A tramontana wind has been blowing through here this week, enough to remind the residents of rural central Tuscany, aka Chiantishire, that the season is upon us. It’s a time when we awake to chilly mornings and the sight of grim-faced men in heavy boots and cloth caps marching slowly across our land, shotguns levelled. The start of ‘mafia migration’ season? No, it’s the cinghiale hunting season, when the men of the local hunters’ clubs surround the valleys and, with the aid of their faithful dogs, drive the wild boar up the slopes and into the range of their shotguns. Years ago this was quite an adventure, or at least a good day’s exercise for hunters, dogs and cinghiali alike. Nowadays, however, it more resembles an exercise of fish-in-the-barrel shooting. The reason is that the population of cinghiale has recently grown exponentially making it no more difficult to bag a wild boar than to pick off a pigeon with an air rifle in Rome’s St. Peter’s Square.
The growth in the cinghiale population is not unrelated to the fact that representatives of these clubs heave bags of bread into the thickly wooded areas where the boars congregate. The practice is illegal, but it sometimes turns out that those officially charged with preventing such abuses are also leading members of the hunters’ clubs. It’s the poachers who pick the gamekeepers in these parts, so enforcement is virtually non-existent. But who cares, you ask? With sows having three litters a year, the cinghiale supply is abundant and the hunters are happy. They make money by selling places to outsiders for the hunt and the cinghiale meat to local restaurants. There’s cinghiale in umido (a boar stew cooked in its juices) for everyone, so who’s complaining? Not the cinghiali as far as I know.
There are, however, other economic interests in this area, particularly the growers of the Sangiovese grape, the basis for Chianti wine, as well as the Super Tuscan reds. The growers point out that the ‘wild’ boar here are about as ‘wild’ as the pigeons of St. Peter’s, though not nearly so polite. In fact, the Sangiovese grape is a favorite snack of Tuscan cinghiali and they are not very tidy snackers. Indeed, they trample down the vines causing great damage both economic and environmental to the growers. So much so that the growers have pushed for regional powers to cull about half the estimated wild boar population in the region. Were this to happen, things might change radically. Hunters’ groups have naturally replied with a ‘call to war’. No one knows what the result may be, but at least this year is shaping up to be both a good one for wine and ragù al cinghiale, a tasty pasta sauce made with those omnipresent boar and a staple on menus in Tuscan restaurants.
James Fentress is an anthropologist, sociologist and journalist who has lived between Rome and Chianti for more the 30 years. He also is a specialist on the Mafia and his most recent book Eminent Gangsters and the Birth of Organized Crime in America was published in 2010. An avid home cook—both in the city and the country—he seeks out the best local ingredients, including those from his orto vegetable garden, near Gaiole in Chianti, which also happens to be one of the most important regions for making Chianti Classico wine. His knowledge of history, linguistics and politics add to the mix when he approaches the stove, oven or grill, preparing meals for family and friends with lots of lively conversation in the kitchen and around the table. He also is a guest blogger for Casa Mia.