What do the composer of the William Tell Overture and a Liverpool charcutier trained in South West France have in common? A love of Cotechino. No, not the name of some cynical Juventus centre back but the most amazing poaching sausage I’ve left it far too long to discover.
Bel Canto maestro Gioachino Rossini was forever ordering this speciality of Modena in his native Italy, along with its culinary cousin, the sausage-stuffed pig’s trotter called Zampone. Both winter seasonal delicacies are based on the uncompromisingly porkiest bits – real nose to tail stuff. Modena, not short of World Heritage recognition for its buildings, was also assigned Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Cotechino Modena in 1999.
I ordered my debut Cotechino nearer home from North by Sud-Ouest Charcuterie, its bits sourced from free range rare breed pigs on the Wirral. It arrived as part of a £40 ‘Large Selection Box’ showcasing the pork-curing talents of one Andrew Holding.
Also in the pack, weighing in at over a kilo, were sliced selections of coppa (cured pork collar), cured pork loin and goula, the jowl bacon called guanciale in Italy; the spreading sausage nduja, two whole saucisses sec, lardons of Ventrêche (which formed a bacony base for a Coq au Vin) and whole, chunky, grey Cotechino bulging out of its natural casing.
If Andrew follows the traditional recipe, it is made from high fat content meat from cheek, neck, shoulder, fatback, and lots of pork rind, seasoned with salt, pepper, nutmeg and coriander. Made fresh in Modena, it would traditionally take hours to poach in simmering water until the rind softened to give the characteristic melting texture. The essence of Slow Food.
Here, pre-prepared and vacuum packed, it took just 20 minutes to warm through.
These days most North Italians would do the same. They would also serve it, as I did, with lentils and mostarda di Cremona. For my Cotechino e Lenticchie I used the French Le Puy variety because they are incomparable; the mostarda, a mustardy candied fruit preserve, came (via Alexander’s Mediterranean Pantry on Todmorden Market) from its Cremona heartland, 90 minutes north west of Modena.
Lockdown had me creating many pickle and relishes from scratch but life really is too short (again). I was put off mostarda making by my mentor in most things hardcore Italian, Jacob Kenedy, chef patron of Soho’s Bocca di Lupo. In his Bocca Cookbook (Bloomsbury, £30) he writes: “The day you are satisfied that the fruit is candied and the syrup thick enough, procure some essential oil of mustard. This may not be easy to find and should be handled like TNT. Rubber gloves must be worn, wear some glasses too and the bottle shouldn’t be sniffed directly. This may sound over-cautious – but it is a dangerous and irritant substance before dilution in the mostarda.
Jacob, London-born and Cambridge educated so hardly a peasant, also crafts his Cotechino from scratch. Caveats here include the necessity of sourcing skin-on pig’s cheeks. Worth it because “lots of glands and gnarly bits in the jowl give an incredible roundness of flavour”. Pigskin is tough, used for making shoes, so Jacob advises it might be worth asking your already obliging butcher to mince meat and skin together through a 4.5mm plate. When the spiced mince mixture is finally encased there’s a lot of sausage hanging to be done.
Better to buy one from North by Sud-Ouest or alternatively from Coombeshead Farm a restaurant with rooms featured in the recent Rick Stein’s Cornwall BBC series.
Best of all, when travel restrictions are lifted, head for the Emilia Romagna region at New Year, where they put into practice the old maxim ‘del maiale non si butta via niente’ (pigs are used till the last bit), with cotechino and zampone the centrepiece of celebrations. The lentil accompaniment to the former is believed to bring luck in the year ahead. If the mustard oil hasn’t blasted you first!