This week I was very lucky and privileged to spend two days in Spannocchia’s “transformation room,” where all the salumi and other meat products are made. I say lucky because butchering only takes place in the winter and spring in keeping with tradition, and the room is not climate-controlled and relies on nature’s air conditioning to maintain a safe temperature for processing carcasses.
The pigs raised here are Cinta Senese, an heirloom breed local to the Siena region. They are easily identified— black with a broad white stripe across their shoulders and down their front legs. Because the Cinta are an heirloom variety, they do not pack on weight quickly like many modern breeds, and are generally slaughtered at anywhere from 10 to 16 months of age (as opposed to the pigs commonly raised en masse in America who are slaughtered at little more than five months). The selected pigs are sent to a nearby slaughterhouse four at a time, for a total of twenty to thirty in a year, and the butchering of each group takes place every two weeks. As a testament to the intimate and local nature of the process, the pigs are transported on a Sunday and returned in halves the next morning, still warm.
From those halves come all the cuts of meat and various ingredients used to make the many types of salumi and pork products for which Spannocchia is known. After the meat has been prepared, the products, which require curing, are hung to dry a small, cool, humidity-controlled room. Prosciutto, which takes about as long to cure as it does to raise a Cinta to butchering age, has its own tightly climate-controlled room. It’s quite a production and requires an impressive amount of knowledge, finesse and patience to produce such high-quality meats.
On Monday as I did various chores around the farm, I walked by the transformation room and could see the halved carcasses hanging. By Tuesday morning when I showed up to work, the only pieces left intact were the hind legs, which become prosciutto. Another of the animales interns, Greg, and I suited up in long, white lab-type jackets, medieval-looking chain mail aprons and a chain mail glove to protect our non-cutting hands. While we got ready, the master butcher Pierro arrived. He is probably in his sixties, grandfatherly but stern, a man of few words and even fewer compliments. He only comes to the farm when there is butchering to be done. We were also working with Riccio who lives and works on the farm, and is the boss of my animales supervisor. Last but not least, Devin, a volunteer who has been working in the transformation room since November and was asked to stay on until the end of butchering season.
Pierro got right down to business, carving up the hind legs until they became recognizable as prosciutto. While he worked on that, Riccio and Devin continued to pare down the remaining parts, taking the good cuts to be used for various things. Greg and I were charged with cleaning up the leftover bones, cutting away all the leftover bits of meat to be used in salumi. The knife I used was easily the sharpest I have ever handled, sharp enough to leave slice-marks across the bones. Every so often Pierro would take the knife from me and expertly sharpen it on a whetstone. When I first started, Devin handed me a bone and told me to “get all the red.” Then Riccio came over and showed me how to cut with the grain of the meat, and they left me to work. When I had finished that one, Devin brought me two more bones and I set to work on them. At home I never cook with meat because I hate handling it, so this was a new experience for me. Apparently though, I passed the test— Riccio came over and inspected the bones, then patted me on the back and said I was “catching on” and doing a good job. He then showed the bones to Pierro who seemed to nod approvingly, although it was hard to tell for sure.
We ground the meat scraps for salumi and I was given the task of… wait for it…. cleaning intestines to be used as casings! Yum! They had already been soaked and salted, but I had to rinse them and fill them up with water three or four times, until the rinsing water lost its grayish color. It’s a smell I will never forget, a fairly repulsive task but nonetheless one that needs to be done. I kept reminding myself that nothing is wasted, and that to use any other sort of casing would be artificial and not in keeping with the spirit of tradition. Later that day I watched in awe as Riccio used “the meat cannon” to fill the prepared casings with ground meat, and then tied them. I kept thinking about the many thousands of times he’s gone through this process, his fingers probably knowing what to do more than he does at this point. Filling the casings is a delicate process as they can tear and are rendered useless. And the tying requires a delicate balance between firm pressure, securely-tied knots at each ends, evenly-spaced and tightly-wrapped loops down each salumi, and a smattered of pin-holes that allows the salumi to breathe as it cures rather than rot in the casing. All of this must be done without tearing the casing, and it has to be done in a timely fashion because there are many, dozens, to be made. [Author’s note: I took some video of this process which, hopefully, I will be able to upload to youtube. I’ll keep you posted.]
Wednesday was a very interesting day for a very different reason. The butchering process was more or less complete by then, and there was really only one thing left to make: sopressata. It’s an uncured sausage made of all the leftover pig parts that aren’t used in anything else. Its ingredients? Kidneys, skin with lard attached, various unidentifiable things, and “pig faces” as Devin put it. Also some lemon juice and spices. The whole mess of ingredients is thrown into a huge pot with water and stewed for about four hours. While that was cooking, I got a chance to try a similar type of sausage, called burista. I am told that burista is fattier than sopressata, but the main difference is that the collected pig blood is added into burista after it has cooked for a while. It’s offensive to the unaccustomed eye, a dark blood red color with alarmingly large chunks of unidentifiable pig parts in it, and I could tell that all three of the seasoned butchers were waiting to see if I would actually eat it or not. I didn’t see not eating it as an option— and actually, once I got over the texture, it tasted quite good. Faintly spiced, citrusy, and something you would probably never find for sale in America. I’m glad I tried it.
Once the sopressata had cooked sufficiently, Pierro took what looked to me like a metal butterfly net and ladled the meat into a big tub. Each time he pulled out a pig face, he took a large butcher knife and picked the meat off of the skull, taking care to remove the cartilage from the snout and to cut out the eye. There’s a surprising amount of meat in a skull. Who knew? All of the bones, teeth, cartilage and rejected parts were tossed into a bucket, and what was left in the tub was a quivering blob of very gelatinous things. Sopressata is a truly artisan product, completely hand cut, unlike most salumi which are machine-ground and more uniform. Pierro took his knife and a cutting board and drew it through the mass over and over again, cutting all the chunks into smaller and smaller pieces. In this way, each batch of sopressata is different and even each slice of it has different things in it. He ladled the mixture into cheesecloth bags, tied them, and then handed them to me to rinse and hang to dry. As they hung, the gelatinous stuff seeped out of the cheesecloth and eventually began to harden into strange rubber cement-looking stalactites. I know the interns will be trying some of it soon, and I’m excited to compare it to the burista. I am also very excited to have had a hand in making things that I will be eating later on, and also in things that other people will eat. I helped give the new prosciutto legs salt massages, and many months from now someone will buy those legs. I also was feeding those four pigs before they were sent off to slaughter— I helped mill the grain they ate for their last meals and I know which pen they came out of. For someone who has never really had a hand in producing the food she consumes, I can honestly say that I am really excited and proud to have been a part of the process. It quite literally put a face on the animals I eat— although actually, Pierro and Devin invited me to have pig face for lunch with them on Wednesday and I declined. I don’t think I’m quite ready for that yet.