Still foggy with sleep, we tumbled off the bus to see two wood-fired cauldrons, belching out clouds of smoke and steam in a medieval fashion. The air was filled with the finest perfume any gastronome could wear: the scent of pig lard.
I found myself on yet another of northern Italy’s ubiquitous small-scale farms, surrounded by idle farm machinery, deadened remnants of the fall harvest, and the sharp smell of pig shit. This trip had been touted on the syllabus as a visit to an “artisanal butcher,” but we were about to see that this butcher was one of the more minimalistic variety.
Tools of the sausage-making trade: kidneys, salt and cigarettes
On this plot of farmland in the sleepy village of Guastalla, about 3,000 pigs are housed and nourished. Yesterday though, the pigs counted one fewer among them. “Normally, we wouldn’t work on Sunday,” said Alberto, “but today is the saint’s day for Sant’Antonio, and you would not want to slaughter a pig on that day. So, we went ahead and did the job ahead of time.”
Inside the shed, several grizzled men milled about, dressed in heavy-duty galoshes, beards, and puffy vests to defend against the crisp January cold. A long table was placed in the center of the room, piles of pig bits arranged neatly on top. Meat, skin, and bones; the disassembly had been swift and democratic. Ribs lay stacked inside a plastic crate, buried beneath a thick layer of salt and pepper. Feet lay splayed at the table’s edge, still intact and furry. Pools of fresh crimson blood dotted the room, soaking into the dirt floor. Behind the operating table, anonymous organs dangled from hooks. “What is that?” I asked. Rae came to my rescue. “These are the lungs, and here’s the spleen and the three lobes of the liver.” He pointed them out to me. One, two, three. Apparently, there are some benefits to growing up in a family of butchers.
With a low rumble, Alberto began to feed meat into the grinder. This meat would feed his family for the next year. “Do you sell any of your salami?” we asked. “No no, this is only for us, we’re not even giving any away to friends!” he joked. In bygone times, it would have been traditional for each Italian family to slaughter a pig every winter, curing and storing the meat for the rest of the year, but this practice is rapidly fading. “My father taught me how to butcher a pig and make sausage, but I don’t think the next generation after me will be able to do this,” Alberto lamented.
Meanwhile, a tasting had been set up with an array of prosciutto, salame and pancetta. Forget the mass-produced, industrialized products you get in supermarkets—this is what it really means to eat from the terroir. The prosciutto had a deep, tangy funk to it, unlike any other I’d ever tasted, a flavor wholly unadulterated by sanitation, wild and untamed. I tore off a chunk of foccacia from the loaf sitting on the trunk of a car. Behind me, the mound of minced meat on the table was growing, and Alberto was taking a break to chat on his cell phone.
Not everyone was attacking the meat platter with enthusiastic gusto. As I looked around the room, I noticed that some of my classmates were behaving with unusual restraint. “Not having anything?” I asked. “Is it the early morning, or the meat parts scattered everywhere, or are you not feeling well, or…?” Danielle gave me a grimace. “Um, all of the above? I think I’m going to pass on this one.” Undeterred, I grabbed another slice of salami to help eat her share.
Wandering outside, a wiry, bespectacled man was now stirring the cauldrons with a long wooden pole. One pot held the pig’s head, merrily boiling away in salted water. The gelatinous remains would be used in making headcheese and spreads. The other held pieces of lard, which had been cooking in their own fat for the last three hours.
It was time to drain the vat of boiling pig oil. With a grunt, two men lifted the vat off the open fire using an iron pole. A large branch of rosemary was sprayed with a hose and tossed into the pot. The oil was drained away, and the pieces of lard were thrown into a white sheet, along with a handful of salt. The ends of the sheet were twisted shut, then everything was vigorously shaken to toss the lard bits and seasoning together.
Normally, the lard is then dried and pressed into flat pieces, resulting in a flat, crisp wafer that shatters in your mouth with the incredible richness of pork fat. However, today we would be eating the freshly cooked lard, no drying necessary.
“Don’t eat too many warm pieces of lard,” Alberto said, “or you might need to look for a comfortable toilet afterwards!” But I could not stop myself. Gastrointestinal comfort be damned, my hand strayed repeatedly back into the basket for more pieces of porcine candy.
When I left Chicago last spring, one of the more contentious topics of discussion in the restaurant world was the recent crackdown on canning and charcuterie products by the health department. To legally produce cured meats for commercial sale, businesses had to become HACCP-certified at a cost of upwards of $15,000 and at least six months of precious curing time. So instead, many chefs simply had unspoken charcuterie rooms in hidden corners of their cellars.
This underground subterfuge lay in striking contrast to the salami being unabashedly made before my eyes. Then again, the open-air ambiance was not exactly putting everyone at ease. “I’m sure the salami is perfectly safe, but I still can’t get into it,” muttered one student. “This must violate every health code out there.” Trichinella is certainly not a laughing matter.
Have people been using these traditional preservation methods for centuries? Yes. Should regulations be relaxed to promote cured meats in the U.S.? Perhaps. Do we lose more than just pathogens when we sterilize our food? Definitely.