The Spit Roast
“Son di bocca delicata non sopporto l’insalata, piuttosto, al suo posto un pezzettino d’arrosto”
I have a subtle palate:
I can’t abide the salad.
What I covet most
is a good slice of spit roast.
Thus goes a popular rhyme, now pretty much forgotten but always with a place in my heart. Good rhymes always remain in a good Tuscan’s head, and this one was never going to leave mine: after all, it’s about my favourite dish. L’arrosto.
In Tuscany, when we say ‘arrosto’ we mean “arrosto girato” – a spit roast. A piece of meat, stuck on a skewer, slowly turned by some form of mechanical apparatus.
Today, this apparatus is almost always electric, but once upon a time the meat had to be turned by hand, or by some primitive, provisional mode of mechanized rotation. Why go to all the effort? Well, after three hours of cooking over a good oak fire, the result is pure poetry.
And poetry is all very well, but let’s go into a bit more detail.
The first thing to say is that spit roasting is by no means particular to Tuscany. It enjoys a proud history in many other corners of the globe. But what makes the Tuscan (and if we’re honest, also the Umbrian) spit roast unique is that the cuts of meat are relatively small, and come from many different parts of the animal. And perhaps the most important thing is the bread, two slices of which sandwich the meat, and which many (rightly) consider the best part of the whole ensemble.
One particularly irresistible morsel is fegatello: pork liver, seasoned with fennel seeds and bay leaves and wrapped in caul fat. It can be served on its own (which I personally prefer), or it can be minced and used in further recipes.
Free-range chicken is a staple of the spit roast, but pigeon, turkey and guinea fowl all frequently appear too. Of course, it’s hard to cook a bird as large as turkey au naturel, so we usually just skewer the breasts, which are often stuffed with cheese and ham.
As for other edible birds, I advise against using duck and goose. Sliced partridge and pheasant are better bets, and should be wrapped in a few rashers of bacon, but these two birds will always be better roasted whole. Thrush makes a great addition to a mixed spit roast, alongside the aforementioned fegatelli; while the more famous small birds (sparrows, chaffinches etc) make for the quickest spit roasts, and some of the tastiest.
But when it comes to meat, pork rules the roast. You can spit roast just about every part of it with exceptional results, but my personal choice would be the Boston butt, which runs from shoulder to tail. And lest we forget, we should never be without some sausages.
Lamb and goat also work very well, but beef, the noblest of the meats, doesn’t really lend itself to a spit roast unless it’s a boneless rib-eye steak, skewered whole and cooked over a lively flame.
Everything should be cooked with patience. Make sure that you fix everything on the skewer properly, and add a good old sprig of rosemary. The ghiotta – the pan you put underneath to catch the fat – is very important, and can be used to cook some delicious potatoes.
One last note in the pursuit of pleasure. An arrosto is really elevated to divine status when paired with one of the classic Tuscan reds, ideally not too young. A Brunello or a Chianti Classico is perfect, or one of the Supertuscans, if you want something a bit more modern.