by Carmen Autuori
It was the fifties and the life of aunt Lucia, aka Lucia Ricciardi, Salerno Doc, scion of the historic family of superfine seamstresses, oscillated between the kitchen perennially enveloped by the smell of good things, hats with charming veils, decollete model shoes strictly of black lace and an aperitif at the Varese bar, a fixed appointment on Sunday after mass in the cathedral.
She was small in stature and rounded physique, eyes piercing like pins that looked beyond the appearance of things and people, her upturned nose and hair always fresh from a hairdresser’s. Her appearance of her could be misleading because she made one think of a middle-class lady entirely dedicated to the mission of angel of the hearth as befits the women of the time. Well, Aunt Lucia was the opposite of all this. The delicate aspect of her actually concealed a very strong character that made her the most feared element of the whole family, including sisters, brothers-in-law and grandchildren. Her husband, an imposing military man with an authoritarian character, became soft as butter in his hands. Aunt Lucia claimed, in fact, that men are conquered above all at the table, and she was a teacher in this.
Strongly linked to the traditions of his city, he gave his best on the occasion of the patronal feast, honoring the occasion even at the table where the spleen, his main dish, could not be missing.
On the other hand, it is well known that the spleen is to St. Matthew, like struffoli at Christmas. On 21 September it is a must, as tradition dictates, to cook it not only in homes, but also on the street by street vendors who are true masters in the preparation of this dish.
The custom is Sicilian and dates back to the Middle Ages when there was a large Jewish community in Palermo, whose members excelled in the slaughter of cattle. Their religious faith, however, obliged them not to receive money for this activity, so as a reward, they kept the entrails, including the spleen, which they sold cooked to the “gentiles”.
In 1492 Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as the Catholic, removed the community from the territories subjected to Spanish rule; the trade passed to the “caciuttari”, sellers of bread stuffed with cheeses, who after having fried the pieces of spleen in lard, thus enriched the filling of their sandwiches.
We do not know how the dish arrived in Salerno, most likely by the merchants who landed at the port and so, also thanks to the low cost of the raw material, the spleen carved out an important space in Salerno’s gastronomy.
Our version, while not providing the accompaniment with bread, the famous pani ca meusa, is however richer than the Sicilian one because the cuisine is always a “becoming” that adapts to the raw material of the territory. Aunt Lucia’s spleen, in fact, provided a very fragrant filling of aromatic herbs, parsley, mint, garlic, cooked wine, an unlikely quantity of oil and a slow and prolonged cooking that began in the very early hours of the morning.
But before that there had been the whole procurement ritual. The “pockets” of spleen had to be bought, at least the day before, by the trusted butcher who every year was subjected to a real interrogation worthy of a KGB agent in the years of the Cold War, on the origin of the animal. The mint was the one grown in the allocated pot, always in the usual place, on the small balcony that coquettishly peeped out on via Mercanti, as was the parsley. The day before the party the entrails were soaked in cold water and diligently supervised by the female part of the family who were entrusted with the humblest tasks. On the morning of the party, the “priestess” Lucia herself took to the field and, with ancient gestures and a loving look, finished the preparation of her spleen, just in time for the solemn mass in the cathedral and the aperitif at the Varese bar, not without having worn one of his wonderful caps.
Ingredients for 8 people
1 whole spleen
1 large bundle of parsley (about 200 grams)
25 fresh mint leaves
2 large cloves of garlic
4/5 fresh hot peppers
3 glasses of extra virgin olive oil
2 glasses of black wine vinegar
3 tablespoons of mulled wine
Water to taste
One day before preparation, cut the spleen in half, make a deep cut in order to obtain a sort of pocket.
Wash very well under running water, immerse the two pieces of spleen in a basin full of water and leave it overnight so that they lose all the blood contained in the tissues.
Drain and dry the spleen very well. Wash and dry the mint and parsley leaves. Chop, by hand with a sharp knife, the herbs, the garlic cloves, the chillies, season with salt and a generous round of oil. Divide the mixture into two equal parts and stuff the perfectly dried “pockets”. Close with toothpicks.
Pour the oil into a large high-sided saucepan, when it is hot, place the two pieces of spleen on it, brown over high heat on all sides. At this point, blend with the vinegar, add the cooked wine, add salt and cook for about 3 hours over a very low heat. Should the sauce shrink too much, it is advisable to add half a glass of lukewarm water to the sauce. The spleen is ready when the oil has completely separated from the cooking juices. Lift it from the pot and, once cold, slice it. Cover everything with the sauce. Serve at room temperature. It can also be kept in the fridge for 4 or 5 days. A tip, for the success of the dish you must not skimp on the dressing.