Cucina Povera is sometimes about the food you don’t think of eating, upon which the cleverness of poverty and desire has worked its magic.
I’ve just has a fantastic meal of Zampone and the celebrated beans of Bigiolo (in La Lunigiana, Tuscany, Italy) at the Bigiolo bean festival. Bigiolo is famous for its Borlotti beans; the minerals in the soil around the small village of Bigiolo are evidently perfect for these beans; they are practically skinless and almost sweetly delicious. Folks come from all over Italy to taste them at the sagra or festival I’ve just attended. (How to find a local Sagra)
But here’s the interesting thing about the pig bit, the zampone. Zampone was born from yet another unjust war and the poverty of besieged people.
In 1510 the people of Modena formed an alliance with Venice and flew the Venetian standard; Pope Giulio II, who was known as the Warrior Pope, took offense because he considered Modena to be in his sphere of influence, and besieged them. With no food coming in the Modenesi had to preserve what they had, and someone hit upon the idea of boning pigs’ forelegs and stuffing them with a mixture of ground pork, pork rinds, and spices. As far as the Modensi are concerned the zampone was the only good thing to come of the siege — the Pope won — and they continued to make them. ~ Kyle Phillips, Zampone and Cotechino: Two Good Things Born of War”
Zampone spread to mainland Italy though a New Year tradition.
Zampone remained a local specialty until the advent of more intensive pig farming in the late 1800s, when people realized that it goes very well with the lentils almost all Italians eat to greet the New Year, at which point it rapidly became popular throughout the Peninsula.
There are two kinds of zampone: Raw and precooked, and though most Italians buy the precooked kind, which comes in a foil packet one gently boils for 20 minutes, the raw ones are much tastier. A raw zampone does take more work, however: Soak it overnight in cold water to soften the skin, wrap it in gauze, and simmer it for 4 hours in water to cover in a fish pot. Come serving time, remove it from the water, slice it into half-inch rounds, and eat it at once with lentils because it’s not good cold (nor does it reheat well).
When eating a zampone one generally eats everything including the rind, which takes on a delightful gelatinous consistency. There are, however, people who find this gelatinous consistency abhorrent, and if you fall into this category there is also the cotechino, a 3-inch (8 cm) thick, 9-inch long sausage made with the same stuffing used for the zampone. The cooking time is about the same, and for those who would rather not watch a pot for hours there are precooked versions.
Cotechini and zamponi are not limited to New Year’s; both are popular throughout the winter in Northern Italy, especially during cold snaps. They play an important role in bollito misto, a boiled dinner consisting of boiled meats and vegetables (the more variety the better) served with sauces that vary from place to place, though one can usually expect salsa verde and mostarda di frutta, among other things. They can also stand alone; see, for example, cotechino fasciato.
I’ve just eaten some zampone and I can tell you this: you aren’t going to have a better plate of food from a Michelin-starred restaurant at any price, and the €5 I paid made it a steal.