When we speak of Italian cuisine, we are speaking of the varied cuisines of geographic entities that were the city-states before the Risorgimento, the unifying of Italy. There is another class of Italian cuisine, it seems to me, that of the worker.
The Vineyard Worker
Wineries in Italy, especially Piemonte, are more like small farms in which the workers (which often include the owner and family) have many tasks. Tasting rooms can close while the staff picks grapes in the fall. But work takes fuel, and one day we discovered some high-octane deliciousness.
It was a glorious day, the sun shone brightly, the sea of vineyards around us stretched as far as the next distant hill crowned with a small castle. We found a restaurant and stopped in.
On the menu was a ravioli dish. I don’t remember what it was named, but how it was named intrigued me. I asked the waitress. She reddened and got all flustered. “Signore, this is what was fed the workers. It’s just ravioli and they are boiled and then we pour the red wine over them. Just red wine, there is no sauce really.” The subtext, of course, was that this was not for us, vaunted tourists, but for the common folks taking a nostalgic trip to the time they picked grapes in their younger years.
I ordered it of course. It was good. I could imagine tired workers leaning against giant beams palming bowls of ravioli and getting their wine infusion with every spoonful. It was, after all, time to rid the tanks of the old to make way for the juice of the grapes they were now picking. It look like this:
The Pig Slaughter Worker
As I am the, “what the hell is this weird thing, I gotta have it” kind of person when I’m staring at a restaurant menu, I once found “grilled salami” in the secondo piatto section of a menu printed in bad English. The steaming patty was good. It wasn’t salami. It hadn’t been cured.
You see, many rural Italians still keep a pig or two. In the winter they slaughter the animal and make salami, prosciutto, and other wonderful salted pig parts to hold them over through the winter. It’s been happening since forever in rural spaces.
When I bought our house in the rural Lunigiana corner of Tuscany, we happened to have a neighbor named Armando who raised pigs. One winter I watched the process of making the noble animal into food. It was then that I came to understand what I was eating that day.
On the first day the butcher broke down the pig in an open shed. On the second morning Armando, the butcher, and other workers gathered in a garage and began turning the appropriate parts of the pig into things like salami and Mortadella Luniginese. As the grinder cranked the folks helping kept taking little bits of the pork to taste. Raw.
Then the spices were added and mixed in along with a couple of glugs of Armando’s homemade white wine. At that point it was lunch time. The workers and I scurried to the kitchen.
I hadn’t seen them take out bits of the salami mixture, but handfuls of the spiced pork were now being pressed into the teste, little ceramic “plates” with a lip that could stand the heat of being heated to high temperatures right on the fire.
So what came out was that grilled patty of salami I’d eaten. It was a way that the workers could share the exact thing being produced, as in the case of the ravioli with wine for the wine workers. It was also a way the padrone could get a final idea of the level of seasoning.
In the Lunigiana, we call this grilled salami chiodo di maiale. It looks like a plain ol’ burger, but it’s way better.
The Worker’s Lunch
All over the Lunigiana, as well as other places in Italy, you can get what they call worker’s lunch. It’s a bargain at between 10 and 13 euro. That includes a pasta, soup or risotto, a main course, vegetable or salad, wine, mineral water and coffee, no tipping, no tax. It’s always a bargain.
Get a taste for a typical pronzo di lavoro the typical “worker’s lunch” you don’t have to work for by reading a review of Ristorante Vecchia Bruxelles.
Don’t you wish you were in Italy right now?