It’s not all butchers who can boast a pseudonym. But then it’s not all butchers who wear bow-ties made from the folded dried skin of a wild boar. In fact there is nothing very normal about Giuseppe Dell’Orso aka ‘Pepe Cotto’ (‘baked pepper’) at all.
Our first encounter with him was on an innocent mission to buy some sausages. It was in the days when we thought it was essential to befriend all the culinary artisans in our local area, to try to shop and interact in the Italian way rather than the supermarket way. The first thing to say about this approach is that it immediately thrusts you into the arms of your host community, the second is that you realise just what a lot of specialism there is out there and how many people who have a deep appreciation of food, the third is that it takes an awfully, awfully long time. And you must cast aside any notion as conservative and focused as ‘coming in to buy x’. I went in to buy sausages and came out, a full 75 minutes later, with a piece of animal in the shape of a medieval shield.
The first thing that happens to you when you enter Pepe’s small but packed butcher’s shop is that you are asked to go back out and come in again. Having taken his first impression of you (the 2 second rule) he must then find some appropriate music. He puts on a cassette into his 80s-not-in-a-retro-sense ‘boombox’. This being Le Marche and Rossini heartland, the music choice is usually, well, Rossini, almost certainly of an operatic bent. Music blaring, you are then free to re-enter with suitable pomp, to the sight of Pepe miming the words and dancing around like some Frank Bough – Bruce Forsyth hybrid, fuelled by Italian speed.
The next thing is the guided tour of the meat counter, every bit as earnest as a curator in the National Gallery. But he’s not parading his wares, most things here aren’t even for sale (the very thought!) they are his carnal artworks. His bovine breast dinosaur, his porcine gristle dormouse, an abstract offal work which talks to ‘the origins of life’. You’re not kidding.
Then the tasting. People are so boring, laments Pepe, they put a piece of salami on a bit of bread and gulp it down like an animal. The thing is to revere the food, to elevate it, to treat it (help) like a beautiful woman. As he is talking, he is slicing a piece of ciauscolo, a deliciously soft local cured meat speciality that is half way between salami and pate, into the shape of a heart. He changes the music (Verdi now, no regionalist he), pours out two glasses of vino cotto (another local speciality, a sweetly toxic sort of sherry-ultra) and positions the salami heart, sliced up the middle a bit, betwixt the two glasses. It’s a bit like a rejected cover shot for ‘It’s my wedding’ magazine.
‘Um, sono vegetariano’ says Jason as Pepe pushes the glasses in our direction.
‘It doesn’t matter’ says Pepe, still pushing, as if to say he won’t hold that against Jason (as long of course as he still eats).
‘I’ll eat your half of the heart shall I?’ I say, ever the peacemaker and shove the heart in my mouth before manwar breaks the love scene.
Jason sips the vino cotto, from the ungreasey side of the glass.
We buy the nearest thing (the meaty shield affair) and hotfoot it to the supermarket.