Flavor of Umbria – Pizza and sausage lesson

Tonight we make pizza on the large hearth in the Great Hall and handmade link-sausage called salsiccia or salciccia (in the Umbrian dialect). Our sometimes-driver Domenico hauls in the ingredients for salsiccia: one electric grinder/extruder machine; one pork shoulder, trimmed of most (but not all) fat; several rolls of budello di miaile, or pig’s intestine, soaking in shallow water; a head of garlic; and weighed salt and pepper. If the sausage is to be eaten fresh, the ratio is 1 kg meat to 27 g salt to 8 g pepper; if it is to be air-cured, increase the salt by 3 to 4 g per kilo of meat and hang first in a humid environment until some fat begins to seep out, then hang in a dry environment until firm to the touch.

Domenico cubes the pork, trimming off excess fat and stopping to sharpen the knife every few minutes. When all the meat is cubed, he mixes it with the chopped garlic (just a few cloves – he doesn’t want to hurt us) and salt and pepper. Meanwhile, he threads the casing onto the spout of the grinder, speaking all the while in a measured, low voice; Leo translates choice phrases, like ‘reminding’ us that pig intestines were used for contraceptives in the middle ages (wide eyes from the audience, myself included).

Domenico begins to feed the grinder with his right hand while managing the stuffed casing with his left hand; he has obviously done this before and makes the choreography between his hands seem very easy. He plumps, squeezes and twists the casing as it is filled, and then pulls it down the cutting board in one long, unshaped piece. Later he uses twine to tie off links about 3 inches long, and then encourages us to try tying a few. Finally, he sandwiches the links between the useful footed sandwich grill and places it on the hearth above a bed of small, red-hot coals. The room begins to smell delicious immediately; he pierces the sausages with a fork before flipping the grill over to cook the other side.

Meanwhile, Daniela (or Signora Pizza, as we call her) is making and rolling out pizza dough. She uses type ‘O’ flour, again in a hollow volcano shape on a large wooden table leaf. She adds lieuto di birra (yeast) which has instructions for quantity on the package, and then she adds water to the hollow, and finally drizzles in a bit of the extra-virgin olive oil that is made from the olives grown at Acquaviva. She gently incorporates the flour into the water, using a massaging motion very similar to hairwashing. From the ease and speed of her movements, I can tell that she has made this impasto (dough) a million times; indeed, when I try to photograph her all the pictures are blurry in this low-light room.

Daniela lets the dough lievitare (rise) on the side of the hearth, and in 30 minutes it has doubled in size. Using a very long mattarello (rolling pin) she rolls the dough to about 1/2″ thickness, sprinkles some flour in a shallow aluminum pan, adds the frisbee-sized dough to the pan, and then cooks it on a riser about 8 inches above a bed of red-hot coals. She rotates the pan a few times, and pierces any bubbles that appear. She flips the dough once, and in about 10 minutes it is done.

We already learned a tough lesson earlier in the week: Umbrian pizza is really a flatbread, and is not made with any toppings. While everyone did a decent job of hiding their disappointment, I can’t help but think how delicious it would be with the leftover burrata from lunch…

At the end of the meal Leo’s brother Max joins us, and is excited to see that the sausage has been made by hand. “I haven’t had sausage like this in 20 years,” he says, then looks at Leo and corrects himself, “probably 30 years.” I hear murmurs from the group that it is the best sausage they have had, and I agree that it is excellent – full of flavor, perfectly seasoned, and with the satisfying snap to the casing that the Germans call ‘knack’. Max and I start discussing other forcemeat delicacies, and he describes for me (deferring to Domenico at key points) the process of making coppa and recommending a place in Todi to procure the real thing. If I understand properly, coppa consists of lots of slow-cooked cartilage along with the varied trimmings of meat and fat; it is poached and then the water and some fat are forced out of it through cheesecloth. I promise to try to get some.

To round out the meal, we have the ever-present cicoria, this time sourced from a restaurant nearby (along with a couple of bottles of label-less wine portioned from their cask). By now the students are clamoring for the bitter green; several days prior we had cicoria with potato cooked into it, which went a long way toward smoothing out the bitterness. When eaten with the unsalted pizza bread and the highly seasoned sausage, the cicoria is perfectly scrumptious. Leonardo keeps joking that he will make one of our food activities center around hunting and harvesting wild cicoria, which seems like supreme fun until we realize the vast quantity that would be necessary for even a single portion.

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~ by a local notion on March 17, 2008.

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