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Cooking With Boar: A Walk On The Wild Side

We fasted all day in anticipation of our meal. ... The pappardelle smothered with wild boar ragu was so delicious, I didn't mind picking the [shotgun] pellets out for my son.

"Mom, there are shotgun pellets in my ragu" is not usually what you want to hear as you start dinner. On a family trip to Italy last summer, though, it was not entirely unexpected in the middle of an excursion to the Umbrian countryside, where we were immersing ourselves in all things local. It happened at a members-only eating club, discreetly placed on a tiny side street in the incongruously suburban neighborhood of Panicarola, near Castigliano del Lago. We got reservations through a club member whose villa we were renting.

We fasted all day in anticipation of our meal. We knew there would be a fixed menu served family-style, comprising numerous antipasti, a pasta dish, a main course, side courses and dessert, all accompanied by local Umbrian wine, coffee and a selection of grappa. The pappardelle smothered with wild boar ragu was so delicious, I didn't mind picking the pellets out for my son.

Since this trip, we often talk about this meal, particularly the wild boar ragu. While wild boar is native to northern and central Europe, where it's considered a food staple, it's less commonly eaten in North America.

Spanish explorers introduced boar as food to North America in the 16th century, and in the 20th century, boar were brought to the U.S. for the sport of hunting. Now, wild boar are found across the country, with populations concentrated in Florida, Texas and California. Generally, the boar are considered exotic pests because they are not indigenous and often wreak havoc on fields and vineyards. Despite their bad rap, boar meat has become increasingly popular in restaurants and with home chefs for the simple reason that boar meat is lean, rich in protein and tasty.

Boar meat tastes like a cross between pork and lamb. Like most game, it's well suited for stews, ragouts and braises. It marries well with fruit, spirits and spices such as juniper and cloves. It provides more protein than beef or pork, and less cholesterol than chicken. Because boar meat is so lean, it doesn't contribute much fat to stews (unlike beef chuck or pork shoulder), while it adds a distinctive yet not overwhelming meaty flavor that stands up well to aromatic ingredients. If using boar meat in a dish that relies on some meat fat, such as pate, be sure to combine it with another fatty meat, such as pork shoulder.

You don't have to hunt to get boar meat. It can be ordered from a butcher, specialty stores carrying game meat often sell frozen boar meat, and there are online sources for mail order. The meat will be farm- or ranch-raised boar. Try to find ranch-raised boar. The flavor of the meat will be more distinctive, reflecting the animals' natural habitat where they freely forage, unlike farm-raised boar, which are more confined and grain-fed.

One of our favorite souvenirs from traveling is the memory and re-creation of recipes we enjoyed. Lately, I have been buying boar meat online and storing it in my freezer so it's on hand for an easy pasta dinner or winter stew. Now, when the topic of our Umbrian trip comes up, it's less of a distant memory, since we can prepare the boar ragu at home. The only thing that's missing is the shotgun pellets.

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Lynda Balslev