In the steep southern hills of Umbria, the favorite stalk of hunters is wild boar, known to Italians as cinghiale, and to taxonomists as Sus scrofa. Capable of legendary fierceness, this bristly ancestor of the pink farm pig can attain a length of six feet and a weight of 800 pounds. When provoked, it can charge at 35 miles per hour, goring hunters with matched pairs of upper and lower tusks. If the hunter succeeds in vanquishing the beast, the flesh is stewed into a tasty ragu, or air-dried into the prosciutto and salami found at every bottega in Central Italy, adored by Umbrians and tourists alike.
A love of the beast motivated 14 of us to set out from Panicale one evening in four cars just as the sun was slipping toward the horizon; our objective was the annual cinghiale festival in the isolated hilltop town of Migliano. The habitation is 15 miles east of Marsciano by a badly paved road that runs along an undulating ridge, offering spectacular views of the thickly wooded valleys below, where those with sharp ears and a vivid imagination can detect wild boars crashing through the forest. The town occupies a pair of craggy promontories, one of which holds a castle with stone peasant houses running up to it in a pair of narrow lanes, the other a series of parking lots and well-organized fairgrounds owned by the local parish, featuring a pair of massive white tents that look like a space-alien encampment. As we approached, the setting sun was eclipsed by a plume of smoke issuing from somewhere below the hill.
First picking our numbered table, we approached the order booth and were surprised to find a sophisticated computer system operated by farmers in rustic dress, sending an information stream of appetizers, pastas, main courses, and beverages directly to the kitchen, where the orders were quickly filled and delivered to the tables by a gang of perky local teens. Appetizers were typical of the region, including bruschetta heaped with tomatoes and rosemary-scented chicken livers, or mixed plates of ham and salami made from wild boar. While the handmade pasta, dressed with either goose or boar sauce, was mushy and disarmingly low on actual meat, the mixed plate of boar ribs and fresh sausages was spectacular—smoky, moist, full of woodsy savor. The local boar ragu, called spezzatino, was so undistinctive it might have been made with pork or beef, but the lamb chops were breathtaking. Four to an order, they were made with strongly flavored lamb.
We washed everything down with bottles of vino rosso from the nearby town of Montefalco, then rose to explore the rest of the fair. Posters trumpeted an appearance by disco diva Gloria Gaynor, but we had to content ourselves with a polka band, whose bouncy rhythms and fog machine had the locals prancing around the soccer field like Wisconsinites. At another spot, we were perplexed to see a huge ham hung on a rope high over the heads of a rapidly accumulating crowd. The wild boar prosciutto turned out to be the subject of a lively auction. Later, as we left the fair licking our lips, one very happy gentleman was seen walking away with the ham under his arm, and I swear I heard him whistling “The Beer Barrel Polka.”