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Cinghiale: Wild Boar


A wild boar

A Wild Boar

De Agostini/Camusso / Getty images
It is difficult to think of Italian food without thinking of pork, and though the thought of prosciutto or salami may conjure up images of one of the country's many heirloom breeds, for example the Cinta Senese or the Nero Romagnolo, there's another side to the picture that people rarely think of: Wild boar. And it's a side that is becoming more important with time.

Though boar populations were kept in check in the past -- farmers were quick to grab a gun, both to protect their crops and to obtain fresh meat -- the abandonment of the countryside (marginal lands, in particular) on the part of farming families in the 1950s effectively removed this check, allowing the boar to occupy new areas. At the same time, Italian hunters, who wanted to bolster the native stock, introduced Eastern European boar that are quite a bit larger, and also much more vigorous, producing litters of up to 15 piglets (as opposed to the 4-6 of an Italian sow).

The result has been a disaster for agriculture, with herds of boar scouring the countryside much the way deer do in some parts of North America. A winemaker told me his vineyard looked like it had been picked with a mechanical harvester after they came calling, and I can say from personal experience that they show little fear of humans: we often see them on the other side of the fence separating our yard from the woods. And yes, they do come up to the fence and look in. Makes the dog (and us) nervous.

Given this situation it should come as no surprise that hunting clubs organize boar hunts during the fall, nor that boar is readily available in Italian supermarkets. From a culinary standpoint there are 4 kinds of boar.
  • Piglets, what the French call Marcassin: Just what they sound like: 3-6 month old animals that are quite tender, and mild flavored. They need not be marinated, and are good cooked all manner of ways.
  • Young boar, animals less than a year old. The meat is tender, and mild flavored, though the gaminess characteristic of adult boar is beginning to emerge, and it is best to marinate the meat briefly.
  • Young adult boar, from animals 1-2 years old. The meat is gamier, and must be marinated for several hours.
  • Adult boar, from 2-6 years old. With time boar becomes progressively gamier. Marinades for adult boar must be richer and the marinating times longer (up to 48 hours), while the cooking techniques that work best are moist heat techniques including braising or stewing.
Boar do of course live past the age of 6, but their meat becomes less enjoyable with time.

These ages are for boar caught in the wild that forage on their own, eating acorns, grubs, plants and small animals. Boar are also raised commercially, usually in fenced in sections of forest, where they are eat commercial feed, in addition to what they find on the forest floor. With commercially raised animals the young and young adult periods last a few months longer than they do in the wild.

A word on cooking techniques:

With piglets, the loin, chops, and legs are good roasted, grilled, or pan cooked. The shoulder and other cuts are best stewed.

With young boar, the loin (which can be fairly large) and chops are suitable for roasting, after several hours in a marinade. The other cuts are best cooked with moist heat.

With young adult boar the situation is similar, though the meat should be marinated longer.

With Adult boar, all cuts should be well marinated, and cooked with a moist heat technique.

When in doubt, it is better (I think) to go with a moist heat technique, and if you are using frozen boar purchased in a market, you should definitely go with moist heat and a longer marinating time.

If you cannot find boar, many of these recipes will also work well with venison and other big game, or with hare.

Enough Talk! Some Recipes

Risotto Con Mirtilli E Cinghiale, Wild Boar and Blueberry Risotto
Expect this dish to be a deep bluish red, because the blueberries and wine will die everything.

Cinghiale alle Mele, Roast Wild Boar with Apples
Pork and apples is one of the most standard combinations in cooking, and it should come as no surprise that wild boar will also work well with apples.

Cinghiale alla Romana in Agrodolce, Roman-Style Sweet and Pungent Boar
Italian sweet-and-sour and sweet-and-pungent recipes tend to be quite old, deriving from the aristocratic Middle Eastern custom of using sugar as a sort of "sweet salt," which the Crusaders discovered and brought home with them. These dishes are no longer as popular as they once were -- tastes have changed, and now Italians prefer more savory foods -- but they still offer a delightful change of pace.

Cinghiale in Salsa Agrodolce, Boar in a Sweet-and-Pungent Sauce
A Tuscan interpretation of boar in sweet-and-pungent sauce.

Cinghiale All'Aspromonte, Aspromonte-Style Roast Boar
This is a simple recipe for roast sella di cinghiale, or rack of wild boar, served with grilled peppers.

Cinghiale Ai Frutti Di Bosco, Wild Boar with Wild Berries
This is an easy recipe for wild boar with blueberries, but does require 48 hours of marinating time.

Cinghiale al Ginepro, Wild Boar with Juniper Berries
Juniper berries are traditionally used in cooking boar, hare, and other game. Should boar not be available where you live, this will work well with venison too.

Cinghiale in Umido, Stewed Boar
You'll need well aged meat to do it justice; either ask your butcher to age it for you, or keep the meat in your refrigerator, covered, for a day or two after you get it home.

Cinghiale Fra Due Fuochi, Boar Cooked Between Two Flames
The two flames refers to the custom, when cooking over a wood stove, of putting coals on the lid of the pot. This recipe from Artusi will also work well with hare or other furred game, and semi-captive animals such as wild pigs.

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