This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.
Roventini, migliacci, sanguinacci – the forgotten delicacy has many names, but they’re all small crêpes with a porous surface made with pig’s blood, broth, flour and spices. Fried in oil or lard, the resulting taste is uniquely delicious – at the intersection of savoury crepes, offal and blood sausage. Despite being an umami hit, they’re also surprisingly delicate.
If the main ingredient sounds wild to you, just know there are lots of blood-based recipes in Italian cuisine and beyond. The Philippines has dinuguan – a stew cooked in blood; Korea has sundae, a blood sausage; in Vietnam, there’s the Bún bò Huế, a shrimp and pig’s blood soup; in Colombia, pepitoria is a rice and offal dish served with goat cooked in blood; and in the UK and Ireland there’s black pudding, a pig’s blood sausage and fry-up classic.
For years, Sergio “The Rifleman” Ballerini was Florence’s sole roventini seller, making him a near-mythical figure in town. He was so beloved that when he decided to retire five years ago I reported on the news for a local station. I was sad to see him go, thinking I’d lost one of my favourite street foods for good – but a few months ago, I heard of another food truck selling roventini just outside Florence.
The owner of this 1970s van-turned-food-truck is Alessandra Arena. I found her in Ginestra Fiorentina, which is barely a town and more like a row of houses lined up along the main road out of Florence.
Alessandra said there are as many ways to make these pancakes are there are names for them. “Every village [in Tuscany] has its own,” she said, “but historically they’re from Florence.” The dish was once peasant food, just like lampredotto, another traditional dish from Florence made with the fourth stomach of a cow.
“Rich people would throw the blood away, so the commoners used it to make these pancakes or blood sausage,” said Alessandra. Roventini comes from the word rovente, or searing-hot, since the pancakes are fried on a sizzling skillet and should be eaten right away.
While she poured a red dollop of pancake mix into a well-greased pan, Alessandra explained the traditional recipe. “To make roventini, the pig’s blood was diluted with broth made from cheap pig scraps, then they added flour and spices,” she said. In terms of calories, the result was more or less the same as a slice of meat, which was hard to come by for working class people at the time.
Alessandra follows the same method today, making her own broth and adding a secret mix of Tuscan spices, with blood making up 25 to 30 percent of the total recipe, then she cooks them in a skillet with extra virgin olive oil. Her food truck offers a variety of toppings, including Parmesan cheese, sugar and Nutella – since the flavour of the pancakes is mild, they can also be eaten sweet. Nevertheless, I decided to go for Parmesan, the classic choice.
During my visit, a few customers turned up. One of them told me the pancakes transported him back to his childhood in Florence, when his mum used to send him to buy a bag of roventini for dinner.
Despite their popularity, the dish died out in Florence after a 1992 law regulated the sale of blood-based products to the general public. Now, you can’t buy pig’s blood without a special license issued by local authorities. Alessandra explained that blood perishes more quickly than meat and can potentially carry a lot of pathogens. She gets it straight from a slaughterhouse in the nearby town of San Miniato. “I take a sterile container and they fill it up,” she said, adding that they follow strict hygiene protocols. “I’m not even allowed in. Once, I stepped inside because it was cold, and they immediately kicked me out.”
Other than health and safety measures, our changing taste in food has also made blood-based dishes unpopular. It’s a pity, because blood is actually quite versatile – it’s an excellent thickener, similar to eggs, so it was often used to bind sauces. It’s also quite nutritious, low in cholesterol, rich in iron and almost exclusively made of protein.
This means blood is a hugely wasted resource, especially for something that makes up between 5.5 to 8 percent of an animal’s body weight. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Agency, it’s also often disposed of improperly, causing environmental problems.
Our grandparents grew up with a “no waste” mentality that our generation has sadly lost. If we want to change, there are plenty of traditional recipes with “gross” ingredients out there, just waiting to be gobbled up.