Just south of
by Douglas Gayeton
When I first heard about Tuscan farmer Paolo Parisi and his pasta alla carbonara, I was in San Francisco. Bound to the pedigree of special ingredients from his farm—a mightily expensive egg (nearly $4 each) as well as the cured cheek of pigs of such rarity that only a few hundred are said to exist—his version of the dish is not only known to food cognoscenti in Italy, but also to the impassioned as far away as California. It quickly became an object of my fascination, and I tapped my network to get to Paolo.
While the location of pasta alla carbonara’s invention is the subject of debate, the region of Lazio is certainly its motherland, with various restaurants in Rome claiming ownership of the dish. It is part of the classic cucina povera, and several legends claim its origins, among them that it was a popular form of sustenance for local coal miners. It is simple in structure. Raw eggs, some pancetta or guanciale (cured pig cheek), freshly grated cheese and a few select herbs. All of it briskly stirred into a bowl of fresh pasta and served. It’s a dish reliant on little more than its materie prime, or fundamenal ingredients, and the cook’s sensitivity to them.
Traditional Italian cuisine is founded upon an appreciation for the quality of its materie prime, and their subtlety and refinement are paramount to all else. A salame is not just a salame in Italy, where each town might have its own butchers who honor their own local traditions and either hand cut their meat in large chunks or small, use a particular spice, or perhaps age their salumi in rooms with specific flavor-inducing molds. To travel five kilometers from one town to its neighbor often results in dramatic shifts in cheese products, in what a loaf of bread looks like, or even how locals make a cup of coffee. When it comes to basics such as eggs and pork products, the level of connoisseurship is astoundingly high. This is what makes Italian food so addictive.
When I arrive at Le Macchie, Paolo’s modest farm spread across a hundred acres of rolling, tree-lined hills twenty kilometers south of Pisa, I am greeted by a welcoming party of large, furry farm dogs who lead me down a path to Paolo’s narrow farmhouse. Recently converted from a barn, what once were animal stalls with adjoining hayloft and granary are now a sprawling collection of rooms that house three generations of Paolo’s family.
In the kitchen, with walls lined with every manner of copper pan and pot, and a low ceiling ribbed by massive, roughly hewn chestnut beams that date back to the 1700s, my first conversation with Paolo quickly turns from updates about mutual acquaintances to food—a certain fish restaurant in Viareggio, olive oil from Grotta Parlante near Montecatini, and Zolfini beans from Pratomagno. Paolo’s spirit is engaging and intense as he talks about the things he holds dear, which turns out to be quite a lot, especially his rare breed of pigs.
A doctor's son who became a goatherd, Paolo eventually turned to raising pigs, and started nurturing a small group of Cinta Senese in the mid-1990s. The Cinta Senese had been pushed to the brink of extinction by a number of economic factors. The breed grows too slowly, requires more feed and has an unusually high degree of fat compared with conventional breeds, making it antithetical to trends in Italy’s increasingly industrialized meat business. Yet Paolo and a few other farmers knew something that hadn’t been factored into the equation: The Cinta Senese simply tastes better. As he began butchering the pigs and making his own salumi, he realized that the females needed to be slaughtered later and that different feeds greatly affected the flavor of the meat. Perhaps most importantly, he saw that the fat of this breed becomes very pure if the animal is slaughtered at up to three years old—much later than industrial farmers are willing to wait.
He was convinced he could turn this rare breed into a lucrative and rewarding endeavor, despite its higher costs and effort. So, with a flair for marketing unusual to farmers, he gathered his prosciutto, salami and guanciale made from his pigs, and called on the finest chefs in Italy. He showed up in their kitchens, always unannounced, and demanded they compare his products with the best they had to offer. Paolo claims the Cinta never failed to impress, and with some of Italy’s most prominent chefs behind him, he began reintroducing Italians to an aspect of their culinary (and cultural) history that had almost been lost to history.
Paolo abruptly rises from the kitchen table and suggests we explore his vast property. From a low ridge beyond his house, we look over hills on either side and across at the valley below us. “Down there,” he says, pointing at shadowy figures visible along the tree line to our left. “The Cintas.”
Paolo’s pigs live outdoors. He claims their metabolism is made for rooting in forests for tubers, chestnuts and fallen leaves. This wildness is what sets the Cinta Senese pig apart from the variety of Northern European pigs descended from the Large White, a breed that dominates in commercial production. In fact, the animal’s rugged lifestyle accounts for the meat’s unique flavor, which falls somewhere between the wild richness of boar and the relatively distinct taste of such heritage breeds found in America as the Red Wattle, Berkshire, Tamworth or Yorkshire.
Paolo tells me these animals depend on foraged food for their survival. This “feast or famine” existence creates anxiety in an animal, which he reduces by augmenting the Cinta’s wild diet with a single meal of grain each morning. He also provides the animals with veterinary assistance when needed. Such carefully considered animal husbandry methods allow him to get the best from his animals. They live freely, outdoors and without stress.
I join Filippo, Paolo’s eldest son, when he goes to feed the Cintas. A week of steady rain has made walking down the steep hillside impossible, so we head into the forest on all-terrain vehicles. At the bottom of a narrow gully, we come upon our first brood of Cintas. Dozens of them. I’ve photographed pigs many times, but the Cinta is different. It’s large. Its hair is coarse and bristle-like. It looks wild.
Filippo and I empty buckets of grain onto the ground and a hundred animals quickly descend upon us. Paolo’s goatherding days left him particularly fond of goats, and a number of them live among the pigs and only go into the barn once a day for milking.
The goats and pigs eat together, yet give each other space, having established that particularly improvised détente typical of farms where various animals end up living together. Paolo also has thousands of Livornese chickens. This local heritage breed (its name taken from the nearby port town of Livorno) is known as a prodigious egg layer. They, too, live outdoors, freely foraging for their food, and only come inside to escape inclement weather or to sleep at night. As a result, their eggs are found in the most unusual places on Paolo’s farm: inside boxes, up trees, under bushes. But what makes Paolo’s eggs truly special is that he adds his goats’ milk to the chickens’ diet.
Aside from what they forage, these chickens live on a small amount of grain mixed with goat’s milk gathered each morning. The eggs that result have an amazingly creamy texture, with luminescent orange yolks. They have become a highly prized commodity on menus at some of Italy’s most notable restaurants. Paolo shares his recommended preparation with the chefs: Gently crack two eggs into a special pan he provides, cook them with a healthy amount of olive oil, a dab of salt and nothing else, and serve them very runny. But in Milan, Il Luogo Di Aimo E Nadia takes a more elaborate approach, serving them softly simmered with porcini, zucchini, breadcrumbs and balsamic vinegar. However they’re prepared, Paolo’s eggs often exceed $20 a plate.
The secret behind Paolo’s pasta alla carbonara now becomes clear: it’s all about these crazy eggs. But Paolo, who incidentally decides against preparing the dish on my first visit, says his eggs are only part of the equation. The rest he explains days later, when we drive a few hours north to Mantova to witness the slaughter of two dozen of his Cintas.
Our car ride begins in the hours before dawn. In darkness, with conversation fueled by multiple stops for espressos from Italy’s ubiquitous roadside Autogrill, we bounce between the same subjects considered by farmers the world over. To be successful today, artisanal farmers must be able stewards of their land, marketers with a fiercely entrepreneurial spirit and have the patience to be educators. Their customers must be reintroduced to the culinary and cultural value of food, and the premium price such hand-crafted products require. “He who makes food of quality is poor,” Paolo says, “because nobody understands what you’re doing. We have television and the Internet, and access to all this information, but our global culture has evolved to the point where we are paradoxically more ignorant than people one hundred years ago. We eat things with names like ‘bread’ or ‘meat’ or ‘eggs,’ but these are false products. Nothing is what it claims to be with overly industrialized food. It’s sad because people no longer know the taste of real food, it’s being forgotten. Meanwhile, the world keeps getting smaller and smaller, not in terms of people coming closer together and being more connected, but in terms of there being less and less uniqueness around us. Industrialization eliminates that which requires too much work and cannot be easily handled in an automated setting.”
The anti-industrial tenor of Paolo’s conversation is quite at odds with the spectacle that confronts us when we enter the Levoni slaughterhouse in Mantova. Imagine a Rube Goldbergesque assembly line inspired by Dante’s Inferno and built by Fellini, complete with flame throwers, steaming cauldrons of water and animals swaying on overhead chains, while legions of white gowned workers pass below, armed with all manner of exotic carving instruments.
Instead of butchering the Cinta on his farm with a local butcher, as artisanal tradition dictates, we’re at one of the most prestigious, albeit industrial, slaughterhouses in Italy, wearing hairnets, white surgical smocks and rubber boots that extend up to our knees. I wonder why, after all the care that goes into saving and raising this unusual breed of pig, a man who champions traditional methods is slaughtering his pigs at an industrial slaughterhouse. I yell to Paolo over the incredible din of running sawblades, “If your Cinta is an argument in favor of the artisanal, why are we here?”
“That’s easy,” he yells back. “If I bring two butchers out to my farm they can break down six animals in a weekend. It’s slow. The meat just sits there while the men work, and that meat—its quality suffers. But here at Levoni, twenty-four animals are slaughtered and completely broken down by these men—who are artisans in their own way—and the meat is immediately placed in refrigerators. The whole operation is complete, every cut perfect, in less than twenty minutes. That’s incredible. There is no better system to preserve the meat’s freshness and taste.”
Aside from being an exceptional slaughterhouse, Levoni is known for smoking meat, in this case the guanciale from Paolo’s pigs. The process requires a special machine, one resembling a rotisserie, and the burning of select woods (their type remains a secret). This slow curing takes a week to complete.
The following Satruday, I return to Le Macchie for lunch, where Paolo finally offers to prepare his pasta alla carbonara for me. He starts by prying massive wedges from a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. He hands them to his second eldest son, Rocco, who quickly goes to work with a circular grater. I am handed a corkscrew and a bottle of 2006 Ansonica from the nearby La Parrina winery. Paolo collects the dish’s materie prime, arranges them on a massive wooden table and dices thick slabs of his guanciale picked up from Levoni the previous afternoon. He grates zest from a few lemons taken from a tree just beyond the kitchen window. Paolo tells me the zest is critical; it balances the guanciale’s oiliness and brings out the green herbal tones in the sprigs of fresh marjoram taken from a wooden bowl on a nearby shelf. When he drops a few fistfuls of pasta into the water, the final countdown begins. Garlic is diced. A few choice eggs are selected and cracked in a bowl, with the remaining ingredients following right behind. Our conversation momentarily ceases as Paolo grabs the bowl, and with a few forceful strokes, whisks everything together into a creamy, frothing mass. It’s mesmerizing. Nothing in his sauce is warmed above room temperature, unlike the recipes you find in Rome or elsewhere that cook the guanciale, rendering its fat. Of course, the inclusion of lemon zest and marjoram is also different from what you’ll find in Lazio.
Paolo gestures to a shelf. I grab a few pasta bowls and set them on the table while he turns to the stove and spins forkfuls of steaming pasta into the bowl. He stirs, adds more pasta, stirs again. He grinds sarawak pepper on top, saying something emphatic about its provenance and that he sometimes smokes it to intensify its flavors. But I’m hardly listening at this point, I’m so transfixed by the glistening bowl of pasta alla carbonara before me. I realize, biting into the pasta, that, in the end, to understand the essential, fundamental truths of a country’s cuisine, you have to seek out its finest ingredients. It’s these materie prime, cultivated by a passionate farmer, that have culminated in the best plate of pasta alla carbonara I’ve ever tasted. The best food evokes a sense of place and reveals something intimate about its maker. I became Paolo’s friend that afternoon, and Le Macchie remains with me, infused in my memory of the tastes it provided for the carbonara.
Douglas Gayeton is author and photgrapher of Slow Life in a Tuscan Town.
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