of the meat consistent.
“By the way,” he added, “We only used homeopathic treatments for the pigs, including turmeric mixed in with their flour to help with digestion.”
Raising pigs partially in the woods is complicated by the fact that these woods are part of a wildlife preserve, which means there can be no permanent fencing. And the woods are the natural habitat of wild boars, which sometimes get in and breed with the Cinta Senese sows. The resulting litters of Cinghialini(literally “Little Wild Pigs”) make for perfectly good eating, but the farm culls and sells them to be raised elsewhere.
Up at six, and early to bed at night, Charles witnessed the life and food cycles of the Cinta Senese. He called in July to mention he had spent the day castrating the young boars. A vet was coming to spay the sows the next day. There were the litters of piglets and the crowds of slaughter-weight animals to feed, the culling of the Cinghialini, fences to move and mend, animals to move and tend, flour to be milled. There were the trips to the local slaughter house, a small scale facility that serves the farms in the region (something we could use in Addison County), and then the butchering of the meat in the farm kitchens, and, finally, the preparation of the sausages, hams and salamis: soprasotto (made from ground up organs and spices), capocollo (pieces of meat from different parts of the body, packed in a cow intestine), rigatino (pork belly, which we call bacon), lardo (the back fat, cured in a salt brine, and eaten sliced thinly) and yes, prosciutto.
We don’t have prosciuttos curing in the attic any more. The ventilation is not right. But I find myself imagining a local food system in which there is more infrastructure for the raising, slaughtering and processing of local pastured animals, and a place where we could develop local recipes for Vermont cured meats and sausages. What would our local dry-cured ham taste of? A hint of maple? Gleason’s grains? Clover?