Umbria and Pork

by Annie

Umbria’s cuisine continues to reflect the poor hunting and farming culture that dominated this region for millenia with its heavy use of game and–the uncontested monarch–pork. The pig was, and remains, the foundation upon which the lion’s share of Umbrian dishes rest for a number of reason. Pigs once had a symbiotic relationship with the land, as each fall they were herded under oak trees bordering farm fields to consume the fallen acorns and—ahem—fertilize the fields along the way. Pigs are a smaller, less dangerous animal than cattle and their care and feeding were often the responsibility of the family’s children. And, most importantly, pigs can be consumed down to the last centimeter. Nothing was wasted when a pig was butchered, and during a time when a family of twenty had to stretch out a single pig to cover a year (something often done), this could make a big difference.

Most country families in Umbria still butcher a pig each year (though now the meat is consumed by about four people, and much less of it is cured in favor of freezing), and many urban families reserve a pig in the spring at a local farm, which raises it for their clients until the following winter. The ingrained frugality continues, and the pig is still consumed from snout to tail (head cheese helps clear up the scraps, as does blood pudding (a blood, sugar, raisin, pinenut baked concoction that my husband’s 105 year old grandmother still makes), heavy use of lard in cooking, and generosity with the dogs.

Once a year, the extended family gets together (with various neighbors, friends, and passers-by who catch a whiff of fresh sausages frying) for what amounts to more of a party than a chore. In Umbria, the heavy work of sectioning the meat, grinding mixes for sausage and salame, and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’s not true in all of Italy, and the women spend the day bustling back and forth from the kitchen with pots of boiling water, spices, and lots of unsolicited advice.

There is laughter, light-hearted ribbing, and hours and hours of story-telling. Long dead family and friends are brought up as if they had just departed yesterday, and children are handed knives and taught how to correctly cut ribs (usually by four different people with four conflicting methods), make head cheese, and, in a subtle way, internalize the cycle of life-death-life. The day culminates in a sausage roast come dinner time, when the numbers swell and often an organetto (an accordion-like instrument) appears from nowhere to wheeze out traditional tunes.

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