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(‘Di fiducia’, is the concept in Italian, ‘trusted’.  This is the first part in a eight- part series about our trusted friends that you’ll meet during our courses al castello. Based in Lecce for the last 12 years, on several occasions throughout the year our school and staff move south 40 minutes to the castle, which makes up a quarter of the historic centre of a village of 3,000 Southern Italians. Genuine, folksy and soberingly unjaded, here are several that you’ll meet al castello in 2015).

 

Mario our butcher al castello.

‘I have it in the blood’, he says, his face registering both senses. ‘My father started teaching me when I was 15. He learned from his father, my paternal grandfather. There was a time when I thought about going into police work…..’ In his early 40’s now, his voice betrays the resignation that comes with the ageing process, when the direction of your life extends before you.

‘How long have you been doing this now’?

’25 years this year’, he says.

We’ve been buying our rabbits, chickens- and beef and pork for our polpettone– from him for the last 8 years, to the point that I no longer need to explain the stranger things we want as school (try asking other butchers for lamb ‘runner’, or to remove and discard the head of rabbits to avoid the discussions about pet bunnies: thee butchers will likely just stare at you, confused).

But what I appreciate most about Mario are his stories of renegade and highly-illegal private and clandestine butchering that his, um, friend does (oddly, also named Mario). New Europe has rendered itself stupid when it comes to butchering practices, and thus, really out of reach of the average person who wants to keep pigs out the back door, fed on table scrapes.

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Mario’s friend is the one who gets the phone call, to dispatch and then has break down the carcasses: his friend drains the blood for sangiunaccio (boudin noir, or black pudding), which ‘everyone, always, always wants’, Mario says of his friend.

As a school we work hard to not only keep alive traditions but to bring back those on the wrong side of extinction. We ordered a whole sheep from him, which he broke down and minced (ground) for us. He’s too kind to say but I know that it required taking his mincer apart twice for cleaning for the event). The mutton ragù was a great success, with leftovers going to locals, many of which only said, ‘Madò!!!!’

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I’m spending a lot of the winter by myself at the castle, working on my book (Cutting against the Thumb: The food and wine of the Salentine Peninsula. The winter book) and thus I’m able to spend a lot more time with Mario, without my usual teaching duties.

He’s teaching me several butchering techniques, including his version of turcinereddhi, or the little country sausages here in his hand.

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Occasionally he talks me into buying beef (here, from France). What I don’t need to tell you is that the next day I’ll enter the store, he’ll start the conversation with ’emmeh’? (Southern for, And so what do you have to tell me?)

A trusted butcher offers a community a great deal. Only some of which is actually meat.

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