Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Pork and Truffles

Umbria is the only province of Italy that doesn't have a sea coast. It is full of mountains, on top of which sit medieval hilltop villages; and now and then the mountains open into surprising, broad, fertile plains. This travel article describes the drive through the mountain road tunnel to emerge into the Valnerina, a steep-sided valley through which flows the river Nera. The author (Lee Marshall) waxes lyrical, and is worth quoting:
As you drive towards Norcia, first along the Nera and then along its tributary the Corno, the remoteness of this mountain fastness is brought home. The valley narrows down into a sheer-sided gorge; until a road tunnel was blasted out in 1857, a rock-hewn pedestrian and donkey passageway, the Sasso Tagliato, was the only way through. It comes as a relief, and a surprise, when the gorge opens out all of a sudden into the verdant upland plain of Santa Scolastica. There, ahead of you, in the middle of the plain, backed by the rounded peaks of the Monti Sibillini, is a neat walled town, unblemished by urban sprawl. Its position alone – at the centre of a well-irrigated breadbasket of a plain, with endless summer pastures in the mountains above – explains why Norcia has been considered such a prize down through its long history, from Sabines and Romans through to princes and popes.
Er...wild boar?
In Italian, a 'norcineria' means a butchery, and the name comes from the Umbrian town of Norcia. As soon as you stroll in Norcia, you're well aware of the town's claim to fame: flea-bitten boar's heads, and in some cases entire boars, decorate the premises of dozens of butchers and salumerias. Yep, this is a pork town. And yes - the proscuitto is good!

This great blog post with excellent pictures tells an eating story of Norcia, complete with restaurant and butcher recommendations.

Butcher's shops everywhere.
Local produce.
A 'norcineria'.
Norcia is also well-known for a few other things, such as being the birth-place of Saint Benedict and his twin-sister Saint Scholastica, and thus the location of an important Benedictine Monastery. But back to food -- in the summer, Norcia is a source of black truffles, not as expensive or perhaps quite as exquisite as the white truffles from the north of Italy, but aromatic none the less.

The Norcia town website gives the details:
The Summer Black Truffle lives in symbiosis with the root systems of major trees – above all oaks, hazelnuts, black hornbeams, poplars, willows, limes, beeches and chestnuts. Its key feature is a strong aromatic scent that it generates only when the spores are perfectly ripe. In order to preserve its best organoleptic properties, the truffle must be extracted at exactly the right stage of ripeness.

The unripe truffle is heavier than the ripe truffle and has no aroma whatsoever. The truffle is harvested only using specifically trained dogs and in certain periods of the year, when the spores have completed the ripening process.

The Tuber Aestivum is a more durable truffle that keeps longer than other varieties. Its rough, warty skin is black. Its development is often associated with the trees with which it is in symbiosis, such as oaks (including the Turkey oak tree). Its size varies from that of a walnut – which is more common – to that of quite large examples, which can sometimes weigh as much as about 1 kg. The latter, however, are much rarer.

The summer black truffle has many culinary uses and has the merit of always being affordable, even when harvests are smaller. Because of this, together with its greater ease of conservation, this truffle is widely used to prepare extremely tasty and not unduly expensive dishes for a long period of the year.

They think their cheese is pretty good, too... 
A long claim...
More pork...
...and more truffles.
So there you have it - all you ever wanted to know about pork and truffles, and a little about San Benedetto. Benvenuto a Norcia. 

Norcia. In the middle.
San Benedetto looks on....Norcia.

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