The Big Pig Day

This post covers one of the highlights of our 2012 trip to Italy. Why don't you join us next January for a week-long trip to Emilia-Romagna, Italy, to forage for porcini, and learn to make preserves, pasta, piadina and more at the hands of local artisans who do it the way it's been done for generation upon generation. Tickets are on sale now!


Warning: This post is not for veg*ns or those squeamish about seeing meat in its original, un-shrink-wrapped form. Graphic pictures of pig butchery ahead. If this is upsetting to you, here's some vegan stuff instead.

By day four, we had made preserves, experienced formaggio di fossa, Parmigiano-Reggiano, prosciutto and balsamico, and had spent an entire day swimming in fish. But today, today was the big payoff, the very anchor upon which the entire trip was predicated. Today, we met the pig -- after the pig met its maker. 

After our customary breakfast (the spread at the Hotel Sirena is quite lovely indeed, with both Italian, i.e., sweet pastries, and German, i.e., meats/cheeses/bread, options.) we shuttled over to the Villa delle Rose, the DellaPasqua's catering facility and event venue. As we stepped into the catering kitchen, we were greeted by a smiling face. Sort of. 

Smile for the camera

We met our norcino and his assistant. We got a brief synopsis of how the hog would be broken down, and what its component pieces would be used for. For the stuffed salumi, the prime pieces of meat, the leanest, pinkest bits with no sinew or fat, like loin and tenderloin, would be used for salame; meat with more marbling would be used for salsiccia, and the skin and other sinewy bits would become cotechino. The belly, of course, would be used for pancetta, and the jowls for guanciale (delicious, delicious guanciale). The head would be boiled down for head cheese. And then there's the fat. There's quite a lot of fat on a pig. Some of it would be cut into a dice for the salame; that's what gives it those lip-coating fatty bits. But the rest would be rendered down for strutto, or lard (not to be confused with lardo, which is a cured fat.) The byproduct of rendering strutto is ciccioli, cracklings from the fat cells. 

Enough talk. It was time to get to work. 

The norcino at work

The norcini did all the butchery, breaking the pig down into primals, and then into increasingly fine cuts as needed. I watched in awe at their deftness with the knives, the delicacy of their work. After the major segments were broken down, the assistant norcino got to work trimming fat from the skin, at first with broad cuts to cut away the bulk of it, then working ever more precisely. Ultimately, he was gliding his knife along the backside of the skin, shaving away every bit of fat until you could actually see the cell structure of the skin. 

Cleaning fat from the skin

The liver was cut into 1/2" slices, butterflied, seasoned with salt and pepper, and wrapped in caul fat with fresh bay leaves. Known as fegatelli, these would be grilled for dinner. 

Making fegatelli

Did I mention there was a lot of fat? 

Fat for ciccioli

That's about half of the total amount from just this one half of the pig. This had to be cut down into renderable chunks, and so we were at last put to work, cutting fat. And cutting fat. And cutting fat. 

Cutting fat for ciccioli

We paused for a lunch break -- braciole, thin pork chops, cooked fast and hot on the grill, served with plain bread to sop up the natural meat juices, with a glass of the neighbor's homemade wine. Winning.

Once the fat was all cut down, it was time to make the lard and ciccioli. Fat for ciccioli

The fat is rendered in a large cauldron with about a gallon of water. When it is completely rendered out and the ciccioli are cooked, it is run through a press with a spigot. 

Ciccioli press

The rendered lard runs out the spigot, and the press is screwed down to squeeze out all the fat from the cracklings. But the rendering process takes at least three hours. 

Meanwhile, the norcini had laid out the butchered meat into three piles -- again, the prime, lean bits for salame, the marbled bits for salsiccia, and skin and other more gnarly bits for cotechino. Time to grind. But first, you've got to cut it all down to size. 

Slicing meat for the grinder

And then you grind. 

Grinding cotechino

And grind. You start with the choice meat for the salame, using the fine die. 

Grinding cotechino

The reserved fat gets cut down into 1/4" cubes (lardelli) for the salame.

Dicing fat for salame

The norcino laid out half the lean meat in a 1" round and topped it with the lardelli, about 1.5-2 kilos of fat for the 50 kilos of meat we had. 

Adding fat to the salame

More meat was layered on top, up to a 2" thick disc total, and it was liberally salted, about 26 grams of salt per kilo of meat. Just sea salt -- no nitrates here! 

Seasoning the salame

Seasoned with black pepper and oregano. And a bottle of red wine for good measure. 

Adding wine to the salame

And it's time to mix. Knead the meat mixture like a cat making its bed until everything is integrated.

Kneading the salame

And then it's off to the stuffer. We're talking old school, yo. 

Stuffing the salame

The norcino sheathed the casing over the stuffer's nozzle, giving the assistant a terse, "ok" to start cranking and a "bop!" to stop. He then tied off links, which got pricked with a fork to allow them to cure. 

Salame

And then they were hung. Got a burst in the casing? Not to worry -- you can patch that up with a little extra casing. 

Salame, hanging

Meanwhile the ciccioli were still boiling away out back. 

Boiling the ciccioli

The salsiccia and then the cotechino were stuffed and hung. Like the salame, the salsiccia got one grind with the fine die. The cotechino, being tougher material, got a first grind with a coarse die, then a second with the fine die. 

The norcino showed off a fancy-pants way to tie the salsiccia. He made it look easy. It isn't. 

Tying salsiccia

At last, it was time to drain the ciccioli. The assistant norcino ladled potfuls of the rendered lard into the press. Several large stockpots of lard were drained off. 

Draining the Ciccioli

At the end, they screwed down the press to squeeze out all the remaining fat from the cracklings. 

Draining the Ciccioli

From about 80 pounds of pork lard, we got maybe a pound or two of ciccioli. 

Ciccioli

Freshly pressed, still warm and tossed with some bay leaf, salt and just a light squeeze of lemon, these are a real treat. Crisp, chewy and intensely porky. 

Ciccioli

Meanwhile, the head had been boiling away along with the hip bones and thicker pieces of skin. The norcino picked it for head cheese. 

Norcino making head cheese

Which is packed in a large casing and left to cool for the gelatin to set (while Vanessa mugs for the camera). 

Say (head) cheese!

Finally, the pork belly and jowls were salted to begin the cure to become pancetta and guanciale, respectively. They'd remain salted in the fridge for 48 hours, then get rinsed, dried and hung to cure for about six months. 

Pancetta and guanciale

One of the things that really impressed me, other than the sheer scope of work involved in this process, is how thoroughly and efficiently the pig was used. Every scrap of meat, fat and skin got converted into something. This pig did not die in vain. 

When everything was complete, we finally settled in for some dinner, and you'll never guess what we had. Yes, we actually ate some of the salame, sausage and cotechino, cooked fresh like sausage, plus the fegatelli. 

During the meal, the norcino said that fewer and fewer young people are getting into butchery. There's a risk that there will be no one to carry on the traditional methods. Consequently, they were looking for someone to stage with them. 

Flash back three months. I was at East Bay Mini Maker Faire, where I had done a brief canning demo in a wooded glen. My friend Susie was there holding court as The Typewriter Gypsy. Swathed in colorful scarves, she sat at a vintage typewriter and typed out fortunes for anyone who sat before her. I sat, we chatted a bit, while she methodically pecked at her keyboard. After a moment, she handed me this: 

My fortune

We had sold the final ticket for the tour that morning. Susie did not know this. Was the Typewriter Gypsy an apt prognosticator? Should I go stage traditional butchery in Italy? 

See the other posts from the trip to Italy, January 2012 .

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