Feb 072012
Dario Cecchini

[This is an essay I wrote a while ago, trying to place Dario Cecchini in the Italian culinary tradition.]

Dario Cecchini is, according to the Los Angeles Times, “the world’s most famous butcher.” The New York Times, the Guardian, and countless other newspapers and general interest magazines, not to mention specialty culinary publications, write paeans to Cecchini. His butcher shop and his two restaurants in Panzano, a Tuscan hilltop town, are stops on self-defined foodies’ culinary tours of Italy. Cecchini is something of a showman and descriptions of him rarely fail to write about the “poet-butcher” quoting Dante while cutting up pork butts. The justification for the attention given Cecchini is not his ability to declaim the Divine Comedy but rather his able combination of tradition and modernity. Cecchini insists on using all the cuts of the animal on his cutting board, not simply the steaks and tenderloins. Using ancient Tuscan recipes for rendering the “inferior cuts” not simply edible but delicious, Cecchini catches two pigeons with one fava bean (as the Italian proverb goes) and claims to make butchery sustainable. This combination of presentation, delicious taste, and Tuscan tradition are the elements that appear most frequently in write-ups about the Antica Macelleria Cecchini.

The Cecchini family have owned butcher shops in the Chianti area for more than two hundred and fifty years. The eldest son always took over the butcher shop from his father, and many butchers from the area did their apprenticeships in Cecchini butcher stores. Dario Cecchini was not, however, supposed to be a butcher. He would have been the first eldest son in eight generations not to become a butcher, but his studies in veterinary school in Pisa were interrupted by the untimely death of his father. According to Cecchini, his mother cried when he said he was leaving his university studies to return to Panzano to become a butcher.

Dario CecchiniThis hybrid of veterinarian-butcher-restaurateur is not reducible to its parts as each informs the other. The butcher shop does not work to produce what is served in the restaurant; rather the restaurant serves what the butcher shop produces. This seems meaningless until one hears that Dario himself, despite being the son of a butcher, never had a steak until he was eighteen years old. This was because, just like the restaurants today, the family dinners were based on what was left over from the butcher had removed the salable cuts. The steaks, tenderloins, and other “premium cuts” were sold to customers, while the rest of the animal butchered was eaten by the Cecchini family.

These so-called “inferior cuts,” the muscles that were used the most during the animal’s life, are (says Cecchini) paradoxically the most flavorful because of the blood pumped through them. The popularity of the steak and the tenderloin are due to their tenderness and ease of cooking, rather than their flavor; taste, not tenderness, should be the prime factor in considering meat, given that we have teeth, says Cecchini. The pieces that Cecchini’s father used to bring home from the butcher shop were delicious but needed the right cooking to soften them up and exalt the natural flavor. These traditional Tuscan recipes are the same that are used to make what is served in the restaurants. The boiled beef knees are tough at first but after four hours on a slow boil with vegetables are a delicious treat. Other recipes come from the peasant tradition of preserving the various parts of the pig after the early January butchering. The parts that could not be used fresh were often salted then put under oil – the treatment that pig shoulders are given for Cecchini’s “Chianti tuna,” pork shoulders which after salting and boiling in wine are as tender as tuna.

The Macelleria Cecchini opens off of Via Chiantigiana, a small sidestreet near the main square. Entering one finds on the left a large glass display case with various meat products inside and behind it, on an elevated platform, the butcher (usually but not always Cecchini himself), with his knives and cutting board. The shop itself is tiled as butcher shops normally are, but the one long wall has a long table with samples of bread with herbed lard (what Cecchini calls “Chianti butter”) set out for visitors, along with a display of his other products (herbed salt, preserves). A large shelf accommodates hundreds of books and magazines on food and cooking in various European languages.

Directly off the butcher shop is a small prep room with a sliding door that looks like the tiled wall; it is a staircase that leads upstairs to the restaurant space that during lunch used to be called “MacDario”  (apparently a threatening fax from McD’s forced a name change). The eating space is hardly what you would expect upstairs from a more or less traditional butcher shop. The floors are made of basalt but the walls are white and the floor-to-ceiling cupboards that hold the extra plates look like Jackson Pollack painted them, splattered as they are with paint. The flatwear and plates are all modern, with not even a hint of the rough ceramic plates and carafes of other “typical” Tuscan restaurants. Another radical layout element is the main table. There are two small tables in corners of the room but the main dining area is dominated by a single, long table, at which guests are seated. This is in stark contrast to a “normal” restaurant where each party has its own table; Cecchini refers to this seating arrangement as a convivio, which is a name for a specific kind of Renaissance banquet during which disputations on philosophical topics were held in Latin.

Directly across the street is Solo Ciccia (“Just Meat”), which was the first of the three restaurants and the one that Cecchini himself feels is the best expression of his philosophy. The cooks arrive in the morning at nine and begin all the evenings dishes, many of which require long cooking to render them tender. The set menu is, as the name of the restaurant suggests, a meal of meat cooked in all different ways, all of them traditional recipes “modernized” by Cecchini. Solo Ciccia has two seatings, one at seven and one at nine, where, according to its menu:

This is the home of a butcher. All that you will eat is the fruit of my work and that of my family. You will not choose from a menu, though you will be treated well, and with great respect, if you return the favour. You will eat at a communal table, together in “convivio”. There will be six meat courses, chosen at my discretion, with seasonal vegetables, white beans with olive oil, focaccia, bread, cake, coffee, a quarter liter of our own wine, and after-dinner liqueurs. All of the above is to be had for 30 €, with nearly two hours at our table, at the end of which you will turn over your seat to the next guests. We do not serve steak.

Once again a communal table, though here four tables in four separate rooms. Up to eighteen people sit down at each table, practically guaranteeing that strangers will be mixed, and as large dishes are brought out they serve each other, as one would do at home.

Dario Cecchini’s philosophy is a symphony: intricate and admittedly beautiful combinations of several themes. His raw materials are not simply cuts of meat but rather animals. Cecchini is involved with the raising of the Catalonian cows and pigs that supply his butcher shop because respect for the animal is the first priority of any butcher. “Respect” is not an abstract term but means three things: a good life, a good death, and the use of the whole animal. Animals need to enjoy a good life with a good diet, in this case pasture as well as a mix of oats and barley. They also need a good death: the cows and pigs are not moved before slaughter, but rather slaughtered then shipped to the butcher shop. Finally, all of the pieces of the animal are used, not simply the most popular cuts; this gives meaning to both the life and the death of the animal in Cecchini’s eyes.

Local? A buzzword, but perhaps not an accurate measure of sustainability.

Dario plays the part of the virtuous butcher by cooking up everything but the cow’s moo, but he uses meat trucked in from Spain, from 683 miles away. This disregard for the fossil fuel conservation, his disregard of the logic of local, makes him just another faker, right? When asked Dario why he didn’t use local beef, and his wrinkles made plain that it was not the first time a locavore had put that question to him. “I could have local beef here in my shop and restaurant. I could buy local cows and have maybe not mile zero meat, but maybe two-mile meat. But that’s the problem: it’s two-mile meat, but what about the grain to make it?” The problem, as Dario explained to me, is that Chianti is Italy’s most famous type of wine. If you owned four acres of land in Chianti, would you pasture five or six cows, or makes several thousand bottles of Chianti wine? Four acres of wine grapes can make someone a lot more money than four acres of pasture.

This means feeding these hypothetical local cows lots of grain. Where is this grain from? From the Great Plains of Canada, the US, Argentina, and even India. Your cows are local, but all that grain they’re eating is not. And grain is an energy-intensive food. While a grass pasture doesn’t have to be plowed, planted, fertilized, or harvested, growing grain is an incredibly oil-intensive process. We think of a vegetarian diet based on cereals as more natural and low-energy, but I can tell you that growing grain the way we do now needs a lot of energy. Tractors have to plow the land, plant the seeds, fertilize, and harvest. That requires a lot of fossil fuels. So the Chianina cows may be local, but they grain they eat is from Argentina, Canada’s great plains, or even India.

Tradition and innovation: as Dario says, one has to be grounded like a tree, with roots in tradition, with branches free to grow in the contemporary world.  ZN


[Note: I wrote my M.A. thesis at Middlebury College on Dario. I've given several invited lectures and even have a short proposal for a book. Anyone interested in knowing more about Dario and his approach to making meat more sustainable can contact me or watch my interviews with him on YouTube (English transcripts available).]

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