A culinary highlight of our Tuscany cycling and walking tours is not necessarily what one would expect in Italy – an amazing steak dinner – Bistecca alla Fiorentina. A classic dish of this region, this thick cut large steak is grilled over a wood or charcoal fire, simply seasoned with salt and freshly ground pepper and drizzled with extra virgin olive oil just after grilling. Bistecca are sold by weight, usually starting about 1 kg (2.2 pounds), so are typically shared between two or more, making the meal a fun, communal experience.
In Tuscany, this dish showcases the regions native breed of cattle, the Chianina. One of the largest breeds of cattle in the world, cows average 1700 pounds, and mature bulls around 2700 pounds, and can be as large as 3500 pounds. They are distinctive, with their immense size, white color and well-defined musculature. The name comes from their area of origin, Valdichiana (Chiana Valley) in Tuscany, on the plains near Arezzo and Siena.
The Chianina is one of the oldest breeds of cattle in existence. They were the models for the cattle depicted in Roman sculptures, and praised by the Georgic poets, Columella and Vergil. Chianina were originally used by farmers as draft animals and for road transport. They adapted well to the steep hill terrain and well suited to the mixed agriculture and small farms of the mezzadri (sharecroppers). Since the introduction of mechanized methods in the early 20th century, they are now rarely seen out and about and are bred solely for meat production.
Since the Second World War the Chianina has spread worldwide, raised almost exclusively for its high quality meat. Through exportation of breeding stock, Chianina has reached China, Russia, Asian countries and the Americas, where it has been cross-bred with Angus. But no dining experience compares to enjoying a Bistecca and a glass of Brunello on a terrace overlooking the Valdichiana.
To come close to recreating the experience at home:
- Buy a quality large T-bone steak, called Porterhouse here in US. Both are cut from the short loin area of the beef. A center “T-Bone” divides two sides of the steak. On one side is a tenderloin filet; the other is a top loin which is also known as a New York Strip Steak. A Porterhouse must be at least 1.25″ thick at its widest point to qualify labeling as a Porterhouse steak, while a T-Bone steak must be at least 0.25″ thick. In Tuscany, a Bistecca would be served to two or more people.
- Grill over hardwood charcoal – not briquets – over very high heat. Allow steak to come to room temperature before grilling. Sear over high heat, 3 – 4 minutes per side for a 2-inch thick steak. This is to be served VERY RARE, “al sangue”. If you have guests who prefer well-done, have a couple of strip steaks to cook for them!
- No sauce, season simply with sea salt, freshly ground pepper and a drizzle of great olive oil immediately after removing from heat. Allow to rest for 10 – 15 minutes before cutting.
- The meat is typically cut away from the bone, then cut into 1/4 inch slices and divided among the diners. The chef gets to decide who gets to enjoy the bone.
- Serve with simple sides – roasted potatoes, white beans. Grilled porcini mushrooms are a nice treat when in season.
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