Last week, the first really cold one this winter, I was at the farmer’s market in Siena, standing in front of the “Azienda Agricola San Pancrazio” meat booth, trying to think of something seasonal to cook for dinner, which in January means pork. With the grapes and olives harvested and the fields frosted over, the post-holiday lull has traditionally afforded farmers the time to undertake a task that kept their families fed for months. I had been in Tuscany almost a year when that task showed me first hand what “local” and “organic” really mean.
“Tell him we’ve killed the pig,” squawked the voice, and hung up. I called my soon-to-be-husband, relayed the message, and was told, “You’d better go get him.” So I started up the ape, our ancient, three-wheeled, stiff-clutched, over-steering little pick-up, and, after one false start (my mother-in-law came running out of the house, hollering over the roar and grind of the ape, “Don’t forget the blood!”), drove up the mountain to the neighbors’ farm to collect our apparently free-ranged pig carcass, which then spent the night in our barn.
The next morning, I came downstairs to find Paolino, the amateur butcher, wanting a coffee and a 50-liter pot. He took over a huge table at one end of the barn, slicing the sides of pig into cuts I started to recognize: roasts, steaks, and racks of ribs. Next, he made sausage, kneading a mountain of hand-ground meat with garlic, orange rind, salt and pepper on boards that failed to save the table underneath from a coat of grease that I would still be trying to scrub away in June. On another table, he set out the prosciutti, spalle (shoulders) and rigatini (flat, Tuscan pancetta) and covered them in an inch of salt, leaving precise instructions on when and how to rinse them, and left the big pot boiling in the center of the barn, sending the pungent steam from the budini (blood sausages) up into the rafters.
And so the feast began. For the first few weeks, we ate antipasti of soppressata (a boiled grey and white sausage made especially from brains and tripe) and for dessert, migliacci, a King’s Pudding-like pancake, the batter of which is thickened with the pig’s blood I had indeed remembered. In later years, my daughters came to love the fresh sausage bruschetta typically given to children as an after-school snack, which my mother-in-law prepared, while her son favored fegatelli, fried patties of anisette-infused liver. Each year, toward the end of the summer, we would give in to the urge to open a prosciutto, one person holding the joint steady in a vice, the other trying to cut a smooth curve through the thickest part of the meat without hitting bone. The nuttiness of those first creamy slices from the heart of the prosciutto, we said, must have come from the acorns on which the pig had been fed.
By the time we started sharing the pig—the result of a creeping awareness that all the red wine in the world wouldn’t neutralize an annual consumption of 300 pounds of pork—I could oversee pig day handily, throwing the tarps into the back of the ape the moment we got the call and digging the aluminum pot out from under the olive harvest nets at the back of the barn. In fact, I looked forward to showing the family with whom we were sharing how much I knew, to exercising my hard-won comfort with something deeply foreign. But my audience proved elusive: our friends from Siena, in all likelihood only a generation removed from farming, showed up at the barn in fur-rimmed ski parkas, polished loafers and big dark glasses, hands stuffed firmly in their pockets, asking “Can’t we do this somewhere warmer?”
Back when we did the pig, I often arranged dinner based on which cut was at its best, until autumn, at least, when, finding only the zamponi, say, or the lungs (cooked slowly with beans, I’m told they’re a real delicacy) lying in the bottom of the freezer, I would quietly buy pork chops from the village butcher and, without a word, serve them as our own.
From “San Pancrazio,” last week, I ended up buying a dozen eggs, to make a frittata with the onions we still have left from last summer’s vegetable garden. In terms of cholesterol, it may be no better than pork, but my older daughter has recently become a vegetarian, and dinner these days is all about finding a compromise.