La Tegamata: Celebration of a family ritual
I recently had my first experience eating Tegamata, a dish which is the ultimate celebration of an old fashioned family ritual: slaughtering a pig. And not just any pig, but a pig that has been cared for and raised by the family and whose death is now going to be honoured by the simple fact that not one single scrap of this animal will go to waste. Especially when we’re talking about the animal I have in front of me today – a cinta senese.
The only ancient native Tuscan pig that still exists today, cinta senese pigs were on the brink of extinction themselves in the 1980s until farmers began raising them again – perhaps with a little help from the fact that the incomparably tasty products that come from a cinta senese were “rediscovered” by pork gourmands. The Slowfood association estimates about 200 sows in 80 herds are still around today.
Their name indicates that they are specifically native to the area of Siena, and in fact if you’re ever in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, you can get the idea that even in Lorenzetti’s fresco of 1339 depicting the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, a man walking his cinta senese would have been a pretty normal thing. They are distinctly marked with a wide white band against their black hair.
I’m at my friend’s organic farm near San Gimignano for her family’s ritual pig slaughter. Everything is used: the head, the feet, the bones – scraped of every single gram of meat and fat possible – and the fat – oh the fat! This cinta senese pig has a layer of fat about 4 fingers thick, perfect for making lardo (more on that soon). Its meat is darker, redder, succulent and tasty: an absolute treat for pork lovers.
It gets broken down into prosciutto legs (the trotters left on, a tradition that distinguishes cinta senese legs from regular prosciutto), spalla or the shoulder, which gets deboned and set aside for tomorrow’s sausages, the head, the ribs, pancetta, fillet and capocollo (the neck).
The whole family and a handful of friends are in the kitchen, working away. Several people are cutting the strips of fat into cubes for salami. Someone is grating orange peel to flavour the blood sausage. Someone is macerating garlic in red wine vinegar to marinate the prosciutto legs, which are soon to be salted. It’s a full day’s work and the reward is the tegamata.
The head gets pulled out of the fridge room and the tastiest bits – the gota, or the cheeks, spotted with glands (sweetbreads), are chopped roughly into chunks.
Traditionally, tegamata is cooked in a terracotta pot over a fireplace. The pork cheek is cooked slowly in its own fat with rosemary and sage for hours. It’s a recipe that the farm’s friend and cook, Donna, a native of the Southern Italian city Benevento, remembers as a little girl but hasn’t made in over 30 years. When the pork has melted down into its own stew, Donna adds her final touch – a homage to her hometown in Campania – her own red peppers from the garden, pickled in red wine vinegar.
As she’s cooking, Donna recounts to me that traditionally this is the dish that concluded the hard work involved in slaughtering a pig. When the tegamata – named after the large terracotta pot it’s cooked in – had finished cooking on the fireplace for hours, everyone would come up one by one to get a ladle full of the hearty stew, which was eaten with plenty of bread and wine and followed by even more wine and dancing – “it was a festa!” Her eyes glow with nostalgia.
Siena has their own version of the tegamata, which differs only in that it involves a the addition of the favourite Tuscan flavour of fennel seeds, a glass of local red wine, and tomatoes instead of red peppers.
Finally the tegamata arrives at our table, terracotta pot and all, still bubbling away furiously. Portions are ladled out into small terracotta bowls, finished off with a fresh bay leaf and passed around the table. The meat is so tender it falls away; the peppers have melted down to add a beautiful sweet-sourness to the rich and tasty stew. It’s earthiness is just the right thing after a day’s work in the kitchen in winter. Another round of the family’s wine is passed around. The fire is roaring. Cheeks are glowing and the chatter is raising to a lively hum; it’s the atmosphere of a celebration.