Eating the Belted Pigs of Siena

Beautiful, Tasty Fat

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By David Hammond

A hundred years or so ago, lots of different kinds of hogs were raised and eaten.

With the advent large-scale corporate farms, some types of hogs were deemed fit and proper for mass production and marketing. Other types of hogs were deemed unfit and improper for mass production and marketing.

In a kind of market-driven Darwinism, the less marketable hogs were selected out of the equation.

In Italy, as in the United States, it was frequently hogs that were judged too "fat" that were selected as ones unworthy of continued cultivation.

In our freezer over the past few years, we've had two Mulefoot hogs, a breed once considered too fatty to be desirable. Now, Mulefoot and other largely ignored breeds are becoming cherished for their excellent flavor which is due, at least in part, to their fat content. Small hog farmers across the United States are now bringing back lesser known breeds of pig who, until recently, may have been considered not quite right for the American market.

In Italy, the Cinta Senese breed was, like the U.S. Mulefoot, in danger of extinction…until a few producers took it upon themselves to rescue this breed and feed their delicious meat to the world.

Outside Siena is Spannochia, a farm that, among other things, raises Cinta Senese pigs, so called because they have a white "belt" (in Italian, cintura) around their mid-section, and they come from around Siena (thus Senese).

After we visited with the Cinta Senese pigs, who seem to be enjoying life high in the hills outside Siena, we went to the main house to eat some products made from these pigs.

Our guide presented me with a platter of larder, rigatino, prosciutto, capocollo, salame and sopressata.

Of these, I was most impressed by the lardo, flavored with rosemary, juniper and bay, and the sopresatta, made with traditional baking spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, anise, etc.), very tender and delicious. What makes these pigs and their products so tasty, of course, is their beautiful and tasty fat. None of these pork products we enjoyed could be mistaken for low-calorie snacks – they were all glistening with delicious fat. So we didn't eat a lot of them, just a few bites – and we enjoyed every bite.

After our tour of Spannochia, we went back to Montestigliano, where we were staying. A few days before, I'd walked along the Cypress walkways of this centuries-old farm, late at night, listening carefully for cinghiale, the wild boar that seems more of a nuisance to local farmers than a food stuff.

I saw a stuffed cinghiale from La Specola, one of Florence's most odd and disturbing museums. You probably don't want to be alone and in the woods when you run into one of these tusked beasts, unless you're armed, but they roam quite freely in the Tuscan hills. Male cinghale sometimes mate with Cinta Senese, but Cinta Senese males seem to never mate with cinghale. The cinghale, as you might suspect, are wild and fierce, and they're free to have their way with the more docile and domesticated Cinta Senese.

My understanding is that there are so many of these boar in the area that people frequently don't eat many of the ones they kill. Perhaps it's just a matter of time before the culinary possibilities of cinghiale are fully explored and appreciated, and their meat becomes as valued as other breeds that were also once considered less desirable.

 

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