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Italy's Slow Cities

Indeed, unlike Positano, with its enviable setting and amiable way of life, or Orvieto, with its rich culinary heritage, Chiavenna hardly seemed the quintessential Slow City. Yes, it was small and untouched by industry, and its meandering streets did have a certain charm. Tourists often stop here on their way to the Italian ski resort Madesimo or to St.-Moritz, just across the Swiss border; many visit the medieval San Lorenzo church. But Chiavenna also had a somewhat grittier appearance than the others: it's the last stop on the railway line, and it feels that way. With its half-timbered Alpine-style chalets and snowcapped mountain backdrop, Chiavenna doesn't even look classically Italian. Spaetzle and lager are as prominent on restaurant menus as pasta and red wine. But Chiavenna has been touted as a Slow Cities success, having recently rescued from extinction its most treasured product, a cured goat's-leg ham known as violino di capra. In an effort to guarantee endangered dishes a place in the economy, Slow Cities encourages restaurants to carry regional cheeses, for example, and arranges for farmers to supply schools and hospitals with meals. Already, 109 products have been "saved" this way, among them violino. The ham gets its name from the way it is traditionally carved--held under the chin with one hand and sliced with a knife grasped, bow-like, by the other.

I had learned the history of violino that morning from the mayor, Teresa Tognetti, as we walked up Chiavenna's main street to visit Aldo Del Curto, a butcher instrumental in preserving the ham. Tognetti had been mayor for seven years, and people stopped her every 20 paces to say hello. Fifty years ago, she told me, violino was a celebrated dish. The goat legs were cured and stored for up to two months in deep grottoes in the nearby mountains. But demand for violino steadily decreased as Chiavennans chose the convenience of processed supermarket food. Today the grottoes are occupied by a string of restaurants.

"There was a great fear that violino would be lost. No one had ever recorded how to make it and only a few people in the town knew," Tognetti said. Its secret ingredient is the town's cool, bone-dry climate, which allows the goat's leg to cure and maintain its smooth texture. Even the next valley is too humid to dry the meat properly. In 2000, Tognetti, along with a culinary search-and-rescue team from Slow Food, arranged a meeting between the area's goat farmers and the remaining five or so producers who still knew how to make violino. Together they perfected the recipe and wrote it down. Tognetti unveiled the violino program at Slow Food's Salone del Gusto festival and food lovers from all over Italy were soon contacting her in search of Chiavenna's celebrated dish. Today, there are plans to open a small factory that would produce officially sanctioned violino and provide jobs for the town. There are even goat farmers in Vermont who hope to replicate it. When Tognetti and I arrived at the butcher shop, Aldo Del Curto ushered us in shyly. His family had been making violino for more than 100 years, he told me as he opened a large refrigerator to reveal a rack of freshly butchered goat meat. The pungent, gamy smell almost knocked me off my feet. The legs must be broken at the knee, he said cheerfully, to ensure that they dry in the right shape. Next, he led us downstairs to a large storage space where the goat legs are dipped in a dry salt rub before being placed in a wood smoker for up to two days. They are then cured for as long as two months in a special room before they are ready to eat.

Del Curto disappeared into the back of the store and returned with a goat leg in his hand. The ham, actually about the size of a viola, was covered in thick white mold, a by-product of the curing process. "In the old days, people would eat an entire violino with friends to celebrate a good hunting trip," Del Curto said. He picked up a thin knife and began carving the mold off the leg as if he were playing a violin. Soon, he was cutting thin strips of soft, dark meat and handing them to us.

I put a piece in my mouth. It tasted smoky and slightly salty--closer to venison than to prosciutto--and had a velvety texture. I imagined coming back from a particularly energetic afternoon of skiing, opening up a local white wine-- Del Curto said many people made the mistake of accompanying the ham with red, which kills the taste--and feasting on violino. I took another piece.


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