The butcher

The butcher

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
14 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743790038
Photographer
Lauren Bamford

Whenever anyone asks me about the most quintessential Florentine dish, two things immediately spring to mind: lampredotto panini (sandwiches of tender, abomasum tripe) and the colossal bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak). The fact that these two dishes are meat dishes is no accident – Florentine cuisine is undeniably meat-heavy, with a preference for beef, pork and game.

As the Florentines have always been very good at not letting things go to waste, offal features heavily and heartily on the menu, in particular liver, tripe and the unique lampredotto (the fourth stomach of the cow). Florentines seem to be one of the only populations in the world to make good use of this ingredient, embracing it and making it their most beloved dish, panini di lampredotto. This delightfully rustic snack or breakfast is eaten warm while standing, usually on the street, next to the food van where it was made.

In comparison, there is relatively little fresh seafood on the Florentine menu. Baccalà (salted cod) makes an appearance here or there in dishes such as fried and battered cod or cooked in tomato sauce, but these dishes are better known in Rome or Livorno, respectively. It wasn’t always this way, however, and some accounts dating to the 1300s describe abundant fresh fish available at the market, including fish from the city’s own Arno river. However, the river was perhaps better used for other practical activities, such as washing away the foul-smelling activities of the centuries-old leather-tanning industry, performed on its banks; or diluting the unwanted muck from the Renaissance butchers’ shops that once conveniently lined the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge whose picturesque shops are now brimming with gold and jewels.

Modern-day Florentine menus are more likely to feature game and, to a lesser extent, chicken than fresh fish. Chicken has historically been popular in Florence. During the Renaissance it was even considered medicinal and had restoring properties to help the sick and women who had just given birth. But it fell off menus drastically during the two world wars. After the Second World War, a whole chicken was considered quite an expensive meal, and most made do with cheaper cuts of meat – offal or the lesser cuts of beef that could be minced or stewed. Otherwise, dinner was something that could be hunted, such as wild boar, deer, rabbit, duck, pheasants or other birds. Game still has a strong presence on Florentine tables, taking pride of place in slow-cooked, hearty stews or dressing wide strips of fresh pappardelle noodles.

Many of the dishes in this chapter are arguably the stars of Florentine cuisine – the dishes that are constants on the city’s restaurant and trattoria menus and indispensable on any Florentine table, particularly for a family gathering or celebration, such as crostini di fegatini (chicken liver crostini), arista di maiale (Florentine roast pork), rosticciana (grilled pork ribs) and the city’s famous bistecca alla fiorentina (Florentine steak).

Others fall into the category of cucina casalinga (home cooking), ensuring nostalgia and comfort with every bite, from braciole rifatte (crumbed beef in tomato sauce) to polpettone alla fiorentina (Florentine meatloaf). And no Florentine menu would be complete without its offal – especially trippa alla fiorentina (Florentine-style tripe), delicious polpette di trippa (tripe meatballs) and wintry, oven-roasted fegatelli di maiale (pork liver parcels).

The Art of Bistecca

There is an art to cooking, ordering and eating bistecca alla fiorentina.

First, it must be rare. Not just blushing, but bloody. As a lean meat, it is most tender this way, and even then, part of the pleasure in eating this steak is that it should be chewed slowly and pensively. It’s rather primal, but it’s as if with each bite you get more flavour out of it. For those who like their meat well done, there are two options: either be adventurous and try this as it should be eaten, or eat something else. A number of Florentine trattorie have cheekily resorted to attaching signs to their menus announcing to the tourists who request well-done bistecca that the kitchen will not do it and to respect tradition! In any case, over-cooking dishonours this beautiful, very lean meat, which would only get ruined by disagreeable leatheriness and toughness the longer it cooks. Most agree with Artusi, who says ‘the beauty’ of the steak’s rareness is that when you cut into it, out pours the most wonderful ‘sauce’ of its own.

The bistecca must be on the bone (a T-bone), with the tender fillet that makes up about a third of the steak attached and the entire thing about ‘two fingers’ thick – depending on the fingers: about 3.5–4 cm thick, at the very most 5 cm. The thickness of a good bistecca seems to have changed over the decades. Pellegrino Artusi (1891) advises 1 to 1½ fingers thick; Ada Boni in The Talisman (1929) says 2.5 cm.

The final rule is no sauce. The only thing this steak needs is some salt, after it has come off the grill, some freshly ground black pepper and perhaps a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil. But I recall a retired butcher once telling me that a real bistecca alla fiorentina doesn’t even need salt. It is tasty enough as it is, he claimed.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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