The Whole Hog
Winter in Tuscany is traditionally pig-butchering season, as nature provides the refrigeration that farmers have needed for centuries for this all-encompassing, family-involved activity. I’ve been waiting since the summer to be invited to Fattoria Poggio Alloro, a beautiful farm near San Gimignano, for a lesson in a centuries old tradition: making salumi – cured meats.
I was already familiar with their delectable sausages and prosciutto and love the fact that they are a fully organic and self-sufficient family run farm. Their pork production is actually only a fraction of their activity; they also produce wine (five reds and three whites), a grassy green extra virgin olive oil, cereal crops such as farro and wheat, saffron, plus they also have Chianina cattle (prized for their exquisite meat, known for the best Florentine steak). Oh and a few hens and pigs.
We finally arrived just after midday. The pigs had already been butchered and cut up into various parts for various uses (the Tuscans are very good at not wasting a single bit of the animal); even the sausages and the prosciutto were already done.
We were welcomed by the lovely Sarah, daughter of the owners of the farm, and her cousin Renzo who was quick to sort us out with a glass of their Vernaccia (a traditional white wine from San Gimignano) and fresh sausage made that morning, spread onto bread and grilled right on the fireplace. It was a glorious winter day indeed. After our little spuntino we met the rest of the team: Amico, farm owner and salumi-maker extraordinaire, wife Rosa, and their various friends and relatives who continued to flow through the kitchen throughout the day, chopping, slicing, grinding and offering glasses of wine or little cups of espresso.
We started off with the salame toscano – pork mince with cubes of fat, seasoned and piped into animal guts – but the highlight of the day was definitely making the finocchiona. This traditional, soft, wide Tuscan salame gets its name from the obligatory use of fennel, or finocchio – the flowers or seeds are used to flavour the meat along with plenty of salt, pepper and garlic macerated in red wine. Both the lean meat and fat of pork cheek or shoulder is minced, seasoned and then worked by hand. There really is something about getting your hands dirty and squishing the meat between your fingers that is so satisfying. Amico assures us that it is also much tastier when it’s done by hand.
Mixing by hand means that while working it, the warmth of your hands helps to blend the melting fat together with the lean meat and it must be worked until the mixture becomes sticky and elastic. They used to say that the entire mixture is ready when it begins to warm to the temperature of your hands. This then gets piped into veal casings before being well tied, netted and hung to dry. They are then left to mature “until fava beans are in season,” Amico’s wife Rosa tells me. In other words, May. We tie our finocchiona with a ribbon to distinguish it from the others – Christmas presents that we have to wait another 6 months to open!
The day’s work is finished off with the best part of the whole activity – a feast. Steaks of cinta senese lined with inches of fat are thrown onto coals, pork liver is roasted, fresh sausage is turned into a gorgeous sauce with leek and cream to dress fusilli pasta, and everything is accompanied by their own wine, but it all begins with paper thin slices of last season’s finocchiona, salame toscano, buristo and prosciutto – a taste of what’s to come.