The Importance of the Pig in Southern Italy

U porcu (not the one that got slaughtered)

U porcu (not the one that got slaughtered)

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the pig in southern Italy.

We have an excellent abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and we do eat a lot of them, but “u porcu” is definitely King. In fact, many Calabrian families still raise at least one pig a year, and from that animal comes all the salumi, including supressata and salsiccia, for the year.

As I recently learned, the really large pigs are used more for these insaccati (literally meat in sacks/casings), and smaller pigs are slaughtered for the “ordinary” pork that you’d use in a ragù or for porkchops and the like.

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Meat ready for casings

Meat ready for casings

There is a true ceremony regarding the pig from the daily feeding and cleaning (you do have to keep up with the cleaning because they are absolutely the stinkiest creatures I’ve ever been around) to the slaughter and packaging of the meat, which is often a two-day family affair held up in the campagna, or countryside.

There is plenty of work to be done, of course, but it’s accomplished through teamwork (everyone has a specific job), joking, stories of times past, gossip, laughter, wine, and, of course, plenty to eat. And nothing — I mean *nothing* — is wasted.

Whatever isn’t cut up or ground into sausage meat is boiled and eaten as a dish that people here go absolutely crazy for — “frittole.” I’m personally not a fan, but there’s no denying that the pig doesn’t die in vain; there is the utmost respect for each and every part of him. The rough economic times especially after World War II are still fresh in many minds here, so there’s not a whole lot of waste in general.

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Work station for frittole.

Work station for frittole.

For frittole, parts such as ears and feet are chopped if necessary, skin is shaved free of hair with disposable razors, and all gets thrown into an enormous pot to boil. Serve with a squeeze of lemon and salad, and you have a Calabrian feast.

Bits of fat and meat are also added to gelatin, vinegar, and hot pepper to make suzzu, which is eaten cold on bread.

In times past, even the blood of the pig was collected to make sanguinaccio, a dessert made with pig’s blood, cinnamon, orange zest, and vino cotto. While some people still make this, it does seem this tradition is fading a bit.

As for me? I prefer the liver sauteed with onions in white wine. And yes, I now feel a little like Hannibal Lector having written that, but it’s *so* tasty.

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Several months ago, P and I and another couple bought two enormous pigs together; this way, we split the feed and chores, and each get couple gets half of each pig. We’ll sell one half and use the other half for our own use.

Our big boys haven’t gone to slaughter yet, but they will soon. I haven’t decided yet whether I’ll attend. I’ve heard pigs being slaughtered from a distance, and I’m not sure it’s something I really need to see up close, but we’ll see.

*

This past weekend, P helped another friend with a pig slaughter and then we all ate up in their campagna after they had packaged all the insaccati for the year. Most of their family was there, men and women working together on the project; they found it rather funny when I told them that in America, the men are usually the ones who make the insaccati.

“Here the women do everything while the men smoke and drink,” replied one of the woman. Ahem.

Making supressata

Making supressata

Back home, the men in my family were definitely in charge of making “soupie” as we call them in the Coal Region, but this year, P and I will be learning the ropes from his aunt as we work with the products from our very first pig together.

And in Calabria, this is right up there with a wedding or birth of a child as one of the biggest milestones you can have in a relationship.

*That* is how important the pig is in southern Italy.

Hooks used during slaughter.

Hooks used during slaughter.

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31 Beans of Wisdom to “The Importance of the Pig in Southern Italy”
  1. 01.18.2011

    Very informative….and a little gruesome….especially the hooks! I have learned (the hard way)not to get too attached to the local pigs…

    Indeed — it’s not advisable to get attached to many farm animals around here ;)

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  2. 01.18.2011

    What a coincidence! I just blogged about making pancetta and how, in Abruzzo, my family used to raise and slaughter the pig for home consumption. My father was “il macellaio”. I can still smell and taste the frying “guanciale”. Today, we do not kill a pig but we still make pancetta and home-made sausages.

    Oh how lucky to have a butcher in the family! Thanks for sharing Elisa :)

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  3. Wow, talk about knowing where your food comes from. I’m not surprised there’s less waste. I think people have more respect for what they eat when they farm/support farmers.

    It’s definitely changed my way of thinking about food, freshness, quality, etc.

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  4. Good post. The pig is truly king in Italy and especially in the southern Provinces. Just outside of Pellegrina / Bagnara Calabra, my grandfather ran a small farm where the pigs were treated like royalty compared to the other animals on the farm (especially the oxen and dogs that mostly acted as laborers!). Here’s a little post I did recently:

    Cured pork perfection

    Best,
    Vince

    Thanks for coming by, Vince. Yes, I think something that gets lost in the debate about killing animals for food, especially when it’s for your family, is that you don’t actually want meat that is “stressed” or treated horribly…they say you can taste it. So pigs and other animals are usually treated quite well when they’re raised by people who actually care about the end product.

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  5. 01.18.2011

    Most parts of pigs are eaten here in the south of France, too. I’ll even eat the gelatinous paté they make out of the meat on the head and nose. It tastes good if you can get over the look of it.

    I’ve tried their gelatinous thing here; I’m not a fan, but you’re welcome to come down and try it here as well :)

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  6. 01.18.2011

    I was doing ok until I saw the hooks. I don’t know that I’d want to see a slaughter up close, either. As you mentioned, the sounds from afar, alone, are enough to make me cringe.

    This piece is very informative; thanks for the insight into my own heritage! :-)

    Glad you enjoyed; I did want to post something that showed a little more of the reality of the situation without being gruesome, so I hope I accomplished that.

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  7. 01.18.2011

    great post…very interesting

    Thanks FH!

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  8. 01.18.2011

    This is why I could never be a true Italian. Aside from the vegetarianism, totally-grossed-out-by-anything-bloody bit, I could never eat something that I had loved and fed. The part that makes me happy, though, is that if you’re going to eat meat, this is the way it should be done . . . so that the animals are appreciated for the sacrifice they make to our human stomachs. I like this so much better than “hunting for game.” Great post Michelle.

    Well, I think in putting “love and fed” together, right there that is just a different mentality than what happens here. People who raise animals for food (not just Italians but all over the world) don’t tend to fall “in love” with their animals, although they treat them extremely well and respect them for their roles in this life. I couldn’t kill anything I loved either, which is why my goats will never be dinner — and believe me, some Italians around here think I’m crazy for that, but we all do what we can live with, you know? Thanks for reading and commenting :)

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  9. 01.19.2011

    Excellent post, telling it just like it is. I’ve always appreciated how the Italians have tremendous respect for the food they prepare and eat, and the understanding that animals give their “all” and should not be wasted.

    I’ve never had it, but I’ll have to try the “frittole” some day, perhaps with a young glass of Librandi Cirò Rosso!

    Ciao.
    Michael

    Sounds good, Michael! There was lots of red wine flowing alongside the frittole :)

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  10. MikeS29
    01.19.2011

    Another great posy, Michelle. My cousins (who live in the province of Frosinone, in Lazio) also raise one pig per year. I got to meet him, but wasn’t there for his demise. But his predecessor was tasty, as they had all manor of salumi in their cellar for me to sample.

    This is where meat comes from. If more people were involved in the production of the meat they consume, I think we would eat a lot less of it and appreciate quality over quantity.

    I look forward to retirement in Italy and participating in all aspects of real food. It is difficult when you realize that the animal is being sacrificed, in essence, but then you realize that it is not a commodity. It is a living thing that nourishes other living things.

    But I do feel that game hunting is better than factory farming, and responsible farming better still.

    Yes, I agree that game hunting does have its place as well; aside from providing food, it also helps control certain populations. I’m all for protecting certain species, though, too!

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  11. MikeS29
    01.19.2011

    That’s “post” not “posy”! D’OH!

    Noted!

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  12. Linda
    01.19.2011

    Michelle, you nearly turn this pork lover into a vegetarian. I’ve only come into contact with pigs as pork – not processed, but not alive, either. If I actually had to kill what I butchered and ate…well, I don’t think I could do it, particularly if I had raised the animal. Those hooks and your vivid descriptions actually made my mouth go dry – quite the opposite of what happens when I’m happily grinding sausage.
    Yeah, now I *do* feel a bit like Hannibal Lector! Great post.

    I do think it’s important to know and appreciate where meat comes from if you’re eating it. I’m still with you in that I think if I had to butcher it myself, I don’t know if I could (and I’m not ready to go *there* just yet). Glad you enjoyed :)

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  13. Gil
    01.19.2011

    “Soupie” , that’s a familiar word around these parts too. There are a lot of Calabrians in Westerly, RI and they all make it. There are so many that there is still a Calabrian club. One of the local Fish & Game wardens used to make a great soupie out of venison. Did they dip the pig in a tank of boiling water to help loosen up the bristles? Might be time for a ride to Westerly, RI for me!

    Gil, I wasn’t there for this pig slaughter, but the best of my knowledge, they tend to pour boiling water over the pig in sections and “shave” the bristles with a knife as they go. I don’t know that anyone has vats/tanks big enough for these boys!

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  14. 01.19.2011

    Years ago in Seattle I presented a panel on ” Saints Preserve Us” discussing the artisan traditions in Italy and France of using the whole hog. We had Fergus Henderson on the panel from St John in London, author or “Nose to Tail Cooking”.
    It has been fabulous to trace the passion for learning of young chefs for Charcuterie.
    Right now on Twitter, there is #charcutepalooza which will be a year of preserving meat from Ruhlmans book on the subject. But I am using the wisdom of m neighbors for the recipes when I can- do your neighbors use nitrites or nitrates? me. no!

    No nitrates here; I thought that was one of the huge benefits of making your own!

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  15. 01.19.2011

    hope others will follow along on the Charcutepalooza and waste less! learn how to use all the the animal-

    Yes, definitely good to have less waste; I think, though, that those who slaughter already appreciate using all the pig (or whatever the animal) and those who don’t slaughter aren’t really going to go to stores and look for ears and such to use it up…still an interesting project to be sure :)

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  16. I’ve been working on a post about the importance of pork in Italy too. My husband always tells stories about when he was a kid and watching all the work being done when a pig was slaughtered – now that we live in the *big city* we don’t have that experience anymore. He used to love sanguinaccio when he was a kid (until he saw it being made, then he never ate it again) and he even remembers people using the hair shaved from the skin for brushes. Almost all of our friends and relatives in Abruzzo buy a pig or half a pig every year. I would love to do that, but storage is an issue for us.
    Looking forward to hearing about yours!

    Joanne, the little brush I use to sweep my computer keyboard was made by P with cinghiale hair :) We need a bigger freezer too….

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  17. 01.19.2011

    The pig is also of extreme importance here in Abruzzo. In fact, I just blogged about making sausage too although we only bought enough meat to make the sausage. Neither O nor I could actually slaughter the pig so if we raised one we would have to hire someone to do it. He said there are people who will come and do it for you for a fee. (I wonder if they wear black hoods?) As for being squeamish…. I could deal with butchering it once the deed was done, but I couldn’t do the deed myself. Oh, and I’ll pass on the boiled pig parts too.

    I think we’re on the same page, Mary; I don’t really have a problem handling the meat afterward, but the actual slaughter? I don’ think so.

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  18. ““Here the women do everything while the men smoke and drink,” replied one of the woman. Ahem.”

    Glowers at the Sock Dropper and mutters about how be better NOT dare to get any worse once we have moved down south.

    I’ve set my heart on geese rather than pigs, but I just don’t know if I am tough enough to be around for the killing bit. I’ll cry, i know I will.

    Best of luck, Sarah. I haven’t even been around for the killing of a chicken yet.

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  19. 01.19.2011

    Great post, Michelle! Having been involved in multiple sheep slaughters, chicken slaughters and butchering, I am not an expert in these areas, but have had a share of experience. I believe it is vitally important to know where your food comes from, and raising your own certainly changes things a bit – for the better! A slaughter is never easy, and I don’t think it should be. But it is a way to respect and be there for that animal through all the stages of its life.

    Thanks Jenn, and I agree — it shouldn’t be too easy.

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  20. Caterina B
    01.19.2011

    Yes, my hubby kills our pigs, skins them, and then his piggy partner (coworker) takes the carcasses to be processed. We give the heads, and hides to a Mexican friend. She is always very delighted to get them. She makes head tamales and chicharonnes. Hubby said last time that he wants to learn how to do all of it now and not send it away. Isn’t pork marvelous?

    The pig is definitely an impressive animal; best of luck with your piggies!

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  21. Scicchi
    01.20.2011

    Great post Michelle! Just awesome!

    Good luck with your pigs as well. Please take good mental notes when you and P do your “soupie” ;) I was always quite curious as to how close the way we make ours is to the way they are still made in Calabria.

    Well I can tell you they sure taste pretty close — and you can definitely tell the difference between the ones that are homemade and the ones bought in a store (homemade taste just like soupie in the Coal Region) :)

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  22. 01.21.2011

    You’re brave Michelle, i can’t stand seeing blood. But blood pudding is yummy, with dry pancake and some ground peanuts.

    Haha and I think you’re brave for eating blood pudding! I don’t mind so much after the death has happened as it’s just like handling any kind of raw meat at that point, but the actual killing…I don’t know if I’m up to that….

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  23. 01.21.2011

    Michelle, this was so beautiful to read. Yes, I mean beautiful. I secretly dream of being a butcher. Shh…not many know but this post was so amazing. I can’t imagine the whole family being involved in the making of their meat here in the States but it would be glorious to know the life of your animal and then use it ALL because waste would be an insult.

    I’m glad you enjoyed Lauren; I agree with you that there is something rather beautiful about the process, particularly since the whole family gets involved. Thanks for coming by!

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  24. 01.21.2011

    What an interesting post! I know my Calabrian cousins have spoken about the feast of everything “piggy” boiled up in a pot. I’m not sure I share their enthusiasim!

    Haha I hear you! It’s definitely not my favorite part of the pig ;)

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  25. 01.23.2011

    Totally EWW, but totally great post. I like pork, but not really any of the icky bits, ears, feet, organs, etc. The post was super informative and I like the photos.

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  26. 01.25.2011

    Love this post. Finally the pig gets some respect.

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  27. John
    01.26.2011

    This is a great article. My family here in Colorado came from Lago, near Cosensa. My cousins at Scanga Meat Company in Salida make the most wonderful Supprasata. On their USDA packaging they spell it the same way you do. They say that they studied the spelling and think it comes from the word, and Italian cognate, that means “suppressed,” because originally it was put under pressure. Other companies here in the U.S. use the word Sopprasata. If there is anyone out there who knows about italian etymology I would love more information.
    Thanks!

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  28. 02.01.2011

    What a fabulous piece! I am, as ever, filled with longing and a strong desire to make my life a bit more like yours. Though I’m not sure I could go to the slaughter. That homemade sopressata has to be unbelievable.

    I’m looking forward to trying it! They are now hanging at P’s aunt’s house :)

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  29. Julie
    01.27.2013

    Reading this post transported me back to my childhood growing up in southern Australia, where every winter we undertook the same process you so beautifully described. To this day many first generation Australians of calabrian decent are continuing to preserve this fine calabrese tradition. For us it all started on a friday afternoon with the slaughter, culminating with sunday lunch in the ‘baracca’ for up to 20 family & friends. As you wrote nothing was wasted – soap was even made out of the fat as was lard to use daily in cooking for the next year. Good luck with your own salami making endeavours.

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  30. 01.28.2013

    Brava to you for posting this and for participating in this time-honored tradition. It brought to mind the scene in the movie “Alberi degli zoccoli” when the pig is butchered. I’ve never witnessed this butchering myself and I might be squeamish, but someone is obviously doing it and we meat eaters have to face facts about how it all happens. Hopefully, these pigs led a healthier life than those in the stockyards here in the states, leading to a healthier product for you and the people who eat this pork. Next time I’m in Southern Italy, I hope I can taste some of that soppressata you make.

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  1. [...] and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’... brigolante.com/en/2011/01/the-vegetarians-dilemma-umbria-and-pork

Add your two beans of wisdom.


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