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A Boaring Time in Italy

I’ve had many “boaring” times in Italy. Not the tedious, tiresome, uninteresting type that define the common use of the word b-o-r-i-n-g but its homophonic sound alike b-o-a-r-i-n-g. As in the scruffy, sharp-tusked brown, bristly relatives of the pig, the European wild boar or cinghiale where in Italy are hunted and eaten in a variety of dishes from pasta to sausages. Wild boar are found in the deciduous, dense, broad-leafed forests that cover a large part of Italy where they forage for food at all hours of the day and night causing a great deal of damage to farmland and vineyards rooting about feasting on grapes and destroying all the vines. Yet even into Rome the formidable 220 pound foragers can be found in groups of 10 to 30 wandering in city parks and side streets rummaging through trash looking for food.

In the Maremma and Central Italy wild boar hunting is one of the most traditional among all Italian hunts in Tuscany and Umbria. The Italian love of wild game and their preference for rustic cooking makes cinghiale a popular dish throughout the region. In fact, wild boar is so popular in Tuscany that it is considered by some to be (unofficially) the national dish. Those who live in the Italian countryside can easily buy wild boar meat from local farmers and hunters. Butchers also sell it and you can find it in almost every regional ristoranti, trattrorie and farmhouse kitchen.

In Italy, the regional authority decides the hunting season for the current year, the days when hunting is prohibited during the week (usually two per week) and the times when hunting is allowed. I have driven through Tuscany and Umbria during this time of the year and heard the sounds of hunters shooting in the distance. It was unusual at first to be so close to the origin of the food we find on our tables. In the US we are removed from the process of providing food and, for some, the thought of hunting as a source of protein seems archaic and unnecessary. Yet hunting in Italy, as in most of Europe, follows an ancient seasonal tradition and is not considered to be politically incorrect or inhumane.

A Roman floor mosaic dating to between 350 and 375 CE and depicting a wild boar and mushrooms. Toragnola, Rome. (Vatican Museums).

An ancient sport, the boar hunt in Italy goes back to Roman times where the fierceness and strength of the boar made it a worthy opponent. Images of wild boars have been discovered decorating a wide range of historical objects and recipes for Roman wild boar made with onion, wine, honey, myrtle berries, coriander and garum (a fish-based sauce) can be found in De Re Coquinaria, the ancient cookbook of the Roman epicurean Apicius.

Porcellino by Pietro Taca (1577-1640). Museo Bardini, Palazzo Mozzi.

In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence there is a 2nd-1st century Roman marble copy of a wild boar that owes most of its fame to a more famous 17th-century bronze copy (the “Porcellino” or “Piglet”) by Florentine sculptor Pietro Tacca (1577-1640) as testimony to its hallowed position in Florentine society.

My encounters with cinghiale have been in the form of a ragù or sausage. I also have enjoyed it braised or stewed (cinghiale in umido ). I have eaten wild boar in Italy many times and like it very much. It has a strong flavor but not unpleasant rather rustic and bold and I am especially fond of ragù di cinghiale, a traditional Italian meat sauce from Tuscany. The ragù is made with a combination of wild boar meat, tomatoes, red wine, carrots, onions, celery, garlic, olive oil, sage and rosemary. This hearty meat sauce is traditionally served with pappardelle pasta or with tagliatelle. The pasta and the sauce are tossed together, then sprinkled with grated cheese.

Ragu di cinghiale

If you are unsure about eating wild boar and would just like a taste, look for a sagra in Tuscany or Umbria. These seasonal food festivals celebrate regional culture and cuisine with music, dancing, games, exhibits and of course food. In the small medieval Tuscan town of Suvereto, 90 km from Florence, the Sagra del Cinghiale (Festival of the Wild Boar) is held every December with exhibitions and medieval pageantry with food stands and local restaurants serving wild boar. There’s also a Sagra del Cinghiale in Certaldo. Capalbio and Chianti . . . well you get the idea. Wild boar is very popular throughout the region. The traditions surrounding the eating of a particular food is a reason to celebrate in Italy so if you happen upon a sign along the road that says “Sagra del Cinghiale” or “Sagra del whatever” you should stop and go.

For suggestions about What to Drink with a Wild Bore (Boar) click here.

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