Article featured image

San Francisco chef and cookbook author Thomas McNaughton is one of America’s rising culinary stars. At his popular restaurant, flour + water, he cooks seasonally, passionately and with the highest pasta-rolling acumen. His debut cookbook,  Flour + Water: Pasta  (co-written with Paolo Lucchesi, featuring gorgeous documentary photography from Eric Wolfinger), follows the story. McNaughton shares 75 recipes — for home cooks of every skill level — while telling stories about the farmers, butchers and pasta masters living and working in his beloved Emilia-Romagna. In this excerpt from the book, McNaughton explains how pork plays such a significant role in the region.  

The story of pork in Emilia-Romagna is the story of salumerias. And the story of salumerias is the story of Franco Macchiavelli — a lifelong salumeria owner and worker. Every morning Franco arrives for work at Bruno e Franco la Salumeria, his business on the cobblestone path of Via G. Oberdan, nestled in the heart of Bologna. He wears the same ensemble every day: a maroon cap, maroon bow tie and maroon apron, set against a starched white collared shirt. He takes pride in his appearance, keeping the apron clean and perfectly folded.

At his salumeria, he works with skill and grace behind the counter, smoothly slicing prosciutto and cutting off perfectly imperfect chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano as he chats with customers. He’s the kind of guy who easily conducts conversations with all his customers, whether he knows them or not. Maybe they’ll talk about the latest issue in local politics, or maybe Franco will drop some knowledge about one of the olive varieties in his shop. His manner is not brash; he is soft-spoken, with Old World charm, almost deferential to his customers. His hospitality comes alive when discussing his favorite topic, the history of salumerias in Bologna.

In the back of his salumeria — a small stockroom with shelves of olive oil, jugs of wine, jarred tuna, and canned mortadella — Franco puts out a tray of sliced meat, pours some Lambrusco in paper cups, and tells the tale that is fundamental to understanding the tradition of fresh pasta in Bologna: the story of pork in Bologna.

Emilia-Romagna is one of the richest regions in all of Europe, thanks to a vibrant economic history that has given birth to industry giants like Ferrari, Maserati, Ducati, Lamborghini and even Barilla. Then there are the region’s worldwide food contributions, many of which are now tightly regulated by the state: balsamic vinegar, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, mortadella, prosciutto di Parma and so on.

But none of that would have been possible without a little black pig. The fathers of the great-grandfathers of those heads of industry, the Lamborghini executives, Maserati suits and Barilla bosses? Once upon a time, they all washed pigs. Pork built Emilia-Romagna; it’s embedded in their society. And according to many old-timers there, these big industries threaten to flatten the old traditions. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Centuries ago, before the Middle Ages or Renaissance, little black pigs roamed the region’s acorn-filled forests and hills. It sounds like some idyllic fairy tale, but it’s true. The indigenous spiky-haired pigs known as Mora Romagnola were much smaller than the hogs of today; they were omnipresent, both wild and cultivated. Things stayed that way until the early twentieth century, when the more familiar pale and hairless breed of pigs was imported into Italy from England. These new pigs — appropriately dubbed “Large Whites” — were much bigger and grew faster than their black-haired predecessors. Since the farmers could get more bang for their buck with the English imports, the Mora Romagnola breed was cast aside. In a matter of decades, they were assumed to be all but extinct until a small herd was found in the forest in the 1950s. Now there’s a movement to preserve the indigenous heritage pigs.
 


The fathers of the great-grandfathers of those heads of industry, the Lamborghini executives, Maserati suits and Barilla bosses? Once upon a time, they all washed pigs.

Like most successful endeavors, a little luck was also involved in the rise of Emilia-Romagna’s pork culture. There was a second component: salt.

In Bologna, the city’s governors during the Middle Ages — the signori — ruled the town and created guilds, which were the trade organizations that regulated all the components of the local economy. Two guilds were dedicated to the pork industry: one was the salaroli and the other was the lardaioli.

The salaroli controlled the salt, an industry that sparked many a war in Italy and elsewhere in the world. A network of canals once pulsed through Bologna, not unlike Venice to the north. Bologna is not directly on a major river thoroughfare, so those canals were essential to trading with the outside world. Boats were loaded with salt in nearby cities (Venice was one common trade partner) and then traveled to Bologna. The salaroli were the only group in the city that was allowed to work with salt, and hence pigs. In a world sans refrigeration, meat had to be preserved in salt. Only the salaroli could butcher the pigs, and in turn, they also preserved them. The salaroli’s emblem was a mortar, a reference to Bologna’s prized meat, mortadella.

Once the pork was salted by the salaroli, it went off to the lardaioli, the group that sold the pork. And living up to the name, the lardaioli also received the lard from the butchers and made candles and soap for the city. The two guilds were separate, but they worked together.

The lardaioli were the precursors to the salumeria. The traditional Bolognese salumeria acts as a curator, handpicking the best artisan goods—meats, cheeses, olives, pastas— from local producers. Even going back to the age of guilds in Bologna, the salumeria never cured its own meat; it only sold the meats provided by the salaroli. It’s a system that lasted for centuries, until Napoleon did away with the guilds at the turn of the eighteenth century. By then, the culture of pork was already firmly established in Emilia-Romagna. In subsequent centuries, technology—namely, electricity—changed the production of pork products, but the culture remains—and so does the salumeria. To this day, salumerias like Franco’s are the place for Bolognese citizens to buy local goods, including prosciutto, mortadella, and fresh pasta.

Everything in Bologna is connected through the salumeria.

Franco Macchiavelli

This is the history that permeates Bologna, and the world into which Franco was born. He grew up in the country, well outside the walls that encircle the city. His family was poor, like many others in the first half of the twentieth century. All fifteeen of his family members were crammed into one little mountain cottage. They grew up on polenta. More familiar Bolognese staples of today, like tortellini and mortadella, were fancy foods, reserved for special occasions. He snacked on chestnuts from the fields. The rest of the year it was polenta, polenta, polenta.

Growing up in Italy when Franco did, kids had a choice: study or choose a profession. Franco did not want to study. But then again, he didn’t want to work, either. He yearned for a life of singing and painting. Neither of those were possible for a peasant boy in the hills of Emilia-Romagna. (A half century later, those artistic inclinations don’t seem so far-fetched; Franco practically speaks in poetry. Sure, the sonnets might be about cured pig parts, but the guy was born with romanticism in his blood.)

Franco chose work and began as an apprentice in a salumeria well outside the city limits. And, as he puts it, once he put on that apron, he never took it off again.

He didn’t think much of working in a salumeria at first. It was a job, nothing more, nothing less. As time passed, however, he found his passion. He explains that in the same way that he yearned for an artistic life once upon a time, he soon found ways to express himself — through the salumeria.

Unlike the other work alternative, in a factory, the job was dynamic. For the first four years he worked at the salumeria, young Franco never talked to a customer. He didn’t even get to work near the counter. He was in the back of the salumeria, cleaning, grinding and basically doing all the grunt work.

Eventually his boss let him handle one customer. He did well, so he got another, and another, and so on. Success in hospitality, as explained by Franco, is making sure that customers leave happy. His work was noticed. One day, an older man and established salumeria owner named Bruno Bellotti came looking for this boy in the countryside who was so good at serving customers. They went into business together and eventually opened a new salumeria in the center of Bologna. It was 1985. Their plan was to safeguard the salumeria tradition that was slipping away from an Italy under siege from McDonald’s, supermarkets and microwaves. Decades later, their salumeria is still carrying the torch for Bolognese traditions, preserving its culture. Franco was gracious enough to take me in and let me work in his shop. It was there that I embraced a culture of pork that would prove essential to Flour + Water’s own restaurant culture, and the model also inspired us to open a salumeria of our own in San Francisco, just down the street from the restaurant.

At Flour + Water, pork quickly became a driving force for the restaurant. If pigs can support an entire region like Emilia- Romagna, why not a restaurant?
 


Everything in Bologna is connected through the salumeria.

More than any other animal, pigs speak to how we want to cook in the restaurant. Between the three restaurants on our block, we usually get four pigs a week, roughly twelve hundred pounds total. With the possible exception of a duck, no other animal lends itself so completely to full utilization; the skin of the pig is as valuable as the leg. We don’t have the capacity to break down a side of beef in the restaurant, but a whole pig or two fits perfectly—and it sells in the dining room.

Pork’s versatility is also key. One week the pork loin might be chopped up into a tortellini filling; another week it might be roasted whole for a group in the private dining room. Much of that improvisation comes from the pig’s characteristics. The more we work with local ranchers, the more we understand the intricacies of the products we buy. With pigs, the variations of region, diet and species are paramount.

We get pigs year-round from Devil’s Gulch Ranch, a family farm north of the city, in Marin County. Devil’s Gulch produces pigs that are both muscular and fatty — and also delicious. Owners Mark Pasternak and Myriam Kaplan-Pasternak, who have run the farm since 1971, cross Yorkshire sows with Duroc or Berkshire boars. The sows are pastured along with their piglets until the piglets are weaned, and the piglets are then finished with local Nicasio Valley cheese, whole-grain breads, brewers’ grain and tortillas. Even pigs of the same breed in another place in America, like South Carolina, will taste different from our pigs. Ours are the pigs of Northern California, raised on the hills of the North Bay, with flavors that reflect our terroir.

We’re lucky to have forged a long-lasting relationship with Mark. We’ve even colonized a spare area of his apple orchard to grow herbs and produce for the restaurant, and when I go up to visit the ranch, I’ll often bring a few fallen apples to the pigs. Aside from the activity being oddly enjoyable for me — kitchen work gets claustrophobic, and I’ll take every opportunity I can to get out of the city — it’s just pretty cool that I can be tossing apples to a dozen pigs, knowing that in time, a couple will be coming to the restaurant.

Above all, the culture of pork at Flour + Water is a fundamental example of what makes the restaurant special and sustainable. When we opened the restaurant, using the whole pig was the starting point for our entire cooking style. We planned dishes around it, and as we grew, those same principles carried over to other facets of the business.

A culture of pork was the basis for Flour + Water, both in Emilia-Romangna and in our early days in the Mission, but from that, an entirely new culture arose in the restaurant: our own.

Read more food book excerpts on Food Republic: