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On the Land in Umbria - From Pig to Prosciutto

Anne Robichaud

This cold winter is perfect for pig slaughtering. Once the pig is slaughtered and turned into prosciutto, capocollo, salami, pancetta ("little tummy" - bacon), and sausages, the cold weather assures that the meat cures well. Curing is done with salt, not by smoking. Warm weather is hazardous because a renegade fly could survive and burrow into the meat. La tragedia happened to us one year; we sliced into the first of our two magnificent prosciutti in July and maggots crawled out. Frustration, anger and also tears; we had bred the sow and raised the litter's chubbiest piglet to adulthood, and to a prosciutto-end.

Walking down our road through the woods yesterday, I saw wisps of smoke rising from behind Gigetto's house. Their fattened pig had met his demise; the smoke was rising from the fire built out back under the soot-blackened copper cauldron (an essential element of any farmhouse; ours now holds a plant but at one time, boiling water bubbled in that cauldron at pig-slaughtering time).

I remember our first pig slaughter; waking up early to feed the fire under our cauldron, hanging in the fireplace. After the slaughter, boiling water is poured over the pig so that the hair can easily be  scraped off the skin. The skin then becomes cotiche. Don't miss tasting cotiche e fagioli or lenticchie e fagioli (beans or lentils with pigskin) if ever in our area in the cold season!

Salami making in process

Salami making in process

In those days, Adamo, who farmed most of the year, became a pig butcher or Norcino during the winter months as a way to make a little extra cash. He could slaughter and help cure as many as 150 pigs in just two months! Norcino means "the man from Norcia," as that mountainous medieval town in southeastern Umbria is famous for its sausages, prosciutto, pecorino (sheep's milk cheese), as well as black truffles!

Umbrian sausages are made from pig meat seasoned with salt, pepper, a bit of wine and garlic. This mixture would coming rolling out of Adamo's grinder and into the sausage casing (pig's intestines which we had rinsed out with our vinegar and then fit like a stocking on to the mouth of the grinder). Penne alla Norcina made with Umbria's famous sausages (recipe below) is perhaps the most typically "Umbrian" of all of our pasta dishes.

Adamo oversees the sausage making

Adamo oversees the sausage making

A farm neighbor, Marino Pica, once told me about pig slaughtering when he was a boy (40 years ago), the time of miseria ("misery" is a poor translation; "hard-living, poverty" work better). In the busy farm kitchen the eve of the slaughter, the children eagerly eyed the sausages, knowing that they would soon be grilled. Nonno decided that there could only be one sausage per child as the meat would be needed throughout the year (the sausages were hung to dry in the store room off the kitchen). The Norcino working at the grinder saw the hungry eyes peeping over the table top as the meat slipped out into the casings. When no one was looking, he cut off a few sausages and slipped them to Marino. The children scrambled out the door and down the steps. They went out to the fields in the icy cold, made a fire and roasted the sausages.

Miseria is long gone here in Umbria and in Italy in general. But the pig-slaughtering still remains a winter tradition in rural areas.

This is the pig-slaughtering process:

  • The pig is dragged out of the stall (as the pig must drop onto clean grass) by tying a rope around the snout.
  • The Norcino then shoots the pig in the forehead and it drops to the ground.
  • The throat is slit and the blood gathered (for a sweet sausage - sanguinaccio).
  • The boiling water is poured over the carcass and the skin scraped.
  • The pig's feet are tied and the carcass is hauled up a tree limb to facilitate the quartering.
  • The following day, the farm family and friends gather to assist the Norcino in the day-long preparation of the prosciutto, capocollo, pancetta, lard (once used for soap-making, as well as in cooking), salami, and sausages.

How wonderful were our off-the-kitchen storerooms in winters of past years. They were icy cold; no heat anywhere in our houses except in the kitchen. Hanging from the old oak beams were pecorino cheeses, braided onions, braided garlic, grapes drying to raisins, two huge prosciutto, two quite hefty shoulders, salami, strings of sausages (about 100 from a single pig), brown-paper-wrapped capocollo, barbozza ("cheek" - great in legume soups!), coppa ("head cheese", flavored with orange peel), and pancetta. Jars of lard lined up on the shelves along with the jars of tomatoes, bandiera ("the flag" - green peppers, red tomatoes and white onions), artichokes under oil, roasted peppers, figs in honey, stuffed figs in brandy and all the homemade fruit juices (pear, peach, plum, and mixed), as well as jams.

Antonia (Adamo's wife) and Anne in the storeroom

Antonia (Adamo's wife) and Anne in the storeroom

The photo above shows our storeroom with 1/2 of the pig (Antonia (Adamo's wife) is holding the pig by its tail), grapes drying to raisins hang above her, pig lung hanging to left, a cupboard with all the foods we put up each summer.

But as miseria is now a past woe and benessere ("well-being") has arrived, the family freezer now stores much of the meat, conserved as pork chops, pork roast, ribs, and less of the meat is destined to capocollo (sausages and salami). I'm sure that much of Gigetto's pig will end up in the freezer in the garage. So much colder than the storerooms of old - in all senses.

Zsa-zsa's Story

Zsa-zsa and her sister, Fo-fo, were our first two pigs. I thought Zsa-Zsa had a "luscious" sound to it, and "Fo-fo" was named after a piglet that someone had given to Pino in Palermo as a child. As his family was very poor, there wasn't enough money to buy feed for her but she would rub up and down against their tangerine, lemon and orange trees to knock the fruit down to eat. One day, nine-year old Pino returned from school to find her being loaded onto a truck: his father had sold her for meat.

We raised them from piglets. When I was heading up to the "back 40", long scythe over my shoulder, to scythe clover or alfalfa for the rabbits, I'd let them loose to come up to the fields to graze (the farmers always said that good fresh grass would "clean out the liver"). They would come trotting up the hill after me, kicking up their heels now and then, bouncing, their ears would wobble and wag, and they'd grunt with glee if they unearthed any acorns under the new grass around the oak trees. And if they ever found any truffles, they kept the secret to themselves.

The first pig that we slaughtered was Zsa-zsa. She was turned into prosciutto, barbozza, capocollo, salami, sausages, bacon, coppa, and lard. I was in the house with my head under a pillow when Adamo shot her with a pellet right between the eyes. There was no sound then but the pig squeals when they dragged her out of the stall with a noose around her snout. I never named our pigs after that first butchering.

Winter Recipe - Pasta alla Norcina

Norcia, in the mountains of southeastern Umbria, is noted for its sausages, as well as for prosciutto, capocollo and other pork derivatives.

Ingredients (for 4)

  • 1 lb penne or rigatoni pasta
  • 3-4 Umbrian sausages - if not available, use about 1/2 lb ground pork meat, adding to it, 1 finely-chopped garlic clove, salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 white onion, finely sliced
  • white wine (about 1 cup)
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper
  • small hot red pepper
  • 1 - 1-1/2 cups cream
  • Parmesan cheese, freshly-grated (or use pecorino, sheep's milk cheese, and very Umbrian!)


Cover bottom of saucepan in olive oil and saute onion until golden (do NOT burn; if you do, start over!).

Take sausage meat out of casing and crumble into onion/olive oil mixture. Add chili pepper. Simmer a couple minutes until sausage (or pork meat) starts to brown. Add white wine, covering the meat well. Simmer uncovered a few minutes (wine will start to evaporate). Add cream and simmer briefly. Add salt and black pepper to taste.

Stir into pasta which you have cooked and drained (always save a bit of the pasta water when draining pasta; it can be used to dilute your sauce if needed). Pasta mixture should be creamy; if too dry, add a bit of olive oil (and next time, use more cream, or white wine, when preparing).

Add Parmesan or pecorino before serving.


Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of Anne's photos on our photo gallery.

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com All photos are from January 1977, the slaughter of our pig Zsa-zsa.

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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