Grey Pigs and Casentino Prosciutto

14 January 2021

The story of Selve di Vallolmo and Casentino Prosciutto begins in the 1980s, with the foundation of a rather conventional farm, raising a single pig breed, the Large White, and without a thought for processing its meat in any way.

But as so often happens, the initial idea morphs and expands over time. The number of animals raised is reduced, and research is conducted into the local, traditional products, the breeds and crossbreeds. Now all the family get involved, even the youngest members.

Selve di Vallolmo is today one of the very few farms that produce a rare and marvelous product: Casentino Prosciutto, a Slow Food Presidium. It’s located in Casentino Forest National Park, in the middle of the Apennines along the border of Tuscany and Romagna. A land of forests, chestnuts and oaks. There are 15 hectares fenced off for the Casentino Grey Pigs of the Orlandi family.

Living like animals

On the phone I speak to Serena, granddaughter of the farm’s founder, who explains how the business evolved. All the research that’s been done to transform and improve the original idea. “At the time when we decided to dedicate ourselves to pork products, a farm that dealt solely in pigs was not financially viable. We thought of concentrating on quality, giving great care to our methods of raising the pigs, to their diets, and to creating recipes and ready-made preparations.”

“During our research we found evidence of the importance of charcuterie in this area. Historic documents spoke of pork products being sent as far as England and Germany. To make them, they used the meat of grey pigs. Our collaboration with the University of Florence and our first-hand experience led us to conclude that these grey pigs were a special breed. Indeed, they’re a mix of the classic Large White pigs and the Cinta Sense or Mora Romagnola breeds.”

And so the attempt to recover these products and bring them back to market represents a step forward, and not only. It’s not just the recovery of a pork product, but of a pig breed: the Casentino Grey Pig. While Large White pigs are still raised in styes elsewhere, here the Casentino Grey Pigs are raised in the open air among these 15 hectares of forest. Their diet is extremely varied: acorns, chestnuts, mushrooms, all that the forest provides. And when the forest is less generous, their diets are supplemented with homemade cereals.

Casentino Prosciutto

“The meat of the Grey Pig is special. As it comes from animals that forage freely, that walk freely, it has a well-structured muscle. To taste, you can sense the characteristics of a wild-raised animal. Their meat is also well-suited for lengthy aging processes,”

It’s Serena’s brothers who do most of this work, turning raw meat into charcuterie. The traditional recipe calls for the pigs’ thighs to be trimmed and rubbed with salt. The salt mixture is prepared with garlic and other spices grown locally (pepper, chili pepper, nutmeg and ground juniper). After five to seven days the salt mix is removed from the meat and rubbed again. There’s then a second phase of salting, which can last up to two weeks. The salt is then again removed and the prosciutto is left to age for 40 to 50 days.

In this phase, traditionally, the prosciutto would hang in the kitchen, by the heat of the fire. But in the case of Selve di Vallolmo there are storerooms at 820 meters above sea level for this purpose, where the temperature is ideal for the aging process. This lasts no less than a year, and finally, the prosciutto is ready. Serena’s family and the other producers united in the Presidium prefer to take their time. “In general we allow the aging process to go on as long as two years. They are big legs, with a good proportion of fat. They can easily sustain aging times this long! Knowing how to be patient is the key t making a quality product.”

The ruffiana, salami other products of Selve di Vallolmo

As well as prosciutto, Selve di Vallolmo specializes in making numerous other recipes. The ruffiana (a type of finocchiona); salamis like the strolghino; a mortadella that uses the less in-demand cuts of the animals, guanciale, capocollo, lardo, pork loin… All recipes guided by the same philosophy. Maximum quality is ensured through the choice of ingredients used in the production process. As Serena says: “We use Cervia salt, home-grown garlic which we peel by hand, the casings are natural. We’ve always tried to make niche products, for informed customers who choose healthy, clean products with a story behind them.”

It’s a story that, despite the difficulties of 2020, continues to be told. Serena tells me that last year was extremely difficult: “For a business like ours, which works mostly with restaurants. We’ve reoriented our work, moving more towards online communication. Then we’ve begun to work on new formulas, like vacuum-sealed products, that have allowed us to stay afloat.”

The hope, of course, is that these products have a better year ahead of them, and a wider market. It’s important that we support them.

by Silvia Ceriani,