Italian Culture through Meat Preparation

Henry Schmidt April 7, 2013 Siena, Tuscany, Italy view in flickr

For the last almost three months, I've been apprenticing in an Italian butcher shop; everyday before class, I head to Via Salicotto and lend a hand to Massimo and Pino, two older Italian butchers who've worked their craft for over 30 years. This opportunity has given me great insight into the preservation of Italian culture not only through the consumption of food, but also its preparation. Very rarely do we have the opportunity to see where our food comes from, but much of the cultural preservation we find by examining gastronomy comes from this crucial step in the process of getting food from the field to your mouth. 

 

WARNING: SOME OF THE FOLLOWING PICTURES ARE GRAPHIC.

 

Until about 60 years ago,Italyhad a largely agrarian economy. Industrialization began in the late 50’s, and thus many Italians still share a close cultural tie to rural lifestyles. You can see this through the overwhelming knowledge anybody on the street has of the wine they drink, of the olive oil they eat, and the gardens they grow, but one can also see this in the way they consume meat. I just spent a week on a farm inSouthern Italyfor Spring break, and one day during that time we killed a young goat for Easter; having raised the goat himself, Rannucio, the farmer, understood the time and effort it took to raise the goat, and he understood fully the value of the goat’s life. This understanding, shared amongst the majority of farmers, still permeates today’s Italian gastronomy in the form of whole-animal butchery. On my first day of work at the shop, I walked in to introduce myself and was greeted by Massimo chopping a half a chicken, pictured below.

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Inside the chicken were the majority of its innards, excluding its small and large intestines and gallbladder. I had never seen a chicken lung before. Here, they are left in the locally-raised, higher quality chickens and every Italian cook knows just how to prepare them. The same can be said of the rabbits.

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There’s something about an animal looking back at you through the display case that reminds you that they were once a living thing, something Americans often make an effort to forget and something Italians embrace.

The other morning, we received a shipment of new meats and I took this picture. It’s one of my favorites, and I feel it illustrates this point more than any picture I’ve seen.

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Here is a hindquarter of cow next to its trachea, heart, lungs, liver, and pancreas. Many Americans can rattle off the cuts that come from the hindquarter, all the beautiful steaks and roasts that have made many a mouth drool. But how often do you enter a restaurant and see cow trachea on the menu? How about heart, or lungs? As a lasting remnant of the agricultural history ofItaly, Italians have preserved this idea that all parts of the animal are important. There is no better way than to honor the life of the animal you consume than by acknowledging the fact that it was indeed living and was killed for your consumption, and to consume every part of the animal, not just the “pretty” cuts.

Every morning, I prepare an item called fegatelli, which are breaded and seasoned pieces of chopped pig liver wrapped in the caul fat of a sheep, the fat that surrounds the stomach.

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I’d never seen caul fat before. Here, Italians love it. It’s a delicacy. I’ve also prepared collo di pollo ripieno, a chicken’s neck which is stuffed with ground beef and resembles a sausage. Here, it rests amongst beautiful cuts of beef meant to roast. 

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I ate this in a restaurant in Florence; it was served sliced, with the head as a garnish.

Another prominent aspect of Italian meat preparation is meat curing, a practice preserved from times preceding refrigeration. Many are familiar with the famous Prosciutto di Parma, and possibly the other Proscutti di Toscana and various other regions. Pancetta, pork belly, is cured and exported worldwide.

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What about cheek? Every Friday we receive half of a pig.

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The work that these butchers do with the pig astounds me. At the bottom of the pig, you may see its cheek; this is removed, put under salt, and preserved just like the other cuts. It tastes fantastic.

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This pig is later cut into various sections; the shoulder is cut into sausage, the belly is made into pancetta, the spinal column, or arista, is what gives us our beloved pork chops, the loin is removed, the ribs are sold as they are in the US, and the leg becomes prosciutto. The neck is removed and cured to make capocollo, probably my favorite of the Italian cured meats. So then what becomes of the rest? When we receive the pig, we also receive its head.

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Thus, we have leftover hooves, head, skin, and other odds and ends. While these may seem like the bits that should be thrown out, the Italians still honor these parts of the pig by creating buristo (blood sausage) and soppressata. Buristo is made from the skin, other fatless parts, and blood, boiled, ground, and then, after adding fat back in, put insides the pig’s intestines or, in this case, its stomach. Soppressata is made with all the parts, boiled, removed from the bone, then simply shaped into a cylinder and left to dry. They are both delicious and very popular.

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All of these practices, very much alive in this small butcher’s shop just off of the largest piazza in the city, remind us of the not-so-distant past of the Italian population. They way that these artisans go about their work and the care with which they preserve as many parts of the animals they receive tell a good deal about the history of this country and reveal a crucial part of the Sienese identity.