Where the Wild Things Are
I still remember it as if it was yesterday, even though it was 30 years ago! In Italy, school runs six days a week—yes we attend classes on Saturday morning too, a real bummer. But Sunday is revered as the "Day of Rest"... unless you live in the country!
Yes, if you lived in the Italian countryside until a few decades ago, you really could not sleep past 7 am on any given Sunday during fall and winter, and not because your grandma forced you to go to Mass! What actually got us out of bed was the herd of hunters and dogs that roamed our property, anxious to find their lunch for the day. It was like New Year's Eve fireworks, as shotguns broke the morning silence and loads of pellets sped through the mist and landed on our farm's roof… tic, tic tic, one after the other. The message to me was clear: "We are here and we are hungry. Stay in the house and forget about your bicycle ride… at least until after lunch time."
In those days I sided with Bambi: I could not understand the need to transform the countryside into a war zone, when the butcher downtown could basically provide anything you might have needed for your Sunday stew. Not many regulations were in place for hunters, and anything was fair game.
But the Green-Movement picked up momentum in Italy in the mid 80s, and new regulations declared many areas off limits for hunting, forbidding hunters to enter private properties without the owner's consent. The shooting stopped, and, as of now, my countryside is still quiet... but it is also a zoo!
Over twenty years of virtually no hunting have allowed my family property to become a safe heaven for everything I now dream of having served on my plate, and not just for Sundays. When Debi, the girls and I go stay in our little pink house in the fields, we spend so much time looking out the windows, in search of any kind of movement. In the early morning, as we prepare breakfast, the kids roll their chairs in front of the glass door that faces the olive orchard, and quietly sip their chocolate milk in the hope of catching a glimpse of country life: rabbits, pheasants, deer and quail are everyday encounters, and the girls love knowing that our house is surrounded by wildlife.
But then, here and there—especially when it rains or when the mist is rolling uphill from the valley below— familes of wild boar make their appearance, and we all gasp!
Wild boars have historically not shown interest in our fields. But now, as if back from a long exile, they seem to be here to stay and reproduce... like rabbits. What has actually happened is that the traditional Wild Boar—which previously gave birth to only a couple of cubs each year—has bred with domestic pigs, and is now popping out about eight cubs per season. They are damaging crops, destroying any unfenced vegetable garden they come across, scratching bark off fruit trees, exposing them to sicknesses. They also pose a threat to car traffic on our main streets, as they roam from property to property. Needless to say, my wife is now terrified by a possible encounter as she works the laundry line in the garden. Hence, it is time to take the matter in our hands, and the necessary steps to start controlling the boar population once we get back to our home in Tuscany.
But before diving into our first hunting experience, we need to learn how to safely shoot animals, and start working on some traditional hunters' recipes.
Many of the recipes I have were passed onto me by my grandfather's farmers. When I would visit my grandparents as a child, I remember all the wives sitting on benches and wooden chairs after the hunters had left the fields. Out of kitchen doors, pheasants and quails hung upside down, and one by one came down from the hooks into the ladies' laps, who would pluck the feathers. Big pots were already steaming in the kitchen—vegetable stews with peppers, potatoes, black kale and beans were cooking with bay leaves and rosemary, spreading a fantastic aroma all around. And the hunters, were they cooking? They were too busy boasting and comparing the sizes of their kill!
As much as I had my reservations about hunters, I deeply enjoyed dining with them. It was always a feast of great meats, seasonal vegetables, garden herbs and young wine. Now that I am a grown up, I apply myself very hard to bring back the memories, and also to learn the recipes that are traditional to any Tuscan hunter's home.
This week, I make my family a recipe for Roasted Pheasant, as it is traditionally prepared in Florence (you can substitute with Guinea Foul, or even chicken); a Peperonata, which is a Tuscan staple of peppers and potatoes stew; and finally a very interesting recipe for Castagnaccio, a traditional chestnut flower cake that the kids will not necessarily like, but more for us!
Castagnaccio should be eaten warm out of the oven, before it begins to dry. I remember my grandfather used to trick me into eating it by serving it to me with a big gallop of whipped cream, and that's probably still my favorite way to enjoy it.
Watch Gabriele and Debi Mazar cook meals from their home every Wednesday night at 10pm ET/ 9pm CT on Cooking Channel.
Traditionally, the main meal in Italy is a lengthy affair, composed of a number of small courses. Dishes typically are relatively simple, with seasonal and fresh ingredients.