Blood & Chocolate
My old boss in Florence once recounted to me, full of nostalgia, that when he was a child, his small hometown near Foggia, Puglia, would hold a pig festival. Essentially it was an age-old tradition where the town pigs would be butchered and celebrated by using the whole beast, right down to the very last drop of blood. The fresh, warm blood would be collected and then, on the spot, mixed with milk and chocolate and cooked into a dark, decadent, custard-like pudding – it was the highlight of the festival.
This specialty has intrigued me ever since and as I looked further around I discovered more blood-based desserts and more of that nostalgia over the memory of these rich and traditional dishes.
Throughout southern Italy, particularly Basilicata, Calabria, Abruzzo and Campania, the tradition of blood and chocolate can be found. There’s even a version from southern Tuscany’s Porto Santo Stefano where a sweet “sausage” is made from pig’s blood, almonds, walnuts, raisins, orange rind, bread, sugar and pig fat, stuffed into pig’s casings and cooked in boiling water. Campania’s Naples is famous for its Carnevale delicacy, sanguinaccio dolce (sanguinaccio is also the common name for blood sausage, sangue, the Italian word for “blood,” indicating its main ingredient. The word dolce confirms that this is a sweet version), traditionally eaten with savoiardi biscuits for dunking.
A few years ago I bought a cookbook of traditional Neapolitan desserts, which includes four different versions of sanguinaccio dolce. It is often made into a dense, chocolate log (rather than a pudding) with candied citron, pine nuts and spices like cinnamon. But I have never had the opportunity to try any of the recipes until now – in Italy, a 1992 law banned the sale of pig’s blood in many regions, so the lucky people who can still make these ancient recipes usually have to get it themselves, from their own pig. More often than not these days, the recipe is carried on blood-free, with butter and cornstarch attempting to re-create the creamy texture that the blood would give.
Luckily, here in Melbourne we were able to source some fresh pig’s blood from an Italian butcher, one of my favourite butcher shops in the ‘little Italy’ of the city. It was our third attempt at asking for pig’s blood at a butcher – the previous attempts had been unsuccessful, the answer being a slightly wishy-washy, “it’s difficult to get”. But then came the answer, “Sure, how much do you want?”
Pig’s blood must be used when it is as fresh as possible, with traditional recipes calling for “warm” pig’s blood, indicating just how fresh it should be (and where it is likely to come from – home).
While we were waiting for our two litres of blood to be measured out, the butcher – a Sardinian native – asked us what we were doing with it. “Un dolce” – a dessert – was our reply. He nodded knowingly and recounted that his grandmother used to make a sweet, deep-fried fritter made of pig’s blood, walnuts and honey. There was that nostalgia again.
I jumped on the back of the scooter with the glowing red bag of pig’s blood awkwardly but carefully held out to one side, while my husband drove. I thought to myself that we would probably look almost normal if it was Naples, but we were actually weaving through Melbourne traffic – a memorable food moment if there was one.
This creamy, rich dessert has a salty, slightly metallic tang to it from the pig’s blood, which brings out the flavour of the cocoa – highly recommend to anyone who likes this sort of salty-sweet combination (think salted caramel or dark or white chocolate with sea salt). I should note that I added a considerable amount of chocolate to the traditional recipe, and used a dark chocolate of 72% cocoa. The amount of sugar seems very high, but you will need it to balance the saltiness of the blood. Cinnamon and grated orange rind add some traditional (but optional) aromas to this delicacy.
- 1 litre of fresh milk
- 1 litre of fresh pig’s blood
- 500 grams of dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
- 500 grams of sugar
- Cinnamon, optional
- Grated rind of 1 orange, optional
In a large pot, heat the milk and the blood together over a low heat. When it is warm, add the sugar and stir to dissolve, then the dark chocolate, broken into pieces. The mixture shouldn’t boil but heat and cook steadily, while you stir constantly. As the chocolate melts and the blood cooks, the mixture will begin to get thick and heavy like a custard. Add the cinnamon and orange (if using), take off the heat and serve warm in cups with savoiardi biscuits.
This mixture does very well transformed into a gelato (when cool, simply put it in the gelato maker), which we did with great success – stay tuned for more on this dish in April, where it will be featured on Food52!