Friday, June 20, 2008

Lo Spiedo Bresciano: The Brescian Spit

Lo Spiedo Bresciano: The Brescian Spit

Or, Roast Game Birds

By Kyle Phillips [Licensed to]

"We're hunters," came the reply when I asked about the origins of Lo Spiedo Bresciano, one of the city of Brescia's signature dishes. "But we do things differently than you do in Tuscany:" -- my accent places me -- "We set up blinds, don't use dogs, and shoot at uccelli dal becco fino," in other words fine beaked, i.e. small birds, including thrushes, meadowlarks, finches, and so on.

[Above: Making a Spiedo Bresciano: The meats have been roasting for about 4 hours. Note tray for coals to the front of roaster.]

Before you blanch at the idea of eating a songbird, some context: Lo spiedo bresciano goes back centuries, and is a holiday dish of those who were too poor to be able to afford other meats, and were also not allowed, by the ruling nobility, to hunt anything larger. Considering that one would be fined if one were caught shooting anything that walked or bounded over the land, if not worse -- the Visconti, who ruled Brescia from 1300 to 1430, had poachers mutilated -- hunters bent on providing a meal for their families naturally went after what the nobility didn't care about: Small birds.

As did farmers, both because some small birds eat the crops in the fields, and because barnyard animals that could provide commodities such as eggs, or be sold to raise cash, were much too valuable to be eaten.

Hence the classic Spiedo Bresciano.

Like any old dish, however, it has evolved with time.

*On the one hand, people aren't quite so poor as they once were, and can afford to add other meats to the spit, for example pork spare ribs, quail, and rabbit.

*And on the other, mores have changed, and it is now illegal to catch what was once allowed. Therefore, to enjoy the traditional Speido Bresciano you have to go out and catch the birds yourself, have a friend who hunts, or have access to commercially raised small game birds. Or you can adapt the recipe as many modern Bresciani do, cooking quail, rabbit, pork, chicken, and so on in the traditional way.

Historically there are three major variations on the Spiedo Bresciano:

*In the Valtrompia and the Bassa Bresciana, the flatlands extending from Brescia out into the Pianura Padana people used song birds and pieces of pork loin, figuring three birds and a couple of slices of loin per person. The birds are plucked, their eyes are removed, and they are gutted. Then they are spitted, arranging them so their heads all face the same same way, and putting the smallest birds at the ends of the spit where the heat is lower, with a slice of pork loin rolled up around a strip of lard and a sage leaf between each pair of birds. The spit is basted with melted butter.

*Around Rezzato, in the lower Gardesana (towards the Pianura Padana), they also add pieces of rabbit to the spit, and in other surrounding towns they go further, using pork spare ribs cut about 2 1/2 inches (6 cm) long, song-bird-sized pieces of chicken, and finger-thick slices of potato.

*In the alto Garda (towards the mountains) and the Valle Sabbia the Spiedo is richer; in addition to the song birds they use chicken, rabbit, duck, pork liver wrapped in lace fat, rolled up slices of pork shoulder butt (what is coppa if it's cured), which is tenderer than pork loin, and spare ribs.

Regardless of which kind of Spiedo Bresciano you choose to make, figure about three birds, and an equivalent volume of other meats, say a piece of pork loin, a spare rib, and a chicken drumstick per person, cutting the other meats to the size of the birds to insure everything cooks at the same rate (if you are omitting the songbirds, double the amounts of other meats, or add other things, for example quale and pigeon).

When you have assembled and cut your meats, spit them in repeating order: Bresciani using everything usually start with a slice of potato, followed by a rolled up piece of pork, a sage leaf, a songbird (spitted side-to-side), sage, potato, a piece of rabbit, sage, potato, a songbird, sage, potato, a piece of chicken, sage, potato, a spare rib, sage, and so on, until all is spitted. When spitting the meats, make certain the birds are all arranged facing the same way.

Lo Spiedo Bresciano is done over the coals, and there is really no other way to do it. An oven simply wouldn't give the same results.

Restaurants and people who cook for large groups of friends use a rotisserie of the kind shown here: a long metal box capable of holding several spits, which are turned by an electric motor. The coals go into a tray that runs along the front of the box, while the bottom of the rotisserie acts as a dripping pan, catching what drips from the spits above.

Such specialization is not necessary, however: All you need is one or more long spits you can set in front of the coals, and a clockwork or electrically operated spit turner to turn the spits so the meat cooks evenly.

And now, to cook! First, the fire:

Though you won't be cooking over high heat, you'll be cooking for a long time, so make certain you have an ample supply of non-resinous hardwood (Bresciani use olive wood) or good quality charcoal. I wouldn't use briquettes, because they can contain all sorts of things, including sawdust. Start the fire, and when it has produced some coals, you're ready to begin.

Put the spit in your hearth over a dripping pan, arranging the spit so the heads of the birds hang down. Spread the coals you have in front of -- not directly under -- the spit so they provide an even, not too intense heat over the length of the spit. Don't start the spit turner immediately, but rather wait until the heat from the coals stiffens the necks of the birds. While this is happening, melt a cup of unsalted butter and season it with several fresh sage leaves.

When the necks of the birds have stiffened, add a few more coals to increase the heat some (but not too much; the heat should never be really intense, or the birds will dry out), start the spit turner, baste the birds with the melted butter and sage, and lightly salt them. Continue cooking, adding coals as necessary to maintain a moderate, even heat, for 4-5 hours, basting every hour or so, using both the butter, and, as they accumulate, the drippings from the dripping pan. When there's about an hour left to go check seasoning. And when it's done, remove the pieces of meat to a platter, and keep them warm. Also, gather the drippings and flavorful bits from the drippings pan, combine them with whatever butter is left in the basting pot, and put them in a warmed bowl.

And thus we have the meat: What to serve with it?

Polenta; set a pot of water to boil about an hour before the birds will be ready, and make a nice batch of not too firm polenta. You may also want to make a tossed green salad seasoned with olive oil, salt, and good white wine vinegar. And, of course, you should procure wine: A Terre di Franciacorta Rosso DOC would be quite nice, as would a Garda Bresciano Rosso DOC, or, if you wanted to go a little further afield, a Valpolicella Superiore.

The actual serving is simple: Each person gets a couple birds and other kinds of meat (here, rabbit and spareribs), and some polenta, flavored by pressing into the polenta with the back of a spoon and filling the resulting well with seasoned drippings.

Festive food fit for king!

Lo Spiedo Bresciano: The Brescian Spit

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