LENTILS AND ZAMPONE OR COTECHINO: NEW YEAR’S EVE DISH
Lentils and zampone or cotechino are the typical New Year's dish in Italy. Let's see why and what are the stories behind this recipe
The zampone or cotechino is nothing but pig’s trotter stuffed with salted and flavored minced meat and during Christmas time are usually eaten with lentils. It is the ritual of the end of the year throughout Italy. An iconic food, eaten almost exclusively on December 31. And it has an incredible story, which associates the longest consumed legume by men with pork sausage that enjoys illustrious paternity.
Lentils, between history and mysticism
Lentils are one of the oldest crops ever made by man. The Sumerians and the Egyptians cultivated them already 5,000 years ago, while the first findings show that it was eaten in Greece already 11,000-13,000 years ago.
It will be precise because of this link with the roots of the agricultural history that made the lentil the protagonist of religious episodes and rites. For the Jews, it is part of the mourning ceremony along with the eggs, because with their round shape they remind the circularity of life.
In the Bible, then, there is the famous episode of the dish of lentils with which Jacob bought the birthright from Esau. The two were twins, but he was the first to be born. An excellent hunter, Esau, returning hungry from the hunt, sold his rights for a dish of lentils. This expression is proverbial today.
The link between lentils and the last or first day of the year, on the other hand, is due to the Romans. In fact, during the New Year’s celebrations, the Romans donated bags of lentils to wear at the waist as if they were money. It was auspicious, and it is still today with the same meaning: wealth and well-being.
But it is hard to say which are the best lentils in Italy to use for your New Year’s dinner. However, we can only mention the IGP lentils of the Belpaese, which today are those of Castelluccio di Norcia and Altamura.
Are zampone and cotechino the same thing?
No, they are not the same thing. The wrapping mainly changes, while the filling is rather similar. Of course, over the years, it has changed a lot, but today it foresees 60% of fresh selected lean meats (shoulder, leg, neck, and shank), 20% of tender rind, and 20% of the throat and bacon.
In the case of the zampone, however, the wrapping is made of the pig’s front leg skin, while the cotechino is wrapped in a natural gut (the one known as “gentile” or, in other cases the chitterling) or artificial.
Zampone and cotechino, a story of war and success
In 1511 the papal army led by Pope Julius II Della Rovere besieged Mirandola, near Modena. It is the home of Giovanni Pico Della Concordia, known, of course, as Pico Della Mirandola. Here some legends are born. It is said, in fact, that it was a Pico’s cook who invented the zampone. Still, probably the person who conceived it was the cook of his successors since the Mirandola family reigned the homonymous town of Modena from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century. In fact, in 1511, Giovanni (who was never the head of the family) had been dead for seventeen years. Instead, John II was there, while the city, during the siege of Julius II (who entered the walls like a true leader), was run by Francesca Trivulzio, daughter of the Marshal of France Gian Giacomo.
However, it seems that the zampone is born on that occasion, perhaps thanks to Francesca’s cook and not Pico.
In the city, in fact, there were only a few pigs left, and therefore the idea of slaughtering them and stuffing the meat in a completely new way inside the rind: the fat, melting little by little, would have allowed the sausage to keep longer. Probably, however, to savor that spicy delicacy were the papist, despite the siege lasted just over a month, from December 19 to January 24 of last year, when Francesca Trivulzio left the city.
Today, the best zampone or cotechino is produced in Modena, area of the PGI. Massimo Bottura is crazy about it, so much so that he has re-proposed it in his Hosteria Francescana, a restaurant that has repeatedly been voted the best in the world.
The zampone and the cotechino, then, can be found either pre-cooked or cooked. In the first case, it takes just half an hour to boil, while in the second case, it will be necessary to riddle the zampone and wrap it in a cloth to cook it for a couple of hours in the pot. Naturally, the palate will compensate for your patience and for the work you did.
This post is also available in: Italiano (Italian)