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The Butcher of Panzano

A write-up of our lunch at Dario Cecchini’s place during our Tuscan holiday last month, a slightly different version of which I’ve already posted on the Wanderlust website. Highly recommended.

It’s eleven on a Sunday morning, and a small crowd has gathered outside the butcher’s shop in Panzano-in-Chianti, located just off the main square. This hill-top Tuscan town is located approximately half-way between Florence and Siena on the Chiantigiana (the ‘Chianti Road’), better known on the road-maps as route 222. We’re staying there for a week, and today we are dining in one of several restaurants ran by the town’s most famous inhabitant. Who happens to be the butcher.

The butcher’s can be seen from the main road due to its striking red and white colour-scheme. Immediately outside, the first indication that this man is no ordinary butcher can be seen by a red rose pinned to the wall below a plaque mourning the death of the bistecca alla fiorentina, the thickly-cut T-bone steak usually served very rare that can be had in the restaurants of Florence for about €45 per kilo which was the victim of EU attempts to ban beef on the bone back in 2001.

Only later, by the way, do I spot the obvious link between the bistecca and the vast amount of leather goods that can be purchased in Florence.

The crowd outside and inside the butcher’s is mostly but by no means exclusively Italian, and they’re all enthusiastically eating samples of cooked meats. Inside, assistants in clean white aprons offer trays covered in slices of Tuscan bread liberally spread with lardo. Despite the early hour, glass tumblers are filled with locally-produced Chianti from overly large fiasco bottles. The combination of the lardo and the wine is inspired, and a great way of breaking the ice. This gathering at the butcher’s on a Sunday morning has to all intents and purposes become a gathering of friends.

The man we’ve all come to see is Dario Cecchini, who inherited the business from his father over thirty years ago (he’s a seventh-generation butcher) and who sees himself as an artisan in search of quality. A living legend in foodie circles even though he’s never published a book or fronted a TV show (he sees this as being too commercial), he is constantly working to discover the best cutting and cooking methods for each piece of meat. In his search for the perfect meat, he imports beef from Spain as well as using locally-raised beef. Butchery Italian-style – no, make that Tuscan-style – is a world apart from any butcher’s I have ever seen in London.

He appears behind the counter to cheers from everyone who has managed to cram into the shop. Speaking through a translator, Dario recites from Dante before expanding on his ‘manifesto of meat’. He’s all for making use of the whole animal, which he believes needs to have lived a happy life in order for it to become good quality meat. One thing he says gets a big laugh. “He says, if you just want a sirloin steak, you can go away,” explains the translator.

We’ve opted for the Solociccia, the lunch which is held in the building opposite the butcher’s and costs €30 per head. Those in search of bistecca alla fiorentina have the option of the Officina (€50 per head). As lunch time approaches, the crowd disperses. I make my way to the restaurant, hoping that the amount of lardo I’ve taken on board won’t affect my enjoyment of what is to come.

As we enter, the table is groaning with bottles of water (still and sparking), red wine, bread, olive oil, salt and raw fresh vegetables (carrots, celery and onion). The way to eat the vegetables is to dip them in the oil, which is of the finest quality, and the salt. Waiters bring out further non-meat options by way of veggies deep-fried in batter. I have long been of the opinion that nothing that’s been deep-fried in batter can be bad, and in this case my views are vindicated.

Two types of bread accompany the meal – focaccia and Tuscan bread, which is made without salt. It is best eaten dipped in oil and salt – the salt in question being Dario’s Profumo del Chianti, a combination of the finest sun-bleached salt and aromatic herbs.

This is no conventional restaurant. There won’t be a waiter to take my order – we’ve all got a menu saying what will be served, and we can have as little or as much of each as we want.

Looking at the menu, there is some momentary confusion when the English translation of the first item is ‘muzzle and broth’. Surely, I wonder, this should be mussels? If so, why is a man famous for the many ways in which he serves beef giving us seafood? But no. When a man like Dario Cecchini says it’s muzzle, it’s muzzle – served in a broth. Like I said, every part of the animal is used. It’s delicious.

While I’ve been acquainting myself with muzzle, the waiters have brought out plates of Ramerino in culo – ‘rosemary up your bum’. It’s a cube of almost-raw minced beef an inch in diameter with a sprig of rosemary sticking out. Speaking as an enthusiastic amateur cook who regards minced beef as something to be used in cottage pie, chilli-con-carne or that Anglicisation of Italian cuisine that is spag bol, I find this simple dish to be a revelation.

All of the dishes are served on platters which the waiters leave on the table for the customers to pass round. This inevitably leads to interaction between the customers, who are all sitting around one big table. This communal dining makes for a very friendly affair in which mutual appreciation of very good food overcomes any language barrier.

Next up are Arrosto fiorentino (a top round roast cooked rare with herbs and Profumo di Chianti and mixed with olive oil), Tenerumi in insalata (boiled beef in vegetable salad) and Umidi (braised meats), accompanied by fagioli (white beans, a Tuscan staple) in oil. I’m lost for words, and am convinced that I’ve gone to Foodie Heaven.

We’re sitting at a table of a dozen people. Next to me is a twenty-something Italian who works for Gucci in Florence and has come here for lunch with some friends. I find it fascinating that the Sunday meal out of choice for a group of twenty-something Italians should be to a place like this. They’re smart people, those Italians – and I don’t mean in terms of their dress sense. As well as our own Anglo-Canadian trio, we also have a group of elderly Americans at our table, who know of Dario through a wine dealer back home in California. When the man himself appears to check on how everyone is enjoying their meal (we all cheer him), the Americans ask him to sign a photo for their friend back home.

Outside, the overcast April day turns into a short hail-storm which peters out into a bright and sunny afternoon. No-one pays any attention to this.

And then, too soon, the meat dishes have all been finished. Although I don’t think I can eat any more, I find room for the olive oil cake, which is light and delicious. I need to find a recipe for this online.

Dinner is concluded with a choice of digestivo – grappa or a shot of Cordiale dell’Esercito Italiano (Italian military spirit). Even the Italians at our table shy away from the latter, but I gamely give it a try. I don’t know much about the Italian military, but I can confirm that their post-dinner spirit of choice is powerful stuff.

Thus fed, we make our way back to our apartment in glorious sunshine, thankful that we don’t have to drive anywhere. We do not eat anything else for the rest of the day.

For further information, please refer to Dario Cecchini’s website.

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