The Devil's Leg
They are hanging there. Deep in the gloom and dust-mote spangled air of my cool stone cellar. A golden ray of liquid light stabs down gently from a crack in the heavy oak blinds just above ground level. It is straight, but nevertheless a tendril: it seeks, pries, wheedles its way around the peaceful gloom. As my eyes slowly adjust to the darkness, I hang my oil lamp on a wrought iron hook firmly embedded in the yellow tufo stone. There they glisten: two sleek black legs ending in dully gleaming hooves—cloven hooves.
They have been hanging there for several months now. Quiet, inscrutable, but emanating a certain promise. I unhook the one closest to me, lift my lamp off its iron stanchion, and turn for the door. I am keen to get out of the cellar and back to the large farmhouse kitchen with its familiar whitewashed walls, its wide woodburning range, its friendly and homely hand-painted maiolica tiles. On the oaken counter-top, under the golden fulgence of a halogen beam an odd-shaped wooden frame awaits. And, next to it, a knife whose long and flexible blade gleams with the silky finish of much use and careful stropping.
I enter the kitchen, put the lamp down on the soft white marble top of the ancient dresser, and lower the glistening, black-hoofed leg into its wooden cradle. It should be just ready: It has spent weeks in brine, months in wood ash, and the last year or so hanging in the dark tranquillity of the cellar. Next to its mirror image. Both came off a boar of decent size, and now I am about to sample the result of all the quiet, unhurried evolution from meat to ham. The transition is now complete—the story's arc has come to its final act.
From a well-worn, straw-encased flask I pour a draught of ruby-red wine into both glasses. I raise my own in silent salutation at my guest. We both take a slow, appraising sip and smile at each other. Without further ado, I give the knife a few strokes on its steel to bring its edge to ultimate razor keeness, and make the first cut.
When starting any dry-cured ham, you aim to get it right: every slice after that follows the first. I carefully pare off the outside skin in which the black silky bristles are embedded. I'll bare and trim a couple of inches all round... Then, the moment of truth: after discarding the first two or three slices, I carve a thin careful slice and hold it up to the light. The color is perfect: a rich burgundy red with ruby veins, thinly marbled in places with creamy fat. I cut the slice in two and offer a first sample to my guest. The aroma is rich, faintly earthy, savory—succulent. The ham is obviously a success! Such are some of the simpler pleasures which living off the grid can afford.
There are many more, of course, ranging from a deep sense of peace, unfettered quiet and gentle inspiration from the symphony of Nature as she unrolls her ever-changing seasonal show. There is also a sense of tranquillity that is very tangible and very precious. When I want glitz and sophistication, the big city is only hours away, but I am finding myself drawn there less and less frequently, and the marvels of the world-wide-web alow me to keep up exchanges and friendships throughout the world. One more reason for my reluctance to travel physically: my occasional guests and the sporadic agrarian interactions supply most of the truck I need with my fellow man. The animals fill in the rest, with genuine companionship—unquestioning, loyal, non-intrusive.
As I sliced off several more thin and fragrant slices, and reverently laid them out on a large, white, oval terracotta platter, the memory of that hunt, now more than a year and a half ago comes alive. It had been a cold and wet November. The very worst and most disconsolate month of the year in my calendar. I had been tracking the big male for several days and constantly running into a dead end. Finally, though, I had him in my sights and I still remember the shot. About fifty yards, aiming slightly down and upwind, naturally, from my position in a large oak tree. He fell without a murmur: a perfect heart shot.
There is always a transient moment of sadness when even the most fearsome beast is felled. Better to suffer that honest sense of loss than be a party to the way our domestic animals are reared, butchered and prepared for human consumption. The whole progress is most often without a shred of dignity and does us no credit. Recognizing the horrors concealed within the gleaming, glamorized, sanitized meat which lies, plastic-wrapped and rosy-lighted, in the pristine and aseptic chiller of the local supermarket, is not a voyage in awereness that many are tempted to make.
Collectively, we have infinite power which we can exercise by deciding when and what for we open our wallets. Once one realizes this fully, one really has nothing behind which to hide. Far, far better the stab of angst that every decent hunter feels when his quarry is felled, and the knowledge that the animal has had a free and wholesome life until that swift moment of reckoning. Humanely reared free-range meat is the next best thing, so we pays our money and we makes our choice.
From the mists of prehistory, European forests have had large wild boar populations until the eighteenth century. Hunting wild boar was a favorite pastime of kings and nobility: it was considered a "beast of venery", the most prestigious form of quarry. Boar hunting has often been a test of bravery. It was usually hunted by being harboured, or found, by a bloodhound held on a leash—then the pack of hounds would be released in pursuit. Henry VIII, the Tudor monarch, was reputedly fond of this sport. The specially prepared head of a wild boar would often be the centerpiece of a banquet.
Obélix, of Asterix fame, was an avid eater of wild boar, which, in Celtic mythology was sacred to the Gallic goddess Arduinna. Boar hunting is the central theme in a number of stories of the Celtic and Irish mythology, such as the legend of Finn McCool, who lured his rival, Diarmuid, to his death, gored by a wild boar. In Classical Greek culture, the boar represented death, due to its typical hunting season near the end of the year. The boar was also seen as a metaphorical representation of darkness battling against light. Boar hunts are numerous in Greek mythology. The third labour of Heracles involved the live capture of the Erymanthian Boar.
Sus scrofa, is a wild species of the genus Sus, of the Suidae family; there are many subspecies. It is the wild ancestor of the domestic pig, with which it can interbreed freely. Wild boar is a native species across much of Northern and Central Europe, and throughout the Mediterranean Region, including North Africa. Elsewhere, populations have also become established as a result of wild boar escaping from captivity or being deliberately introduced, principally as a game species.
In more recent times, in many parts of southern France and central Italy, as well as in the southern States of the Union, wild boar populations have grown to nuisance levels and can inflict great damage to crops: for this reason they have to be regularly culled. This is in contrast to a century ago, when the wild boar had all but disappeared. The same situation exists in several southern states in the US, where feral hogs and hybrids are also present. Some of these hybrids are of truly mammoth proportions, such as the notorious "Hogzilla". In some areas the hunting season for wild boar is open all year round to aid in keeping this prolific animal in check.
The body of the wild boar is compact and very muscular, with a large head and extremely powerful neck and jaw muscles; its legs are relatively short. The coat consists of stiff bristles, as well as of finer fur. The color can vary from dark grey to black or brown, and there are regional differences. Adult males develop tusks, which are continuously growing canine teeth that protrude from the mouth. These tusks are redoubtable weapons, and a wild boar can inflict horrendous injuries—and even disembowel their hapless victim. A charging boar is considered exceptionally dangerous quarry, due to its thick hide, muscular and compact body and dense bones, making anything less than a kill shot a potentially deadly mistake.
The tusks are normally used to forage by digging, and a wild boar can wreak terrible damage overnight in vegetable plots and cropland. The upper tusks curl in males, and are regularly ground against the lower ones to produce sharp, cutting edges. The tusks are normally from two to three inches long and can, in exceptional cases reach five inches or more. While this may not sound like much, the fearsome strength and agility behind them turns them into lethal weapons.
Sows have sharp canines too, but they are smaller, and not protruding like the male's tusks; they are nevertheless capable of inflicting devastating bites; the sow will also charge the object of her anger, with dire results. They are enormously jealous and protective of their young and will attack humans even when apparently unprovoked. The piglets are colored differently from adults, having quite beautiful marbled chocolate and cream stripes lengthwise along their bodies.
The speed, agility and sheer endurance of the wild boar make it a difficult animal to shoot: this, coupled with the dangers involved, forms a large part of the appeal which the wild boar holds for hunters. You do not want to wound one or miss: a charging enraged boar can smash every bone in your body when it collides with you. It is a normal precaution, when hunting boar, for at least one second gun to be standing-by to deal with just this eventuality.
Trapping is unfortunately still a well-used technique for hunting and controlling boar and feral hogs. It is a needlessly cruel method, but even that pales in the face of the everyday horrors of intensive rearing and the macabre dance of the abattoir. Snares are the most commonly used method, although the practice is illegal in many places, and hefty fines can be incurred. However, such is the nuisance of the boar to agriculture, that the authorities often turn a blind eye. The animal is usually caught either by the foot or by the neck by the steel snare, and held captive until the poacher's return.
I have seen a redoubtable little man called Tommasetto—all of five foot didly, but as gnarled as an olive tree—walk up to a trapped boar and, quite nonchalantly, with an elegant feint, stick it with a long, slim WWI bayonet. The man had balls, of that there is little doubt. I remember him fondly as my mentor in the ways of the woods. His swift and elegant despatch of the beast, at great personal risk, went a long way, in my mind, to counter the cruelty of the trapping. I subsequently discovered that he went to great lengths to set his snares to minimize sufferance and also that he never left them long before going back to check them. His explanation was that an animal that suffers is not fit to eat, and his primitive and simple folksy wisdom seems borne out by modern research. Of course Tommasetto never mentioned adrenaline, lactic acid or other complexities of a supposedly wiser world view...
"Tom Thumb", as I had dubbed him, feared only one creature in this world: his wife, Maria. She was a veritable devil of a woman, and would typically greet a stranger from behind an unwavering double-barreled shotgun. She would not think twice of firing a charge of coarse salt at your ass if you ventured to call there at night. Tommasetto was in awe of the woman—and I'll not deny that so was I.
Wild boar are active from twilight till dawn, foraging in early morning and late afternoon, or even at night, but they rest for periods during both night and day. They are omnivorous scavengers, eating almost anything they come across, including grass, nuts, berries, carrion, nests of ground nesting birds, roots, tubers, refuse, insects and small reptiles. Their wide diet and their hardiness, coupled with a virtual lack of natural predators in many areas, allow them to multiply rapidly until they soon reach nuisance levels. In Europe, their only natural predator is the wolf, which is now making quite a comeback—but that is another story.
In my neck of the woods, the weight of a wild boar usually ranges from 180 to 220 pounds (80 to 100 kg), while boars have been shot that weighed as much as 330 pounds (150 kg). In this part of the world, because the boar's diet includes acorns, chestnuts and olives, much of the fat is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid that has been shown to lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol—this is a much-vaunted health benefit of wild boar meat with respect to farmed hogs.
Now this may well be the case, but what certainly is true is that sausages, bacon and hams made from the wild boar have a flavour and a gastronomic appeal all of their own. Raw-cured wild boar ham is a beautiful deep red, contains little fat and is highly aromatic—it is reminiscent of jamón ibérico de bellota, only leaner, darker, and wilder tasting.
After I have shot a wild boar and butchered it for hams, bacon and sausages, I am in the habit of making a big cauldron of ragout with the offcuts of meat and the liver, heart and kidneys of the animal. The ragout is flavoured with wine, homemade tomato paste, wild mushrooms, and truffles if I should be so lucky—which by the grace of God I occasionally am. Acorn and cornmeal polenta is poured out onto a large oak slab set in the center of the table and the ragout piled on top. Plentiful grated Pecorino cheese is strewn over the dish and everyone tucks in with great communality.
Romanian and Russian boars are much bigger, and can reach weights well in excess of 600 pounds (300 kg). Hunters often go on hunting trips to Romania for the thrill of shooting one of these whoppers. I once saw and sampled a ham from a haunch of one of these hog-monsters and it was truly huge—also succulent and fragrant.
The procedure for making a wild boar ham is little different to that for making typical raw-cured Prosciutto. The haunch is very carefully butchered, in order to separate it neatly from the carcase with just the ball of the hip articulation protruding from the surrounding flesh, which is trimmed neatly to prevent insects from infesting the ham while it cures. The hoof is traditionally left on the whole leg, as is the skin and the bristles.
The whole leg is lowered into a drum of boiling water where it is blanched briefly. This sterilizes the skin and facilitates the removal of much of the finer fur later. Next the haunch is lowered into cold water to cool it rapidly. It is then washed and scrubbed well under running water with a stiff-bristled brush, being careful to always go with the lie of the hair.
The scrubbing which follows the blanching will remove all parasites, eggs and dirt, as well as most if not all the fine hair. What you will be left with is a clean, sweet-smelling thing which resembles nothing if not a leg taken from the Devil himself—what with its black cloven hoof and coarse black bristles.
The clean and trimmed ham is now soaked in brine for a couple of weeks or so, depending on its weight. That timing is critical, for too long a brining will make it unbearably salty and tough, while too little will leave the ham at risk of tainting during the subsequent phases. Some of the old-timers insist on dry-curing the hams, but to my mind that produces a dryer and far less succulent result.
Once the brining is deemed to have run its course, the ham is hung for several weeks in an airy shady place to dry thoroughly, whereupon it is entombed in a wooden box submerged in plenty of clean wood ash. This will allow it to dry slowly and cure. The ash will also keep weavils and other parasites at bay. A ham of average size may spend as long as six months in its ashy sarcophagus.
Then, one fine day, when your intuition reminds you that it is the right moment, you will dig out your ham, brush off the ash carefully, and hang it for a further twelve months or so in the cool and tranquil environment of your cellar—and that is where this tale began. The wheel of my yarn has come full circle.
This is no treatise on ham-making, merely a personal account of it, and of some of the background to the hunting of the animal that supplies the ham, as well as some reflexions of my own as to why the whole pursuit is even worth the effort. It hopes to amuse and inform, nothing more.
If it awakens your curiosity and causes you to want to know more, you may just be one of the few who decide to try it for themselves. In that event, I shall be only too happy to share any little tricks that I have gleaned.
I am always happy to receive any feedback on my postings here, and I consider every comment useful to better my writing, as well as sometimes affording a pleasant exchange with my fellow noders. While I will take every bit of feedback I can get, I will ultimately digest it according to my own criteria, while thanking you for it.