Saturday, March 3, 2012

Dario Cecchini: the man, the meat, the mind-fuck

That was my original title for this piece.

It was shit (which I realized soon after my rant.) So here is the revised version, which my professor called a "great improvement." Phew.


“Where’s the beef?” my friend asked as I walked out of the butcher shop empty-handed.

“No beef for us. I just met the Soup Nazi of Tuscany.” Pathetic attempts at humour seemed the only antidote to my dejection: I saw her outdated pop-culture reference, and raised her a Seinfeld. I wasn’t proud of myself.

After traveling with friends for several weeks in Tuscany, I decided that a bistecca alla fiorentina was the only acceptable way to celebrate our last night together. I had long felt familiar with Tuscan cooking, as evidenced by my graceful dipping of cantucci in vin santo while simultaneously bragging of my foresight to bring my own mini salt cellar to land of notoriously bland bread. But yet the bistecca, the most emblematic dish of Tuscany’s most emblematic city, had somehow eluded me. I shouldn’t have been so proud of myself.

While there is no shortage of restaurants serving bistecca in Florence, the hands-off process seemed all wrong. If you are going to indulge in the primal pleasures of bloody meat, you must first do as our ancestors did: build the fire over which to cook it. Or at least that’s what I said to convince my friends to go out and collect kindling.

What’s so great about the bistecca? The key is the quality of the meat and the stark oppositions achieved through proper preparation. Cooking over intense heat allows a thick, charred crust to develop on the surface. An open flame is crucial to develop the juxtaposition of a robust smoky aroma and subtle sweetness. But with minimal cooking time, the inside remains practically raw. Rather than a gradual swatch-like progression from palest pink to deep red, the contrasting colours are side-by-side, creating a carnivorous yin and yang. While the exterior shows how heat can elevate meat, the cool and mild center showcases the quality of the raw material, which needs little intervention.

The perfect bite thus involves all senses: the irresistible smell of smoky meat, the slight crunch as you bite into the crust which then transitions to a tender chew, the cooling sensation of the center, the simultaneous sweet and savoury notes, and the visual beauty of good company sharing a meal around a fire. That was what I wanted. I was on a mission.

Dario Cecchini is the only famous butcher in Chianti – and probably all of Italy – and after reading about him in several books, I knew where I had to go to buy my bistecca. A gastronomic pilgrimage to his native Panzano would surely be worth the effort, both for the purportedly unparalleled quality of his product and his reputation for spontaneous performances of Dante’s Inferno. What could be more Tuscan that that? I was on my way.

In Panzano, I could easily recognize Dario’s shop from the crowds socializing outside. Though its red and white color scheme ranks several notches above the stereotypical checkered tablecloth, the allusion is not lost, and the effect is oddly intriguing. Walking inside, Dario's young and enthusiastic minions greet me with a fiasco of unremarkable table wine and a leaning tower of glasses. Before I know it I’ve drunk up these Tuscan clich├ęs and am already asking for seconds. Yes, Dario knows exactly what he’s doing.

To pair with the wine Dario provides his take on the omnipresent fatty and peppery Tuscan trio: piles of bread doused in neon green olive oil, whipped lardo, and obnoxiously thick slices of finocchiona. Once the savoury snacks have mellowed the sangiovese’s aggressive acidity and my hunger, I feel ready to explore Dario’s World.

Several cloven carcasses hang just beyond the spread, luring passers-by into a gastronomic red light district. From behind thick glass they can gawk at the marvels of flesh: one derives a perverse pleasure, even if they are bovine and decomposing. But it is Dario who draws my immediate attention. While interacting with guests he effortlessly incorporates his meat cleaver into a finger-pinch vertical motion – the most Italian of gestures – and I realize: he has lured us all in with the promise of a meal, and now we’ll have to stick around for the show.

Dario presents to the American tourists a beautiful package of Tuscany, featuring much of what they have been taught to expect from endless romanticized depictions: the generous bounty of the table and the chaos of the shop, which has been carefully manipulated to appear as the oh-so-charmingly Italian variety as opposed to the I-just-want-to-pull-my-hair-out strain. This game – that of Italians exploiting foreigners’ perceptions of their country - is not a new one, but Dario is certainly one of the best players around.

As Dario’s latest performance ends and guests begin to clear out, I inch my way towards him in hopes of asking him about his work. I’m a student of gastronomy, I reason, and surely he wouldn’t mind taking a few minutes to chat. I choose a hefty sirloin and ask how he would recommend to cook it: would al sangue be best?

Al sangue?! Al sangue does NOT exist! There’s only one way to cook a bistecca! So why would you ask that question?!”

“Um.”

Dumbstruck, I foolishly venture an even pricklier question: where did he source his product?

Despite his obvious Tuscan pride, the majority of the meat in Dario’s shop is raised and slaughtered in Spain before being transported to Panzano. The irony is not lost on him. Though he had once passionately performed a carefully reasoned and rehearsed speech in his defense, I can tell he has long since grown tired of trotting out the same argument to sanctimonious worshippers of the local. His exhaustion had become bitter indignation, and I was left alone to bear the brunt of it.

“ ‘Zero kilometer’ does NOT exist! You think your pigs in California are local, but where does their food come from? Iowa! Ha!”

“Um.”

Trying to re-direct the conversation, or rather in hopes of creating one and preempting the impending diatribe, I ask what breed of cattle he raises.

I should have known: in a world where “al sangue” and “zero kilometer” do not exist, then differences in animal breeds certainly cannot.

“It’s quality – I only care about QUALITY! Race does not exist!”

Yes, I had done it. I had pushed him past his breaking point.

My intermediate level Italian courses had not prepared me for such a thickly Tuscan-accented discourse on race relations. I am too busy trying to find out what happened to the “c” sound that I cannot make the connection between Barack Obama and beef. But I think his point is this: if Martin Luther King, Jr. had fought so hard for the equality of races, why do we insist that one breed of animal is better than another?

“Um.”

I try to pay for the bistecca in hopes of resolving the tension of the situation and enabling a swift exit. This conversation is going no where, fast, and I want to make sure that I can at least walk out of the shop with something for dinner and some pride intact. Dario, however, has other plans in mind.

“I am a serious butcher! I have been doing this for more than thirty years! Ask more interesting questions!” he bellows as he vigorously shakes his head, refusing my money. There would be no bistecca in my future, at least not that night.

How I had failed the in the most seemingly straightforward part of my quest? The long ride back to our agriturismo allowed me to gather the thoughts that Dario’s booming voice had scattered. To a certain extent, I could understand his annoyance. Local versus global, tradition versus innovation, and organic versus conventional: have these dichotomies been discussed to the point of abstraction? As in the case of the perfect bistecca, sometimes contrast is necessary and illuminating. But it can also force the debate into black and white terms, leaving no room for the complexities of reality. For all his rhetoric, this was essentially Dario’s point. So he cast these issues aside and focused entirely on one standard alone: quality. If restricting himself to his native Chianti would mean lesser quality, then he wouldn’t do it. He would source his product from somewhere else in order to deliver the best product possible. Though his tone was off-putting, his candor was admirable. As he suggested, much worse sins against food have been committed and then ignored or repackaged with an image of a happy farmer and cow.

Dario is quick to claim much of the credit for the recent renaissance of the bistecca, whose integrity was threatened by EU regulations to prevent the spread of mad-cow disease. But after meeting the man and his product, I wondered if this was not a rebirth but a distorted re-interpretation.

Ironically, for someone so well-aware of his stature and fame, he has underestimated himself. Dario’s substantial and consistent clientele have given him considerable power in the local market. If he demanded Tuscan-raised beef of a certain quality, surely local farmers would respond. Does Dario have so little faith in his compatriots?

On his website Dario writes that to eat a bistecca alla fiorentina “is to enter into communion with Tuscany itself.” You can take the meat out of Tuscany, he seems to say, but you can’t take Tuscany out of the meat. But can you?

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