I travel through the never ending winding roads of the Chianti region to expand my knowledge on one of Tuscany’s most sought after signature dishes.
If you happen to be in the region of Tuscany, it would really be a crime not to eat and gnaw at the bone of her majesty, the Bistecca Fiorentina. You will find this dish jotted down on most restaurant menus in Florence and the rest of Tuscany. It is widely priced by weight with an average cost of €45 per kilo but this lean, succulent meat is pretty impressive.
The Bistecca Fiorentina is de facto nothing but a two fingers high steak detached with artful mastery from the carcass of its fine owner and cooked as it is required by the Florentine tradition. But the prestige of this Tuscan dish lies not only in the cooking method but also in the quality of the chosen animal. The cut is a T-shaped bone with meat on both sides – the end part of the sirloin which is attached to the fillet. Tradition requests that the Bistecca Fiorentina is sourced from a breed of cattle called chianina, one of the oldest cattle breeds in the world which goes back to the time of the Etruscans and the ancient Romans. The chianina creatures, characterized by their lean, tall body and white coat were originally used as draught animals; however, today these cattle are recognized for their extremely prized and tasty meat.
As Dario Cecchini, the renowned butcher of Panzano, in Tuscany, puts it, the secret is to treat the animal with respect. Dario’s dilemma, whether to kill or not to kill for beef, is resolved by his philosophy of respect towards the animal, ensuring it leads a comfortable life full of good food, necessary space to live and a respectful death. This reasoning will ensure that only high quality meat is used to prepare the Bistecca Fiorentina.
The legend has it that the word bistecca originated in the year 500 AD in Florence, when during a huge feast in Piazza San Lorenzo, some English citizens joined to eat grilled meat and uttered in unison the word ‘beef steak’, requesting another serving. It is said that then the locals modified ‘beef steak’ to the Italian word ‘bistecca’.
A gastronomic and resident in Florence, Pellegrino Artusi, in his classic 1891 cookbook, ‘The Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well,’ has a vintage recipe for the Bistecca Fiorentina. He writes that ‘The steak shouldn’t be over cooked, because the beauty of the dish lies in the juice that flows from the meat when it is cut’. Indeed, there is only one way to eat this hunk of meat – rare. Cooked over burning coal or wood fire, after it has set to room temperature, this steak becomes lightly charred on the exterior and remarkably succulent, soft, and warm beneath the brownish crust. Before cutting in, the steak is usually left to rest covered for 10 to 15 minutes. The portion is served carved and is customarily meant to be shared at the table where it is then seasoned with salt, freshly cracked black pepper and Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Prepare your senses to be overwhelmed, this steak is melt-in-your-mouth kind of tender, but full of beautiful flavour concentrated in every bite!
On our recent trip to the land of unparalleled art, charming countryside and breathtaking architecture, I saved the best for last. The bistecca fiorentina was planned for our last lunch in the Chianti area at the Locanda Borgo Antico, a restaurant situated in the countryside of Greve in Chianti. We were welcomed by Stefano, a cheerful man, filled with typical Tuscan humour. As we ordered the bistecca fiorentina with great enthusiasm, he made sure that we ask for it cooked rare; in any case there is never any alternative unless one wants to commit the offence of ruining such a masterpiece.
At the Locanda we were surrounded with a peaceful and quiet atmosphere in a rustic environment with chequered tablecloths and dark furniture. Sweet Patrizia, the wife of Stefano, is the best advertisement for this restaurant, with her rosy, glowing cheeks and contagious smile she presents the uncooked bistecca at our table for approval. Patrizia and Stefano radiate their love for food through their warm personalities and the dishes they serve respect the Tuscan tradition. Ingredients are chosen attentively to ensure high quality homely food which gives pleasure to their customers. We accompanied the perfectly cooked bistecca with the traditional side dishes – cannellini beans with extra virgin olive oil and a fresh, crispy green salad and a bottle of Chianti Classico, of course!
The simple preparation of this dish and the fact that it is served rare imply one precise prerequisite – the quality of the meat. If you are in the region of Tuscany keep this dish high on the list of foods to try, just make sure you make some research or take recommendations from locals about where to eat the best Bistecca Fiorentina.
What marvels me most of Tuscan cuisine is the ability to accomplish genuinely good dishes with extremely simple recipes; the secret is simple as well….attention and little or no compromise on the quality of ingredients!