Jun 212011

I had the opportunity recently to get away from Perugia for a day and head up into the Apennines. We drove up first to Norcia, where I was overwhelmed by the number of shops selling cut-up-and-dried pieces of pigs. Norcia is famous in Italy for its processed pork products, some much so that norcino is a veritable synonym for the standard word for “butcher,” macellaio. I noted, however, that these products were IGP (protected Geographical Indication), not DOP (Denomination of Protected Origin). The difference is only two capital letters, but it means that while the products were made in Norcia, the raw materials (pigs) were not. Thus the swine used to make the prosciutto wasn’t happily eating acorns in the woods around the mountain city, as in centuries past, but rather was likely grain-fed in Denmark, trucked down the E45, and lodged for two nights in a room without a view in Norcia before being “transformed.”

Further on was our true goal, Castelluccio, a little town that sits on a high plateau in the middle of the Apennines. Most of the plateau is a park, but a part, near the town, is still cultivated. Lentils are grown there and sold in the little boutique shops in Castelluccio, but we also saw several fields of wheat. In one, an old man was scything down a grain that was intermized with the wheat. I asked him what he was doing and he said he was cutting down the rye, which if left grow would crowd out the wheat. It made me think of agriculture from ten millenia ago until the “Green” Revolution: mostly hand-powered.

We took a walk across the plateau towards the inghiottitoio or ponor, where the water drains down through a hole into the limestone under the plain, and on the way found a number of mushrooms. One of our guides told us that they were called vesce in Italian (Lycoperdon perlatum, either called “common puffbox” or “Devil’s Snuffbox” in English). They are edible and despite some reservations, we took them home and ate them (and lived).Foraging was long an integral part of the cucina povera (poor cuisine), which made due with what little was available.

It was a day of a number of Italian food history themes–the controversy around official indications like DOC, farming in the mountains, “typical products,” and even foraging–and one I’d like to repeat again soon.

Grazie tante alle nostre guide Paolo Bartoli e Valeria Ventura.



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