A Tuscan Thanksgiving

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I have a friend who never travels but is deeply curious about my own wandering and always eager for details. “So!” my stay-at-home friend asked one October a few years back as I was getting ready to leave for Tuscany, “What do Italians eat for Thanksgiving?”

“Um,” I said. “Thanksgiving? You know, it’s, like, an American holiday? Even Canadians don’t celebrate it, or at least not on the right day.”

But in Tuscany, when my children were young, we always celebrated Thanksgiving, even on the wrong day, and we honor it still on rare occasions when we’re all gathered together in Teverina. It’s a fine way to end the year. Late in November when the olives are pressed and the first of the new wine has been sampled, when summer crops are long gone but winter-hardy greens still stand in muddy fields, when the chestnuts have been gathered and the pigs are getting fat — it’s a good time for a feast.

If we often celebrated Thanksgiving on the wrong day (the Saturday after the official date), we also feasted with the wrong food. Wrong for an American Thanksgiving, that is. But arista di maiale, a spit-roasted loin of pork, flavored with rosemary, garlic and wild fennel pollen, basted with a good red sangiovese as it turns all day before a chestnut-wood fire, is not at all wrong for giving thanks in Tuscany. In fact, it’s the quintessential Tuscan harvest banquet, the centerpiece of any festive country meal. The farm house at that time of year is full of people, plenty of volunteers to stand by (sometimes, when it’s chilly, actually to stand in) the big living room fireplace, keeping watch over the arista, basting it regularly and rewinding the clockwork mechanism, the girarrosto toscano, that turns the spit and dings an alarm every 20 minutes or so when it runs down. Rewind, baste the arista with red wine and accumulating juices, refill the glasses with that same rugged wine, throw another log on the back of the fire, rake the coals forward under the girarrosto and relax until the next ding of the alarm bell. It’s a very comfortable way to cook, one that menfolk, especially, take to.

Pork is the focus, but what goes with it? Cranberry sauce? No way! We start the meal with zuppa di castagne, pureed chestnut soup, made with chestnuts from the trees at the end of the garden, which, my neighbors insist, are not castagne at all but marrone, a sweeter, finer variety like what French cooks use for marrons glaçés. It’s the most labor-intensive part of the meal: Each chestnut must be cut with a cross, then roasted in the oven until the shell separates, then the shell itself peeled away along with the tannic inner lining, a tiresome procedure but worth it for the lavishly creamy soup that results.

Here’s a sample menu, which has varied only slightly over the years:

Crostini neri (chicken liver crostini because no Tuscan feast is complete without them);

Crostini ai fagioli (with mashed beans, for the vegetarians in the crowd);

Zuppa di castagne (or zuppa di marrone, if you insist), garnished with a dollop of sheep’s milk raviggiolo (Tuscany’s answer to mascarpone);

Taglierini con ragù di funghi porcini (egg-rich pasta, whipped together by my daughter the pasta chef, the sauce made with wild porcini mushrooms gathered at the end of August, sliced and dried in the sun);

Arista di maiale with its reduced cooking juices;

Braised cavolo nero (aka Tuscan kale, lacinato kale, dinosaur kale) with more chestnuts buried in the greens;

Potatoes roasted in the oven in new olive oil, rosemary and garlic;

Salad of bitter greens dressed with new oil and wine vinegar;

Elizabeth David’s flourless chocolate cake (a family favorite that is mandatory at all feasts and celebrations).

No pumpkin or mince pie, no creamed onions, no dreaded sweet potatoes with marshmallows, no mashed squash or turnips or gelatin salad. All banned, every one of them. Truth to tell, I always found Thanksgiving a boring feast, full of bland mushy foods, centered around that too often overcooked and dried-out turkey, graced by a peculiar sour-sweet red sauce, and finished off with an array of desserts that sank like stones to the pit of one’s stomach. But a Tuscan Thanksgiving? If you dare …?

Here’s a recipe for arista that I developed for those who lack fireplaces or clock-work spits. It makes about 8 servings, depending on what else you serve with it. Note that you’ll need kitchen twine to tie the roast.

Arista (Roast Port Loin)

Ingredients

4 pounds pork loin, boned and ready to be rolled and tied
2 or 3 plump garlic cloves coarsely chopped
2 or 3 good-sized sprigs if rosemary, leaves only
1 big tablespoon Tuscan fennel pollen, if available
1 tablespoon sea salt
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil (divided)
1½ cups dry red wine

Directions

  1. Spread the roast out on a work counter with the boned side facing up. Chop together the garlic and rosemary and mix with the fennel, salt and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Use half this mixture to rub over the inside of the pork, then roll up the roast and tie in several places. Rub the remaining aromatic mixture all over the outside of the roast.
  2. You can prepare the roast ahead, even the night before you’re going to cook it, but refrigerate it if you’re going to keep it more than an hour. Bring the roast to room temperature before putting it in the oven.
  3. Turn the oven on to 350ºF.
  4. Set a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil. When the oil is hot, drop the roast in the pan and sear it quickly on all sides, turning frequently, until it’s brown. Remove it from the heat and set on a rack over a roasting pan. Use a couple of tablespoons of the wine to deglaze the pan, then pour the juices over the roast.
  5. Transfer the pork to the preheated oven and roast for about 1½ hours, basting every 20 minutes or so with the red wine and then with the juices that accumulate in the pan. Now lower the heat to 325º F and continue roasting and basting another 1½ to 2 hours, depending on how well done you like your pork.
  6. Remove the pork from the oven and set aside for 10 minutes or longer before slicing. Strain the pan juices through a fine sieve and set aside to let the fat rise. Remove the fat layer (it’s great for frying potatoes) and boil down the juices to thicken them. Spoon the thickened juices over the thinly sliced pork and serve.

Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of several books, the latest of which is her newly revised “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  Her other food books include, “Cucina del Sole: A Celebration of the Cuisines of Southern Italy” and “The Essential Mediterranean,” which looks at a dozen foods key to understanding Mediterranean cuisines.  She also wrote “Flavors of Tuscany,” “Flavors of Puglia” and “The Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.”  She is working on a book on Atlantic salmon.  A former staff writer with The New York Times, Nancy continues to contribute to the Times in addition to writing for The Washington Post, Saveur, Food & Wine and other national publications.  She currently divides her time between a Tuscan farmhouse and a home on the coast of Maine where she was born and raised.  She has lived and worked throughout the countries of the Mediterranean, at various times making a home in Spain, France, Italy, Lebanon, and Cyprus as well as in Hong Kong and England. You can read more of her food writing on her site, NancyHarmonJenkins.com.

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Comments

Amos Jones
on: 9/16/13
Unfortunately in the States, when they took the fat out of pork about forty years ago, they also robbed it of most of it's flavor and tenderness. Now it's the "other white meat" vaguely tasting of bland chicken only drier. You don't have to be Jewish to pass on it now.
nancy Harmon Jenkins
on: 9/16/13
Thanks for this comment, Amos. There is plenty of good pork available in the U.S. It just takes a bit of research beyond the usual supermarket meat counter. Look for Berkshire or Tamworth, two heritage breeds that are chefs' favorites. Any farmer who raises her pigs conscientiously can supply you with good meat--possibly even better than what you could get in Tuscany!

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