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).]

Sep 112011

Is it "Made in Italy"?

A recent article in the business magazine L’Impresa (“Pericolo italian sounding,” N.7-8, 2011) by Gaetano Murano discusses the damage done to the Italian alimentary export balance of trade by Italian sounding products, counterfeit “Italian” food products sold with almost-Italian names like “Rosecco” (UK), “Parmesao” (Brazil), and “Mozzarella Company” (USA). These names, rather than reflecting a general food category, mask a lower-quality food which catches the coattails of an Italian brand’s collective reputation.

The numbers that Murano cites are stunning: in France there are twice as many Italian-sounding products on the market as originals, in Germany and Holland almost triple. Italy, which according to a farmers’ association makes 21% of the EU’s denomination of origin food products, has had a constant agricultural trade deficit for more than a decade, and loses millions of euros a year to Italian sounding products abroad.

A ruling by the European Court of Justice in February 2008 on a case involving a French manufacturer’s use of the name “Parmesan” should have provided a solution to the problem, but the biggest abuses come outside of the EU. While an accord has been signed with China for the recognition of Grana Padano and Prosciutto di Parma, the Asian giant (along with the US) continues to allow Italian sounding knock-offs to be sold.  ZN

Grazie a Mauro Renna per la segnalazione.

Apr 272011

Does food need a pedigree?

“The Left’s classic utopian telos of a placeless futurity becomes replaced—for good and ill—by an image of the good society remembered in time and grounded in place, mapped onto specificities of history and experience. ‘Memory’ supplies the language of this move.” (The Crooked Line, Geoff Eley, p.151)

I have made frequent reference in various posts on this blog to the concept of “philological food” without ever really defining it. This post will do just that. I borrowed the phrase from the butcher-philosopher Dario Cecchini of Panzano in Chianti. I had asked him what his hamburgers had to do with traditional Tuscan cuisine and he quite rightly told me that while tradition was the earth that he grew out of, he felt obliged to let his branches reach and spread higher. “I’m not interested in doing ‘philological food,’” he said.

It’s taken me almost a year and a half to truly process what he meant, or what I think he meant. The Italy of today is obsessed like no other country with yoking what it eats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner to what Italians ate in the past. On some level this is nothing terribly different than the persistent and vaguely annoying habit that Italians have of archeological one-upmanship: “Yes, indeed, this is a great building, but the Romans had done this style in the first century before Christ,” or “It was a great book—you can see Livy’s influence on him.” Were this limited only to graduates of the liceo classico (the high school where one learns Latin declensions and the Greek aorist), it would be bearable, but the whole society loves to drawl out examples of Roman first-ness.

What is different—indeed, almost opposite—with food is that rather than linking the present to a high-culture past, Italians seem bound and damn-well determined to find their culinary ancestors not in Roman statesman or Renaissance artists, but in anonymous farmers of their collective rural past. This attempt is philological, retracing back through dog-eared copies of Artusi and calfskin-bound registers of customs dues the geneology of what’s for dinner.

Despite the month, in February of 1786 Sir William Jones (part of the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent) spoke in the stifling heat to the Asiatic Society Kolkata, demonstrating that Sanskrit, the precursor to the various languages of northern India, was intimately related to Latin and Greek, which the poor chap had had to study at Oxford. Jones had noted the many similarities between the basic vocabulary of the three languages, for instance the words for the numbers and the names of family members. Italians will not have the luck of Jones or the Grimm brothers or any other greats of comparative linguistics.

Italian food philology leads back either to a dish of banality, or (even worse) to an empty cupboard. I do not mean that there are no dishes that strongly resemble their culinary forbearers. Polenta, made from cooked mais flour, does indeed resemble the polenta of the Roman legions, other than the fact that is made with a grain that was only introduced to Europe in the 1500s. Furthermore, what are we saying when we call olive oil part of Italian tradition, that it is “traditional food”?

If “tradition” means a belief or practice handed down from one generation to the next, can olive oil really be a tradition? As a food it had been, until the period after the Second World War, something reserved if not to the elite than at least to a small fraction of Italians. If in fifty years wine is drunk in the United States on something like a daily basis, can we consider it—by virtue of the fact that a small portion of the US population now drinks it frequently—an American alimentary tradition? If measured by this popular ruler, how many “traditional” foods—I’m thinking here of many meat products, cheeses, even fruits—could still stand up tall enough to merit the adjective “traditional”?

Even in the cases where we can connect a present-day dish to widespread consumption in the past, is this necessarily a meaningful exercise? Take polenta: isn’t a tasteless bowl of cooked coarse grain meal a “traditional” dish everywhere? Indeed, it’s called gruel. When I ponder the fact that Italians have eaten this mush for millennia, I have to ask myself: who cares? Obviously I am being polemical: there is an importance, but it’s certainly not a happy one. As Gillian Riley points out in her entry on “Cucina Povera” in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, these dishes are oft-romanticized. Polenta for a farmer in the 1600s was not a hearty meal he was happy to come home to: it was the symbol of misery, of malnutrition, even death (from pellagra). Indeed, the poor knew that a diet of only mais caused the disease long before the rich were able to admit pellagra’s genesis.

Massimo Montanari, commenting on the current rage for local, in-season food, that in the past the “meaning” attached to this kind of food was poverty. Only the rich could afford strawberries in January, or lemons from afar. Thus while we still eat these foods today, both strawberries and lemons, neither corresponds to the same semiotic ground. In other words, when one sees a strawberry on the table at a dinner party in January, one doesn’t think, “How wealthy my hosts are!”

Even barring a lack of widespread popularity, many foods are made in different ways today than they were centuries ago. Platina instructs us to boil our pastaciutta in broth for at least two hours: no al dente here. And his suggestion that we garnish the pasta with sugar would horrify modern tastes. Indeed, our many traditional pasta dishes—linguine al pesto, l’amatriciana, la carbonara—are very recent inventions, or at least have only recently become popular all over Italy.

Why the obsession with food’s supposed former lives, and denial of the facts? An excellent case study would be the so-called Mediterranean Diet. What supposedly is the health food born of the rural poor’s necessity is simply the meal of a very brief historical window: the post-war period when rising incomes allowed the working class in Greece and southern Italy to vary their diet a little more (substituting olive oil instead for pig fats, or drinking inexpensive but halfway decent wine instead of low-grade vinaccio, for example), but before the economic boom that allowed them to substitute meat for legumes. That the phrase “Mediterranean Diet” returns more than 1,790,000 results in Google and many millions more in revenue for “food writers,” tourist boards, and travel agents does not surprise me.

All of our foods have a past: that of a successful innovation. We should let taste and nutrition decide what’s good to eat, not culinary mythology.  ZN

Mar 102011

In 2002 posters appeared in northern Italy, put up by the Lega Nord, the separatist party of Umberto Bossi. The party’s anti-immigrant stance was clear from the posters, which read “Yes to Polenta, No to Cous Cous: Proud of our Traditions.” While the dish, made from semolina wheat, is now strongly associated with illegal immigrants from the Maghreb, couscous has been around for a while in Italy. Food historian John Dickie says that in couscous has been around in Tuscany since Spanish and Portuguese Jews arriving in Livorno in the 1500s brought it with them. Even Pelligrino Artusi, divo (or creator, depending on how you view him) of Italian food in the late nineteenth century mentions couscous, calling it a Jewish food of Arab origin (see recipe #46 for “Cuscussù”). The shift in the semiotics of couscous illustrates the dynamism of the larger Italian food history map.  ZN

Dec 132010

The first supermarkets in Italy were the product of a combination of American know-how and Italian improvisation. In her fascinating history of the Italian supermarket chain now known as Esselunga, Emanuela Scarpellini shows how the modern food retailer par excellance, the supermarket, was adapted to Italian social and political conditions in the 1960s.

The project was the result of a study of the International Basic Economy Corporation, itself the brainchild of American industrialist Nelson Rockefeller. Rockefeller wanted to promote the American business model abroad without giving handouts: thus the IBEC would start joint ventures inforeign countries, providing American know-how and managerial organization while leaving most of the logistical work to foreign personnel, who of course had better knowledge of the local business environment.In this case, IBEC provided 51% of the capital, whereas the rest of the startup money (and company stock) was from local investors.

Several modifications to the Americans’ original plan were crucial to the eventual success of the enterprise. First, the Italian investors vetoed the name proposed by the Americans for the chain of five supermarkets, Mercado. They insisted on an English name: Supermarket. The Italians also advocated a decor that was not too nice, in order to avoid scaring away working-class customers who might have been intimidated by a “rich-looking” store. The stores, despite their early success, also did not advertise for a long time, as Italians at the time perceived advertising as the last gasp of a business in trouble.

Most of the article deals with the opening not of the first five stores in Milan, but with the work required to expand into Florence’s retail market. Bureaucratic delays, union and shopkeeper association opposition, and political pressure were also successfully dealt with so that the opening days of all the Florence outlets were mobbed by curious Florentines. Low cost and quality products were the two pillars of a winning pitch to Italians, who had been heretofore used to shopping in small Mom&Pop stores.

Scarpellini, in listing the obstacles faced by the supermarkets managers, shows how what has been seen as an immutable international model, the supermarket, in reality had to change to establish a beachhead in Italy. (Emanuela Scarpellini, “Shopping American-Style: The Arrival of the Supermarket in Italy,” in Enterprise and Society, Vol.5 No. 4, 2004, pp.625-668)  ZN

Grazie a Gabriella Paiella per la segnalazione.