In Rural Italy, A Wild Boar Festival


Photo by Faith Willinger

It's an annual appointment I simply can't miss. Peppe Zullo's Festa del Cinghiale--or Wild Boar Festival--a two-day event at his restaurants in Orsara di Puglia. Clients, friends, local dignitaries and restaurateurs make the schlep to this unknown area of Puglia, in the province of Foggia for a series of meals and workshops. Peppe, one of the most generous chefs I know, invites other restaurants to prepare a course for one of the important meals, Sunday lunch for the general public, Monday lunch for restaurateurs and food professionals.

I always meet interesting people, in and out of the food and wine world. Mago Zurli, legendary Italian magician and Andy Luotto, comedian turned chef in past years; this year singer Tony Sant'Agata. The theme for the workshops was "The Magic of the Host," about the role of the restaurant host as a custodian of gastronomic wealth and a cultural and economic animator. It's a profession not taught in schools, culinary or non, but Peppe performs it to perfection.

It's almost impossible to get the Italians on the workshop panel to stick to their time limits and discuss the topic of the day. None did.

I took a train to Naples, was met by my pal Vito Santoro and we arrived in Orsara on Sunday evening, in time for the simple dinner at the restaurant--we missed the opening workshop and lunch for 500 guests at Villa Jamele--huge reception hall and conference center flanked by Peppe's organic garden, vineyard, orchard of "forgotten" fruit, villa with rooms, and cooking school with wood-burning oven. A nearby stone mill is in the process of being restored so Peppe can grind his own wheat. Home-made salumi, rustic bread and vegetable soup, wild boar two ways, and, after dinner, my introduction to Tony Sant'Agata and his music.

Monday's activities always start late--it's not easy to assemble restaurateurs, chefs, wine makers, and food artisans--some attending, others presenting their specialties. And it's almost impossible to get the Italians on the workshop panel to stick to their time limits and discuss the topic of the day. None did. Chef Federico Valicenti and Peppe each prepared a wild boar dish--cavatelli with strips of wild boar with bay-flavored sauce, thin slices of wild boar "leaves" with chestnut honey, red wine, and mint.

Of course there was bread from Pane e Salute, a straw-burning oven from 1526--I was as happy to see owner Angelo di Bicceri as I was to taste his bread--and was gifted a loaf (4 kilo round) to take home, huge, bulky, but well worth the schlep. I met Luciano di Meo, who raises Casertano black pigs, transforms them into salumi, and has an agriturismo that's on my list of places I'd love to visit. An entire dining room was devoted to dessert, not my favorite course. I skipped pumpkin gelato but tried wheat berries with chopped chocolate and wine must. And promised Peppe I'd be back next year.