Why you should care
Because it’s time for your weak stomach to stop getting in the way of a fine meal.
Imagine strolling through a medieval town — cobblestones, little churches, big churches, historically faithful shopping with present-day prices. Then you come across a sign on the wall with an arrow pointing toward a tiny food boutique:
OVER HERE, DONKEY BALLS
Your first reaction might go something like this: shock, followed by laughter, followed by more laughter and then some curiosity. But you’re in Norcia, so relax. What awaits you behind that door is not dangling donkey genitals. Rather, it’s a simple salami — shaped like a pair of testicles.
Norcia, about 110 miles northeast of Rome, in Umbria, is Italy’s charcuterie and cold cuts heaven. For once, you’ll have more to admire than Renaissance art. Here, the big draw are greasy, yummy pig-meat delicacies. Hams, sausages and salamis of all sorts, sizes and colors hang outside shops and in the middle of piazzas. You can walk around in what’s basically an open-air butchery. And it’s all thanks to monks.
I assure you these are not the actual genitals of a real mule.
Back in the Middle Ages, priests had a knack with pig thighs: They came up with the best way to dry and preserve pork, and pigs were also the most common domestic animal one could easily take on long trips as a food source. This porcine artistry ascended from survival mechanism to gourmet passion, and gave rise to Italy’s norcineria (cold cuts) tradition. When it comes to ham, salami, coppa, mortadella, etc. … well, we Italians rock. There’s even a salami museum in the north to worship this fine food, while panino co’ mortazza (a sandwich with lard-stuffed ham) is a must in Rome.
As you stroll Norcia’s streets, be prepared to be assailed by spicy aromas, that of chili pepper and reddish liver sausage mixed with prized black truffles stuffed in salamis. So while you’re in the mecca of cold cuts, why not live a little and give “donkey balls” a try too? They’ve got a strong taste, but I assure you these are not the actual genitals of a real mule.
But if you’re a kick-ass carnivore and want the genuine, nasty stuff, Italy’s got your back. Sure, you can find bull testicle stews in Austria and boiled bull balls in Spain. In Italy, though, we prefer to stick to more sophisticated fare, such as lamb genitals, which used to be a specialty dish of wealthy aristocrats. Latin historian Pliny the Elder once wrote that if a woman ate chicken testicles after having conceived a child, she’d give birth to a boy — a healthy stud with big balls, no silly princess.
“Norcia’s donkey balls are so named to honor this great animal that has always worked his ass off for men, living side by side with shepherds and mountain people for ages,” says Giorgio Pancrazio, a Norcia resident and consumer of tons of cold cuts each year. “It’s our way to thank them, creating a special salami that nods to its male attribute.”
These donkey balls are whitish-gray (just like the real thing!), oval and spiced with lard. Several butchers dip the pork in wine before drying it. The balls have a rough surface (OZY cannot attest if actual donkey testicles do too). One thing, though, is for sure: Donkey balls or no donkey balls, if you spend a weekend in Norcia, you’re bound to become a cold cuts addict on a dangerously high-protein diet, so eat your vegetables now.