To cook like a Tuscan all one generally needs are the main ingredients, olive oil, bread or pasta, some herbs, and salt. It is a cuisine of simplicity.
When it comes to meat dishes the preparation is just as straightforward. All one needs to make a perfect bistecca fiorentina are the ingredients listed above, less the herbs, with the addition of a wood fire, some cracked black pepper and a T-bone cut of Chianina beef three fingers wide.
If you have not tried bistecca fiorentina you are only half a carnivore. While it is somewhat ordinary in Tuscany it is a delicacy more delicious than decadent and one that ought not make a true carnivore feel guilty about flying to Italy to try just one bite. If you are the sort who is prone to viewing such a trip as an extravagance, bring a friend. The cut is large enough for two, sometimes three people. The flavors are clean and meaty, obviously, and the texture is extraordinarily tender.
The name bistecca fiorentina is a bit anomalous in the Tuscan language and its origins are disparate. The first word of the two word title is said to have come from English tourists of old taking the Grand Tour. Apparently many were nervous of Italian cooking so they ordered “beef steak” everywhere they went. Over time the Italians began to call this cut of grilled meat bistecca, the approximation of the English term. As for fiorentina, this part of the title comes from Saint Lorenzo, the patron saint of cooks who was martyred in 258 CE by being grilled alive. One highly improbable version of the legend has it that while the poor man was slowly roasted to death he allegedly joked: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side!” (Traditionally, bistecca fiorentina is served sangue or rare; perhaps a bit of Tuscan gallows humor?) Another possible source of the dish’s association with Florence may come from the church of San Lorenzo in Florence which was the parish church for the Medici family. Over time these two terms got hobbled together and the name stuck.
The huge, white Chianina cattle have been a part of the region for centuries. The first records suggesting the presence of the Chianina breed can be found in the 4th century BCE, or the earliest period of the Umbro/Etruscan era. The breed most likely originated in the ancient Indus valley which today lies in parts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and north-western India. Centuries of slow migration eventually lead to central Italy where the cow was especially well adapted. Herd sizes increased greatly in the middle and later Etruscan age and through to the 7th century mainly because the Etruscans viewed the cow as sacred. From Roman times to the end of the Second World War, the Chianina cow was the work horse of Italian agriculture living most of its life as a draft animal then, after life, as dinner.
In many respects the Chianina is the perfect farm animal. It is docile yet powerful and when bred for consumption, it is prolific and fast growing. A Chianina bullock can grow to 1,500 lbs / 700 kgs in just 16 months. Females can get up to 2,200 lbs / 1,000 kgs while bulls can tip the scales at 3,330 lbs / 1,500 kgs. One record setting bull was Donetto who at the age of eight years weighed 3,858 lbs / 1,750 kgs. Another legendary bull named Desiderio (1884-1889), who weighed 3,688 lbs / 1,673 kgs, was so prolific that his likeness can found on the label of Merlot/Cabernet bottled by Avignonesi Winery who wished to commemorate his achievements.
No where in Italy will one find a Chianina feed lot. Rather the cattle are always range fed and are out of the pastures only when they come to calve or need veterinary attention. The breed has been protected and breeding is regulated by the Associazione Nazionale Allevatori Bovini Italiani Carne (ANABIC). Recently the Chianina achieved European Economic Community geographically protected recognition (IGP) as “Vitellone Bianco dell’Appennino Centrale.” In limited numbers the Chianina has gone global and the Italian breed can be found in the US, the UK and has been crossbred in much of Latin America with the Zebu Nelore.
One of the most unique purveyors of Chianina beef in Italy is the Macelleria Ricci located in the town of Trequanda. This multigenerational butcher shop, established in 1895 is more than just a place to buy Chianina beef. The proprietor, Enrico Ricci raises the cattle himself on his ranch not more than five miles from his shop.
Ricci got into the raising of the livestock many years back. He explained that at the end of the share cropping system in the 1960s tractors began to replace cattle and oxen in the field. As he says, the Chianina became “redundant.” Because the cattle were no longer needed to plow the fields their numbers dwindled to around 10,000. Rather than watch this once prized and venerated breed vanish Ricci purchased a herd, along with others in his area, and worked to bring the breed back. As a result of their efforts the Chianina numbers have risen substantially.
Ricci’s entire operation is a closed circle model. He has total control from farm to table. His deep admiration for the animal is apparent in his shop where he sells all parts of the cow and personally guarantees that the animals were raised cleanly and treated humanely.
Tours of Macelleria Ricci are also available through Food Artisans culinary workshops in Italy.