Pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale
Boarn to be wild.
Wild boar sounds adventurous—and it certainly proved so for Robert Baratheon. Yet, boar has been preyed upon by more than just bloodthirsty, debaucherous kings; it has adorned the supper tables of regular folk throughout Eurasia for millennia. Hunting game is still a common practice in countries that rely less on industrial farming and commercially processed foods. In Tuscany, where the animal’s population is widespread, hunting wild boar is a tradition and a passion. Tuscany holds ten annual fairs and festivals to celebrate the animal and the foods it inspires. Ragù di cinghiale, considered a signature dish of the region, is sumptuous and satiating in every way. If you are crazy about pulled pork, prepare to enter a whole new world of flavor.
Whether farmed or hunted, wild boar is a delicious, healthy option. It is leaner and higher in protein than beef, chicken, or non-wild pork. The flavor profile is up to subjective interpretation but is generally characterized tasting somewhere in between domesticated pork (it is a pig, after all) and venison. People claim the animal becomes gamier as it grows older; however, I find the flavor more closely related to my personality—on the sweet side with a hint of nuttiness.
Boar’s flavor is undoubtedly contributed to what crops they forage—and by forage, I mean invade. Generally speaking, their diet consists of acorns, apples, grass, hickory nuts, pecans, root vegetables—and recently, they have been wreaking havoc on Sangiovese and other grape crops in Northern Italy. I’m sympathetic, as I, too, have been known to wreak havoc on Sangiovese grapes—but only post-fermentation. To pay proper homage to this fine animal, it’s only fair that we cook it in a vintage that is has a particular lust for.
Ragù. What the hell is it?
If you immediately thought of that bottled atrocity on the grocery store shelves—shame on you and your sinful mind! Actually, it was smart to brand a bottled sauce using that name…nonetheless, it is worlds away from anything resembling an actual ragù. I think they even have the accent mark reversed on the letter “u”.
There exists an early childhood memory of asking my grandfather why we never bought supermarket bottled sauce. This inquiry was met with an awkward pause followed by a look that can only be described as heightened confusion married to sheer disgust. The Catholic guilt swelled inside of me. I was only suggesting this in the interest of efficiency, yet felt I desecrated a holy ideal. “You people do nothing but work,” I thought, “maybe pre-made sauce opens up your schedule.”
Something happened that day that became ingrained in the very fibers of my being. Store-bought, pre-packaged things are anathema. Keep in mind, the selection of available pre-bottled sauced when I was a child looked like something resembling a market in The Handmaid’s Tale. These days, there are a few decent products out there to get you through a quick pasta dinner on a tight budget. None of them, however, are a ragù.
The term ragù is derived from the French ragoût. Ragoûts in French cuisine are more akin to complex stews than sauces and almost always incorporate highly-seasoned meat. Similarly, in Italy, a ragù is defined as a meat-based sauce that is commonly served with pasta but could be served otherwise. The two most popular varieties of ragù in Italy are the northern Italian ragù alla Bolognese from the Emilia-Romagna region and the southern Italian ragù alla Napoletana from Campania.
A Tale of Two Sauces
Bolognese sauce is conventionally made with ground meats (veal, pork, pancetta), equal parts onion, carrot, and celery in the soffritto, white wine, very little tomato product (usually paste), and even the addition of milk and cheese rind. The lipid of choice in this region is oftentimes butter, as the north has an abundance of dairy cows. The result is a rich sauce where the meat absorbs almost all of the moisture; often referred to as a dry sauce. Bolognese sauce is probably the most eaten meat-sauce in the world.
In contrast, a Napoletana-style sauce consists of whole cuts of beef and pork, sausages, ham hocks, meatballs, oxtails, and even hard-boiled eggs. Each of these proteins become a separate offering after a long braise in the tomato-rich sauce. Southern Italian sauces generally have a higher onion to carrot and celery ratio and more garlic, favor red wine over white, and feature a robust tomato-heavy base, using the world-famous San Marzano tomatoes grown in the volcanic soil of Mount Vesuvius, which yields the “red” sauces people commonly associate with Italy. Olive oil is the most common cooking medium due to the overabundance of olive trees and, conversely, the lack of dairy cattle. This also explains why mozzarella di bufala, famous throughout Campania, is made from buffalo milk.
As you can see, the two most popular examples of ragù bare only a slight resemblance to each other in composition, technique, or presentation. Nonetheless, they share the overarching criteria for a ragù—which is that they are both a meat-based sauce.
The matriarch of your clan has been toiling over the range for what seems to be an eternity only to bestow her family with that majesty of all things only she can create: Her Sunday Gravy (cue angelic voices). It’s an Italian-American thing: the gravy; wholly derived from the tradition of slow-simmered ragùs throughout Italy.
A lot can be learned about a family from the gravy. My great-grandmother emigrated from Sicily with my grandfather. Some of my fondest childhood memories are from being in the kitchen with them as a child. She never called her ragù “gravy”—I don’t think she knew more than five words of English, much less any colloquialisms; however, many grandmas do including my wife’s. Anyway, as I grew older and more knowledgeable about Italian cuisine, I realized many of the recipes I learned in childhood were not Sicilian in origin. Nonna’s ragù was alla Napoletana, as were many of the other recipes she and my grandfather taught me. This led to investigating a well-documented history of the Capuano family in Napoli, which led to the discovery of the Ancient Etruscan city Capua just outside of Napoli.
That whole 23andMe aside was to reinforce that you can learn a lot about your own family or someone else’s through their food. What shapes of pasta do they prefer? Are there particular antipasti they love to serve? What type of ragù is bubbling in the pot? If it is ragù di cinghiale, it is time to open a bottle of Chianti and discuss Renaissance art.
A Tusk-an dish that is anything but boar-ing
By comparison, ragù di cinghiale is much more closely related to ragù Bolognese. As the origins of this dish hail from northern Italy, the meat remains in the sauce in shredded form (ground boar would be acceptable). The long, slow braise allows the meat to absorb the moisture, providing a thick, hearty, stew-like ragù. Pappardelle pasta is the traditional accompaniment, as the thickness of the pasta stands up to the hearty flavors and consistency of this sauce.
Unless you hunt or trap your own game, only purchase boar from a reputable butcher or specialty shop that guarantees a humanely-raised animal on a natural, antibiotic-and-hormone free diet of grass, roots, nuts, fruits, acorns, and grains.
Marinating the boar overnight is an important step as it tenderizes the meat and tempers some of the gaminess. When has soaking meat in wine overnight been a bad idea? Never is the answer to that question.
The addition of juniper berries is a classic Tuscan technique as they really complement the flavor of the boar. Use flavorful, fresh bay leaves, herbs, juniper berries, and peppercorns. Discard those spices that have been hibernating in the back of your cupboard since 2009. Additionally, use a local Tuscan wine. It doesn’t have to be a Super Tuscan you were saving for when you lost your virginity or the Barbaresco hid in the attic for when you renewed your vows. Just something you would drink unreluctantly. Remember after the alcohol cooks out, the raw flavor of the vintage remains. If you wouldn’t drink it, why ruin your dish with it? P.S. for authenticity’s sake, buy something bottled is the same region as the dish you want to prepare.
Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are. ~ Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
Boar is not as esoteric as it sounds. Often marketed as a delicacy, it was part of a normal diet in this country not long ago. A few generations back, more people ate more game than chicken. Industrial farming and commercially processed foods changed this arguably for the worse. Life without the local supermarket of your choice, prepackaged meal delivery service, or any one of the countless fast food establishments within a stone’s throw of your current position would be less convenient—no argument there. Just don’t shy away from any opportunity to try something new because it is unfamiliar. Think pork shoulder only better.
Also, thank you for putting up with not one—but two—egregious boar puns. Now that you have suffered through that…Buon Appetito!
- Place the boar in a non-reactive dish with enough wine to cover it. Add 1 sprig of rosemary, 3 sprigs of thyme, 1 tablespoon whole peppercorns, 1 tablespoon whole juniper berries, 1 bay leaf, and 2 lightly smashed cloves of garlic to the wine. Cover and marinate overnight.
- The following day: Remove the boar from the marinade and pat dry with paper towels. Strain and reserve the wine from the marinade, discarding the other ingredients.
- Preheat an oven to 325°F.
- Heat 6 tablespoons of olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan, preferably a Dutch oven or Braiser, over medium-high heat.
- Lightly dredge the boar pieces in flour, wiping off any excess.
- Add the boar to the pan and brown on all sides. Allow the meat to caramelize well before turning, about 2-3 minutes each side.
- Add the soffritto (onion, carrot, celery) to the pan and cook 5-6 minutes, stirring once or twice, until they begin to caramelize slightly.
- Add the garlic and tomato concentrate to the pan and cook an additional 1-2 minutes.
- Deglaze the pan with the wine reserved from the marinade being sure to scrape up all of the fond (brown bits) off the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon.
- Reduce the wine until all the alcohol has been evaporated, then add the peeled cherry tomatoes and proceed to cook them until their consistency thickens.
- Add the remaining wine not used in the marinade, 3 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves, 2 sprigs of rosemary, 2 bay leaves, 1 tablespoon crushed juniper berries, and enough stock to just cover the meat. Cover and place the dish in the oven. Reduce the heat to 300°F.
- After an hour, check the ragù. Add stock only if necessary to cover the meat. Repeat after another hour.
- By the second hour, the boar should be very tender and able to be shredded with a fork. Pull the meat apart into strands and return the dish to the oven uncovered for another 30-45 minutes. The end result should be a thick "dry" sauce with almost all of the liquid cooked out.
- A few minutes prior to removing your ragu from the oven, bring a pot with 4-6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. When the water has reached the boiling point, salt it well, and add the pappardelle. Fresh pappardelle is finished in 3-4 minutes. If you are using dry pasta, follow the directions on the package for al dente.
- Remove your braising dish from the oven and season the ragù with salt and pepper to taste. Drain the pasta well and add it to the braising dish to incorporate with the hot ragù.
- Using tongs, add the pasta and ragù to serving dishes and garnish with grated Parmigiano, if desired.