By Pete Goffe-Wood.
Julia Child, the celebrated American food writer and TV chef, once quipped that “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook”.
Well, I couldn’t agree more, and now that the winter is finally upon us, it’s time for smouldering coals, smoky red wine and large cuts of steak slowly charring to perfection.
If you’re going to cook steak over the open fire you’ll achieve far better results if you go for larger cuts of meat: cooking a 1kg piece of meat will produce far more consistent and desirable results than five 200g steaks, and you’ll get a better char on the bigger cut without sacrificing those pink, inner juices (as long as you don’t overcook it!). There are few more glorious slabs of marbled and aged flesh on the fire than an enormous T-bone.
I learned of the true value of the T-bone in Panzano in Chianti, Tuscany at a glorious temple to meat called Antica Macelleria Cecchini – Officino della Bistecca (that translated means Master Butcher Cecchini – Office of the Steak). Dario Cecchini is a rock star amongst butchers; in fact he calls himself the Jimi Hendrix of butchers. Giorgio Nava of Carne fame – a man who knows a thing or two about steak himself – gave me Dario’s details.
But nothing quite prepared me for our introduction – the butchery is in a little cobbled street in the middle of the Chianti district of Tuscany, just outside of Florence. We stumbled upon it almost by accident, drawn up this quaint side street by the distant pounding of some serious rock music that seemed completely out of place. What we found was a quite traditional looking artisan butchery blaring AC/DC ‘s “Thunderstruck” at full volume, and immediately a tumbler of Chianti thrust into our hands together with a beautiful piece of Tuscan bread lathered with a thick layer of glorious lard, which we would later find out is called “Chianti butter”.
Before us, holding court from behind his counter, was the hippest, coolest-looking butcher you are ever likely to clap eyes on. Dressed in a white, full length butchers apron, white shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbows, and bright red chinos – I’m talking bright red like fully oxygenated blood, a clown’s nose, or Marilyn Monroe’s lips – with a matching red bandana around his neck that made it look like his throat had been cut. He had a full head of gelled-back black hair that appeared to have a life of its own, and a fiery glint in his eye that sone could imagine had loosened many an under-garment by its intensity alone.
He gesticulated wildly with his giant ham hock hands as he spoke– not a word of English, but we got on like a house on fire from the moment we met. After his assistant translated that I was the Kitchen Cowboy from South Africa and I showed him a photo of myself with a haunch of beef on my shoulder, it was as though the prodigal son had returned. We were given the tour of the butchery that has a beautiful al fresco restaurant out the back: the Office of the Steak. Here they have two sittings per day, the first at 13h00 for lunch and the second at 19h00 in the evening.
We returned later that day for the evening session. There is no menu – only a procession of the most magnificent meat cooked in humungous pieces over an intense wood-burning grill.
The first course was a small offering of tartare followed by some succulent flash fried slithers of beef. Dario then emerged from the cooking area with two massive 2kg Bistecca Fiorentina (traditional T-bone) held aloft in either hand like trophies, made an eloquent and impassioned speech in Italian that finished in English with “ To beef or not to beef?”.
The mystical Bistecca Fiorentina were left to rest and we began our meat orgy with whole rump that had been grilled to perfection. The rump – as the mind-blowing rib eye that followed – was carved at the head of a long table that stretched out into Chianti vineyards in the late Tuscan evening. The meat was laid on platters that were then passed up and down the table. The only accompaniments were a simply dressed rocket salad and potatoes baked in the coals served with the “Chianti butter” (lard whipped up until quite light with fresh rosemary and sea salt), alongside giant, bottomless carafes of Chianti.
The moment of truth finally arrived, and the T-bones were carved and served. Fortunately, but only with god-like fortitude, I had managed to hold back on the rump and rib eye in anticipation of the fabled Fiorentina. The reward was perfection. Beautifully marbled, dry-aged meat, cooked with love over a bed of smouldering coals, turned expertly to caramelise evenly without burning, rested to retain the mercurial juices, and carved with a surgeon’s precision. It’s not often you eat something that elevates itself beyond the table and encapsulates time and place, but this heavenly piece of meat tasted of Tuscany, of late sunsets, steamy evenings, slightly chilled Chianti, the conviviality of the table – it tasted like summer.
I have never tasted a T-bone since, and neither do I expect to, that will live up to that memorable midsummer’s evening, but I will keep on trying nonetheless. As we speak, I have three 1.5kg dry-aged, grass-fed Limosine T-bones resting in my fridge, preparing themselves for the ultimate sacrifice this weekend. Join me, bring a bottle of something interesting – I can’t promise you Tuscany but there definitely won’t be diet food while we wait.