All week, we'll be featuring Japanese-turned-Tuscan-turned-Aussie writer, photographer, and blogger Emiko as she documents her whole-hog feast, La Maialata.
When the idea came up to do a dinner based on each course made with different parts of the pig, dessert was easy. In fact, it was the first dish to be scrawled on the rough draft of the menu: sanguinaccio dolce, a southern Italian (particularly Basilicata, Calabria, Abruzzo and Campania) specialty of fresh pig’s blood cooked with dark chocolate and milk into a decadent pudding.
The salty, slightly metallic zing of the blood, which is what also gives the dessert its fantastic, custard-like texture, complements the flavour of the dark chocolate in a beautifully balanced way, similar to the savoury-sweet combination of sea salt and dark chocolate or salted caramel.
I’ve wanted to try this dessert ever since a southern Italian friend recounted to me, full of nostalgia, that when he was a child, his small hometown near Foggia, Puglia, would hold an annual pig festival. It was an age-old tradition where the town pigs were butchered then celebrated by using the whole beast, right down to every last drop of blood. The fresh, warm blood was collected and then, on the spot, mixed with milk and chocolate and cooked into a dark, decadent, custard-like pudding – it was the highlight of the festival.
This specialty has intrigued me ever since and as I looked further around I discovered more blood-based desserts and more of that nostalgia over the memory of these rich and traditional dishes. I found a cookbook of traditional Neapolitan desserts, which includes four different versions of sanguinaccio dolce, even one that results in a dense, chocolate log (rather than a pudding) flavoured with candied citron, pine nuts and spices like cinnamon. But during the seven years I lived in Italy I never had the opportunity to try any of the recipes – in 1992 an Italian law banned the sale of pig’s blood in many regions, so the only lucky people who can still make these traditional recipes get it themselves from their own pig. Slowly this tradition is being lost to a modern recipe without the blood, with butter and cornstarch feebly attempting to re-create the creamy texture that the blood gives.
Luckily, now that I live in Melbourne we were able to source some fresh pig’s blood from Donati’s Fine Meats on Lygon Street, a forty year old Italian family-run shop and one of the best butcher experiences in the city (think Puccini in the background and meat-themed artworks on the walls). It was our third attempt at asking for pig’s blood at a butcher – the previous attempts had been unsuccessful, the response being a slightly wishy-washy, “it’s difficult to get”. But then came Donati’s answer: “Sure, how much do you want?”
Pig’s blood must be used when it is as fresh as possible, with many traditional recipes calling for “warm” pig’s blood, indicating just how fresh it should be and where it is likely to come from – home. Here, not only is blood not usually an ingredient people ask for at the butcher, but it is “difficult to get” in that a lot more attention has to be paid to sourcing blood for human consumption. Today’s abattoirs deal with hundreds of animals in a context that could not be further from the home-butchering that was traditionally done by Italian farmers or villagers of the past, where collecting the blood from just one pig was as simple as sticking a basin under the hanging carcass.
Donati’s is the place where restaurants come for their meat products, so it’s also the place I was hoping to find unusual ingredients such as blood. They get fresh pig’s blood in every week and as long as you happen to get there before a restaurant does (it’s popularly used for making blood sausage), you’ll be lucky enough to nab some for yourself.
While we’re waiting for our two litres of blood to be measured out in a thick, stiff plastic bag, we’re casually chatting with the butcher – a Sardinian native. One of the charming things about Donati’s is the Italian banter that you always hear. He asks us what we are planning on doing with it. “Un dolce” – a dessert – is our reply. He nods knowingly and says that his grandmother used to make a sweet, deep-fried fritter made of pig’s blood, walnuts and honey. There was that nostalgia again.
I jump on the back of the scooter with the glowing red bag of pig’s blood awkwardly but carefully held out to one side, while my husband drives. I think to myself, we could probably look almost normal if it was Naples, but we are actually weaving through Melbourne traffic – a memorable food moment if there was one.
Back at home, with our bag of pig’s blood, I am more than excited. I’m not one to be squeamish about any sort of food and have eaten my fair share of unusual and even grotesque things, but I have to admit that preparing this dish was slightly on the creepy side. Perhaps it’s just something about stirring a huge pot of thick, red blood – a colour and texture that could not be mistaken for anything else – that did it. Milk is added in equal amounts, and even that does little to change the colour of the intense red liquid. It’s when sugar and dark chocolate are added to the warming blood, that the mixture changes colour from bright red to the darkest, almost black, brown. As the chocolate melts and the blood thickens with the low and steady heat, it quickly turns into a creamy, luscious, custard-like pudding that can be scented with orange rind and cinnamon.
This is what I love about experimenting in the kitchen with traditional, even ancient, dishes. They are so simple, a product of essential and thrifty cooking to feed poor, hungry mouths, and yet right now it feels like such a daring and experimental recipe. But I think just like the Renaissance masters were looking back at Ancient Rome, it never hurts to get a bit of inspiration from history when you need a good idea.
Le Creuset has generously offered to reward our Big Feasters for all their hard work, and as our second Big Feast, Emiko will win, in the color of her choice (flame, cherry, fennel, Caribbean, or Marseille): a 3 1/2-quart round French oven, a 9-inch iron handle skillet, and a 1 1/4-quart precision pour pan. Pitch us your Big Feast at email@example.com for a chance to win up to $500 in Le Creuset booty.