Traditionally, winter is pig slaughtering season in Italy. These days, since the majority of Italians no longer live in the countryside and can easily buy pork and other meats from their local butcher or supermarket, this custom has become less visible. In the past though, the pig played an extremely important role in the domestic economy. Rural households across the peninsula would raise and, after a year, slaughter a pig at wintertime, to ensure they had the provisions necessary to feed themselves. Today, we can appreciate the pig’s value in rural society from this Calabrian proverb: ‘Those who marry are only happy for a day, but those who slaughter their pig are happy for an entire year’.
No part of the animal went to waste. Blood freshly harvested from the pig was used to make a variety of sweet and savoury dishes such as sanguinaccio and migliaccio. Jellies and gelatin were made with extremities like trotters, tail, ears and snout. Fat was cured to make lardo (cured fatback) and a variety of salumi. That fat was also treated for making strutto (cooking lard) and sugna (a sealant preservative for food). Going the whole hog was essential to ensuring a larder for much of the rural population.
The season and my recent reading about raising and slaughtering pigs in Karima Moyer-Nocchi’s wonderful book Chewing the Fat: An Oral History of Italian Foodways from Fascism to Dolce Vita (thank you Anna for this recommendation!) have inspired me to write about one of my favourite Piedmontese primi. Notable for its use of rice, beans and pork-derived ingredients, la panissa (its name in the city of Vercelli) or la paniscia (as it is called in Novara), is the ultimate winter comfort food.
The word panissa appears to have its origins in the Latin paniculum, which translates to ‘made of millet’. Gianfranco Vissani has hypothesised that panissa was once a common peasant millet-based gruel or soup. After the spread of rice cultivation in Piedmont in the 1500s, rice began to be used instead. When provisions permitted, the gruel was enrichened by the addition of lardo, cotenna di maiale (pork rind) and salumi.
The cities of Vercelli and Novara are home to Piedmont’s most famous interpretations of this starter. Variations exist, but generally, the vercellese version is made with risotto rice (such as the Arborio, Carnaroli or Baldo varieties), locally-grown Saluggia or Villata beans, onion, red wine, lardo, pork rind, broth and salam d’la duja, a salame aged in a layer of sugna. The paniscia novarese also includes risotto rice, borlotti beans, onion and red wine but the broth is thicker and more soup or minestra-like with its cabbage, carrot, celery and pork rind. In some versions, a mortadella-like sausage made of pig liver is used instead of the salam d’la duja too.
I’ll be precise with my measurements (they are for four people by the way) but I’d prefer not to call what follows a recipe per se. Rather, it’s a summary of the principles for making a more vercellese-inspired panissa. Though not difficult to make, planning ahead is essential with its four fundamental cooking stages: beans, broth, soffritto and risotto. As Giovanni Goria, author of La cucina del Piemonte collinare e vignaiolo, says about its preparation, “Ci vuole santa pazienza.”[i] Basically, it’s not the kind of dish you can whip up at the last minute…
- Beans – Bring 300 g beans (if using dried beans, they should have been soaked for twelve hours previously) to boil in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low to medium heat until cooked and tender (they should be cooked through but not at breaking point!). This should take about 1 to 1 ½ hours. Turn off heat. Using a slotted spoon, strain and transfer beans to a large bowl. Cover and put aside.
- Broth – Bring 100 g fresh pork rind, 2 stems of celery, 1 leek, 1 carrot, a sprig of rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil to boil in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low to medium heat for 2 hours. Turn off heat. Bring to boil again when it’s time to prepare the soffritto.
- Soffritto – Heat 4 large spoonfuls of olive oil [ii] in a pan. Add one medium to large finely chopped onion, 50 g chopped lardo and a salami or fresh sausage roughly ground to pieces. Fry until onion has softened and the lardo starts melting down.
- Risotto – Add 380 g rice and toast it until it turns a pale translucent colour. Pour in a glass of red (Barbera or Gattinara work well) wine. Let the wine evaporate. Add a couple of ladlefuls of broth. Continue adding broth whenever the liquid evaporates. While nearing the end of the cooking time – the rice should still be al dente at this point – add the cooked beans, ensuring that they are stirred in thoroughly. Taste for salt and season accordingly. Turn off heat. No mantecatura[iii] of butter for this guy. He’s swimming in fat as it is! Leave to rest so any excess broth is absorbed. Bon appetito!
[i] This translates to ‘the patience of a saint is required’.
[ii] You could also use 50 g butter or 50 g strutto (cooking lard).
[iii] At this stage, risottos generally call for a mantecatura of cold butter that is stirred in to make that characteristic creamy and smooth texture. Goria, however, thinks it’s unnecessary with panissa and I agree with him!