The Perfect Bistecca Fiorentina
Whenever someone asks me about the quintessential Florentine dish, two things immediately come to mind, which should also be an indication of the carnivorous Tuscan diet. The first is panini al lampredotto – tripe sandwiches, which are not everyone’s cup of tea (but they should be!). The other is the colossal bistecca fiorentina – Florentine steak.
Curiously, the Italian word bistecca is actually borrowed from the English “beef steak.” Pellegrino Artusi has a recipe for bistecca fiorentina in his 1891 cookbook, which is still – as with all of Artusi’s recipes – the classic way to cook a real bistecca. He rightly describes which cut of meat is used to those who may be unfamiliar to the Tuscan specialty and points out that this “excellent dish” may not be widespread throughout the newly formed peninsula because in many places the butchers were still butchering only older, working animals.
In fact, the provenance of a bistecca fiorentina determines how genuine it is. The real bistecca fiorentina comes from an ancient Tuscan breed, one of the world’s largest, the Chianina cow. These lean, tall, perfectly white creatures were once traditionally used as working animals for their size and strength, but they also have extremely prized and tasty meat, which is not without a set of strict rules when it comes to cooking and eating it.
These photographs were taken on the organic farm of Poggio Alloro near San Gimignano, an hour outside of Florence. Every summer the barn is busy with the births of new baby cows. Even the newborn calves are evidence that the Chianina breed are one of the largest and heaviest cattle in the world – newborns can weigh over 50 kg! Mature bulls reach over 6 ft tall. At Poggio Alloro, they raise about fifty Chianina cattle on their lolling hills that look up to the towers of San Gimignano for their farm restaurant. Here the bistecche are expertly cooked by Amico, the farm’s owner.
In a restaurant, real bistecca fiorentina will be priced by the weight – always. You can usually expect to pay a minimum of 35 euro per kilogram but more commonly towards the 50 euro mark. If you’re dining out in Florence, try it at some of these good old trattorie: Casalinga, Alla Vecchia Bettola, Trattoria Mario or Trattoria Armando, just to name a few favourites. Traditional sides are roast potatoes, sautéed spinach or silverbeet and white cannellini beans – and plenty of Tuscan bread to mop up the juices.
The perfect bistecca fiorentina:
- It must be eaten rare. That means not just blushing pink inside, but bloody. For those that like their meat well done, there are two options: either be adventurous and try this as it should be eaten or order something else! Do not be tempted to order it then ask for it to be cooked longer – it dishonours this beautiful, lean meat, which would only turn into something the texture of an old leather boot the longer it cooks.
- The bistecca must be on the bone (a T-bone), with the amazingly tender fillet attached and no thicker than “two fingers” deep. A portion is generally 600-800 grams, so don’t be surprised when ordering a bistecca fiorentina and the waiter brings out a hunk of meat weighing over a kilogram – it’s generally meant to be shared amongst the table.
- It must be cooked over burning hot, red coals. For a steak weighing over a kilogram, let it rest for around 10-15 minutes, covered, before cutting into thick slices and serving.
- No sauce – the only thing this tasty steak needs is some salt (after it has come off the grill), some freshly cracked black pepper and perhaps a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. As Artusi says, “the beauty” of its rareness is that when you cut into it, out pours the most wonderful “sauce” on the plate. Some serve it with a wedge of lemon but purists will tell you this is a no-no.