Genuine Italian cookery generally has straight-forward taste profiles. As I’ve said before, one of the best ways to tell if a recipe is really Italian is to count the ingredient list: you should have your doubts about any recipe with over, say, seven ingredients; more than ten, and you should turn the page. Well, here’s the exception that proves the rule: cinghiale in agrodolce, or Sweet and Sour Wild Boar, a complex dish involving nearly twenty ingredients, creating multiple layers of flavor. And even more unusually, especially for a meat dish, it mixes sweet and sour and savory all in one dish.
I never actually came across this dish when I lived in Rome, perhaps because it is so involved it’s impractical for restaurants, or perhaps because it really doesn’t suit modern Italian tastes. But Sweet and Sour Wild Boar is a traditional Roman dish (although apparently the Tuscans claim it, too). With its exuberant layering of flavors and use of candied fruits and nuts, it is an obvious remnant of the Middle Ages, although chocolate was added only after Europeans discovered the New World.
If you can’t find wild boar at your local market and don’t want to order it online, you can substitute an equal amount of pork shoulder for a fine result. The dish is both earthy and elegant at the same time, equally fit for family or company.
- 1 kilo (2 lbs) wild boar meat (or pork shoulder), cut into chunks
- 1 onion, finely chopped
- Olive oil or lard
For the marinade:
- 500 ml (2 cups) red wine
- 250 ml (1 cup) red wine vinegar
- 1 onion, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1-2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
- 1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
- 1-2 cloves of garlic, slightly crushed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig of marjoram (or thyme)
- 4-5 cloves
- 4-5 whole peppercorn
To finish the dish:
- 2 Tbs sugar
- A splash of red wine vinegar
- 25g (1 oz) bittersweet chocolate
- 100g (4 oz) prunes, soaked in red wine until soft
- A handful of pinoli nuts
- 50g (2 oz) candied orange and citron (optional)
Put all the marinade ingredients in a saucepan and bring them just to the boil. Remove from the heat and cover the pan. Let the ingredients steep until the marinade has cooled completely. Place the meat in a large bowl, then pour the marinade over. If it’s not enough to cover the meat completely, top it up with some more wine and vinegar. Let the meat marinate in the fridge overnight.
The next day, take the bowl out of the fridge and let the meat return to room temperature. Fish out the meat chunks and pat them dry.
In a large sauté pan, sauté the onion very gently in olive or lard until it is soft and translucent. Raise the heat, add the meat chunks, and brown them lightly, taking care that the onion doesn’t burn and season with salt and pepper as you go.
Now strain the marinade liquid into the pan, leaving all the solids behind. There should be enough liquid to almost, but not quite, cover the meat chunks. Cover the pan and simmer for a good 60-90 minutes, until the meat is perfectly tender. Add any extra marinade, or a bit of water or wine, from time to time if things are getting a bit dry.
When the meat is just about done, add the finishing ingredients to the pan. Stir gently and simmer uncovered, until the chocolate melts completely and the sauce has reduced to your liking. Taste and adjust for seasoning: a bit more sugar if you find the sauce too sour, a bit more vinegar if too sweet, and a pinch of salt if it needs it.
Serve hot, with slices of toasted bread or polenta.
Notes on Sweet and Sour Wild Boar
Like many dishes with a long history, there are plenty of variations on this basic theme. Instead of onion alone, the soffritto can be made with the usual ‘holy trinity’ of onion, carrot and celery; many recipes call for a bit of prosciutto (or prosciutto fat) as well. Instead (or in addition to) the prunes, you can add some raisins at the end. The traditional recipe calls for candied fruits, but these have all but disappeared from our supermarkets, so I’ve indicated them as optional here. The oldest recipes for Sweet and Sour Wild Boar call for even more fruits, including sour cherries and muscat grapes. Although I haven’t tried it myself, I imagine you could experiment with the kinds of dried fruits that are more popular these days: tropical fruits like pineapple or mango, or maybe dried cranberries. You might even want to try one of those dried fruit and nut mixes that are sold in bulk in the natural food stores. It would give the dish a different flavor, but one that would be in keeping with the spirit of the dish, if you ask me. Artusi has an interesting take on the marinade—his recipe calls for white wine along with the vinegar and usual aromatics, in which the meat should rest for a full three days.
For a more elegant presentation, Sweet and Sour Wild Boar can also be made as a kind of pot roast rather than a stew; the boar meat is kept whole and tied, rather than cut into chunks. Cooking times are longer, of course, more like 90 minutes to 2 hours, and you may want to extend the marination time, too. The finishing ingredients are melt together in a separate saucepan (along with, say, half a cup of water) and then the juices from the braise, strained through a sieve, are added to the saucepan. Pour the resulting sauce over the roast, which you will have sliced and arranged on a serving platter.