SAN TERENZIANO, Italy — On a May afternoon, when the weather was unable to decide between sun and showers, the dedication of pork lovers here in this central Italian town was sorely tested. Again and again, rain arrived; the crowd scattered.
But again and again, as the sun returned, they poured back into the town square, appetites renewed for more porchetta: the aromatic, ancient whole pig roast that a crowd of hundreds had gathered to celebrate. It was the last day of Porchettiamo, a new festival devoted to porchetta, and a few showers were not going to keep them from the rare opportunity to taste a dozen different kinds of this beloved dish.
To make porchetta, a whole pig is deboned and gutted, then stuffed with garlic and herbs, and roasted in its skin until crunchy, juicy and insanely aromatic. (The head is left on, so when it is cooked, a whole porchetta looks like a pig in a brown sleeping bag.)
It is served sliced and stuffed into crusty rolls or between slabs of focaccia; because it is boneless, every slice has spirals of tender meat, lush fat and crunchy cracklings. As at a whole-hog barbecue in the United States, the goal is a mix of all three in each bite.
The dish is popular all over Italy as street food, almost always spotted at events like street fairs and weekly produce markets. Multiple sagras, or food festivals, are devoted to it every year. But Umbria fiercely guards its reputation as the birthplace of porchetta.
It is a simple dish, not a professional butcher’s masterpiece like the famous salamis from nearby Norcia, but it inspires great passions. “The idea came to me in a dream,” said Anna Setteposte, a co-founder of the festival. Its manifesto reads, “More than a festival: a declaration of love.”
Unlike most sagras, Porchettiamo gathers multiple producers from all over Italy, enabling porchetta partisans to taste, compare and simply gorge.
At one end of the festival, at the booth of Antica Salumeria Granieri Amato, founded in 1916, three generations of the Granieri family were handing children crunchy hunks of deeply bronzed skin. Their salumeria produces a strictly traditional porchetta, and is one of the last to still roast porchetta in a wood oven, for smoky flavor.
At the other end, the hip young chef Marco Gubbiotti of Cucinaa, a “gastronomic project” in nearby Foligno, handed out porchetta sandwiches stuffed with a confit of apple and fennel.
Some producers use fistfuls of garlic, others just pinches; some leave the liver in for the rich flavor it adds to the stuffing, others consider that bizarre; some perfume the meat with rosemary, while others maintain that only fennel pollen has the true flavor of Umbria.
The professional chefs used a large piece of pork that American butchers call the “perfect cut” instead of the whole pig. “They take the whole pork belly, which is super fatty, and wrap it around the loin, which is relatively lean,” said Matt Lindemulder, a partner at Porchetta in the East Village, where they use the same cut. “When they cook together, the fat from the belly bastes the loin.”
Respect for food traditions was already entrenched in Italian culture when the modern values of eating locally, sustainably and transparently went global — partly via Slow Food, which was founded just a few hundred kilometers away. At Porchettiamo, the Umbrian reverence for pork, and passion for the deep culinary and agricultural heritage of the region, were on full display.
Valentino Gerbi, a founder and butcher at a new meat producer called Etrusco, handed out juicy meatballs and fliers advertising the company’s “carne locale radicale,” radical local meat.
Etrusco allows its animals — both cows and pigs — to grow larger than modern tastes have dictated. Today’s younger, smaller animals are more tender, but they are less flavorful, and less like the meat our great-grandparents ate.
“We embrace the peasant traditions of central Italy — no compromises, no shortcuts,” Mr. Gerbi said.
Many other farmers here are developing sidelines in organic and heirloom produce, or converting family farms from commercial to traditional production.
“Like the old times, our pigs are grazing outdoors, eating corn and barley instead of bone meal, taking no supplements or antibiotics,” said Ramon Rustici, a farmer who supplied several of the pigs for Porchettiamo. “People today want to know that they are eating cibo vero,” real food.
It doesn’t get much more real than the back room of Carlo Giuliani’s butcher shop in Costano just after dawn, when the smell of bleach is still stronger than the smell of blood. The day after Porchettiamo, Mr. Giuliani was preparing to make porchetta from a 220-pound pig that had been raised at the Rustici farm in the hills above Assisi, slaughtered and cleaned, then aged for three days to dry out the skin (this makes it crisp up when roasted).
Like many European farmers, the Rusticis raise Large Whites, a fast-growing, hardy breed of British origin; the Italian strain is bred with particularly large and muscular legs, the better for making prosciutto.
Mr. Giuliani had no special tools, just a knowledge of porcine anatomy and a knife with a wickedly thin, long blade that he sharpened every 10 minutes or so. (When knives are used to cut against bone, they dull very quickly.)
An hour later, he had removed more than 200 bones from the carcass; set aside the trotters and ears to simmer in a dish called cicotto that is made from the leftover bits of pig; and methodically rubbed the inside with minced shallots, garlic, salt, pepper and a thick golden dusting of fennel pollen.
“The fennel is what makes it Umbrian,” said Barbara D’Agapiti, owner of Wine Link Italy, a guide to local food and wine. Fennel grows wild here, and its pollen has the refreshing whiff of dried sage, with notes of saffron, lemon and fennel seed.
To foreigners, Umbria and its food are often overshadowed by the high profile of Tuscany, which lies just to the west. But in Italy, Umbria is fondly called “il cuore verde d’Italia,” the green heart of Italy, for its fertile soil and ancient agricultural traditions. Pork from its green hills and deep forests has been prized since pre-Roman times.
Today, if you spend time poking around Umbria’s pig farms, prosciutto makers and pork festivals, you will be regaled by theories about how the region came to be the epicenter of pork butchery in Italy.
Among them: In Preci, Benedictine monks flourished as healers from the 13th century, building a rare library of anatomy texts and a renowned infirmary. They taught their skills to locals who were already skilled in “surgery” — butchers. Watching Mr. Giuliani remove the pig’s 32 ribs one by one lent credence to this theory.
For those without surgical-level knife skills, Umbrian-style porchetta is still an accessible pleasure, within reach of any home cook with a large grill (though a roasting pan in an oven will do). Fennel pollen is easy to order and well worth trying, even if you believe that rosemary and garlic with pork is the most celestial combination imaginable. (In California, where wild fennel does grow, cooks can easily harvest their own.)
A whole pig is not practical unless you are feeding a whole town, but any boneless well-marbled roast with skin or a thick fat cap will do.
The key elements of the finished dish are juicy meat, soft fat and crispy crust. In modern Umbrian kitchens, porchetta has expanded beyond pork, so that “in porchetta” has simply come to mean boneless meat, rolled round garlic and herbs, and roasted.
It is served at hip Umbrian restaurants in variations like carp in porchetta, beef in porchetta, and — in the case of the young chef Nicolas Bonifacio of Eat Out Osteria Gourmet in Assisi — rabbit in porchetta with hummus, garlic yogurt and Middle Eastern spices.
Porchetta, the festival organizers say, deserved to be honored as food of the people, unlike luxury ingredients such as truffles, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano that typically command respect and attention from the greater food world.
“Street food is the food of the future,” said Antonio Boco, a co-founder of Porchettiamo. “Low-cost food, without boundaries, that makes many people happy: What could be more global than that?”