The hunting season has officially come to an end in the Maremma. Whether you do or don’t agree with the practise, it is a big part of local life here.
My plumber refused to come and do any work on the house because it was hunting season and our town mayor rescheduled all of his meetings for three months so he could go hunting every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon.
For tourists, game meats can seem a little scary. Of course, you can just decide not to try them, but they’ll be popping up everywhere on restaurant and osteria menus from now until the year’s stock runs out, which is usually the end of the spring.
If you see game on the menu anywhere in Tuscany in summer or autumn, don’t order it. It’s either really old frozen stuff or it comes out of a jar. I have nothing against pasta sauces in jars, but I very much doubt you travelled all the way to Tuscany to eat mushy mince that could be made from anything.
In the Maremma, the main meats hunted are wild boar (cinghiale), pheasant (fagiano) and hare (lepre).
Wild boar is extremely difficult to catch and requires a whole team of hunters. For that reason, it’s less common and costs more to order at restaurants. Very few locals sell what they catch to restaurants. It’s tradition in the Maremma that the person who managed to shoot the wild boar gets first pick of the meat. They’ll usually pick the belly or haunch, which are the choice cuts. Then everyone else gets a percentage of the meat, starting from the oldest hunter, down to the youngest.
Only a small handful of wild boar are hunted each season. They have to be the right size and meet other parameters. After all that work, the hunter usually shares their catch with family and friends, exchanging it for favours (or porcini mushrooms) later in the year.
Pheasant and hare are easier to catch and popular with local restauranteurs, as they star in numerous traditional Maremman dishes.
If you’re feeling adventurous or your country has really lenient custom laws, you can buy game meats in the Maremma during the winter and spring seasons.
Game meats are no longer the domain of people who hunt or have hunter friends. Most really good local butchers will stock a selection of game meats. If you’re keen to try your hand at wild boar, pop in and order it a couple of days in advance just to make sure you get it.
As for the lingo, something along these lines will work: “Hai la selvaggina?” (Do you have any game meats?) If they answer yes, follow up with “Vorreigrammi di__ or Vorrei un pezzo di _” (I would like grams of _ or I would like a piece of ). See above for the names of the game meats. It’s not perfect Italian, but it will do just fine.
When shopping for game birds, it’s best to buy it whole with the head and feet. It should smell powerfully gamey and not look dry and wrinkled. It’s best if it doesn’t have its feathers. Plucking a whole pheasant is a nightmare!
As for wild boar, you want meat that has a really rich and deep red colour. Go for a bigger piece of meat like the haunch and pray that it has been hung. Fresh game meat isn’t like normal meat. You don’t want to buy it freshly slaughtered as game meat has a really, really, really strong flavour and will taste like an old sock.
Cooking or ordering game
Whether you buy it or order it, game meat in the Maremma is always cooked and served the same way: long, slow and saucy!
The best chefs will marinate the meat in either red wine or red wine vinegar overnight. This is when they infuse it with typically Tuscan flavours like garlic cloves, juniper berries and bay leaves. The marinade helps to tenderise the meat and draws out a lot of the overpowering gamey flavour – just make sure you stir it often.
You’ll be very lucky if you find a whole leg of wild boar on the menu. Most places serve it minced with celery and carrot in a ragu that’s heavy on the tomato sauce and red wine. It’s rich and unctuous and when served with homemade tagliatelle pasta, one of the Maremma’s best dishes. On average, you’ll pay about €10 for it as a first course and it will taste a lot like pork mince, so if you’re iffy about new foods, you won’t have a problem.
Wild boar is also prepared “alla cacciatore” or “in agrodolce” – both of which are lovingly stewed dishes that cook for a very long time and play on sweet and sour flavours with pine nuts and sometimes cocoa powder.
Hare and pheasant are usually roasted with seasonal vegetables like pumpkin and potatoes or cooked “in umido” (braised) with more red wine. The meat can be a bit dry because the animals are leaner than their farmed cousins, but the flavour is so much better than chicken.
NB: I have make quick mention of the Vacca Maremma. While not technically game meat, our very own breed of cattle is farmed in the wild by local cowboys known as butteri. Like game, it has a much stronger flavour than normal beef and makes a TERRIBLE steak.
Vacca Maremma is beautiful minced and mixed with plenty of butter and herbs as a spread for crostini or cooked into a ragu sauce for the world (at least in my mind) famous Tortelli Maremmani. Vacca Maremma is the most beautiful animal with these gorgeous twisted horns and light coats.
Recipes and restaurants
The undisputed king of game meats in my mind is Trattoria il Miravalle in Manciano. This utterly homely restaurant works wonders with wild boar and hare and has enough scruples to never serve you anything but fresh game meat… at a steal, might I add.
If you’re trying it out at home, I love this wild boar with fresh pasta recipe by Chef Michel Roux Jr. via BBC Food.
As for wine pairings, you can’t go past a good bottle of Morellino di Scansano DOC red wine! Enjoy!