Best of Sicily
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As much as people like to eat pork, the innocent pig seems to have earned more than its fair share of disdain. To call somebody a pig, swine, hog or boar (even if one means "boor") is not flattering. All the same, pork chops and ham are popular foods, and pigs themselves are among the most sociable of livestock. Physically resembling the wild boar, to which it is remarkably closely related, the Sicilian Black Swine of Sicily's Nebrodi Mountains enjoys the oak forests of what is considered by many to be the island's most scenic region. Known locally as the "suino nero dei Nebrodi," it has a prominent ridge of spinal bristles running from its large head to about midway along its back and stands about 70 centimetres (27 inches) high. Suids, or suidae (pigs and boars), form the genus sus. These Nebrodi pigs have been classed with sus scrofa scrofa, the boar group, but they're also related to several domestic varieties of black pig present in Italy, particularly those of Friuli (diminishing in numbers) and Romagna (nearly extinct). In fact, pigs have been domesticated for thousands of years, though the bloodlines of the Sicilian black swine were influenced by breeding with the boars of the Nebrodi region as recently as three centuries ago.
Despite its distant kinship to other European black pigs, it is considered an autochthonous (indigenous) breed; the Sicilian black swine constitutes a porcine variety rather than a species or sub-species. There are fewer than two thousand of these pigs, and most find their way into somebody's ham sandwich. Indeed, the meat of the Nebrodi swine is highly prized as a specialty. Unlike San Daniele ham (made from the meat of the endangered Friulian black pig), Nebrodi ham is little known outside Italy, though there are efforts underway to market it more widely. Ham represents only a fraction of the meat derived from a large pig. Other cuts of pork are made into salted or cured products (salame), as well as steaks and sausages. Compared to most domesticated breeds, the Nebrodi pigs, perhaps owing to their affinity with wild boar, are rather lean.
The very existence of the breed is an arcane fact of agricultural life in northeastern Sicily, the only part of the island which still has expansive forests. The swine are allowed to graze and forage over wide areas, including woods, and this diet influences the meat's flavour. It also means that the pigs are sometimes mistaken for wild boar, few of which exist in Sicily today.
Boarish but never boorish, the Sicilian black swine is delicious.
About the Author: Vincenzo Mormino is active in wildlife preservation throughout Sicily. He has written about the purple swamp hen, wild cat, little egret, red fox, Sicilian tarantula and other creatures for previous issues.