Tuscan cuisine has many traditional dishes that are vegetarian…and this is not one of them. Apologies to my non-meat-eating friends, but it’s time to air the recipe for ‘peposo’, a dish I mentioned in my article on Vinci in the March issue of The Tuscan Magazine.
Peposo is real Tuscan history. The well-documented medieval roots of this recipe stretch back to the construction of the Duomo or dome of the cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence (1420-1436). The ‘fornaciai’ or furnace workers employed on the project were hardworking men, and hungry men, who kept the furnaces burning day and night for years, in order to produce an incredible 4 million terracotta tiles for the roof of the cathedral dome. They were also poor men, and the cheap cuts of meat they were able to procure were sometimes past their best – the use of spices, particularly pepper, was known as a ruse to cover the taste of meat that had seen better days. The meat, with garlic, abundant pepper and Chianti wine, was baked in a terracotta dish in the corner of the furnace for hours until it was tender and tasty. This richly spicy dish had to be washed down with more wine, and of course, like any dish with a thick and delicious sauce, it begged accompanying quantities of bread, which was also cheap, and filling. What more could a 15th-century furnace worker wish for on a cold Florentine night-shift?
Today, you need a terracotta casserole dish if you want to make authentic peposo – there’s no bargaining on this one. The cut of meat in Italian is ‘muscolo di manzo’. It comes from the lower leg, roughly the tibia area, and while it’s not a particularly fatty cut of beef, it does contain a quantity of connective tissue, hence the need for a very long cooking time at a medium temperature, to dissolve the connective tissue and render the meat melt-in-the-mouth tender. If anyone knows what this cut is called in English, I’d love to know. Could it be ‘beef shank’?
Here are the quantities for 4-6 furnace workers, depending on how famished they are:
1kg muscolo di manzo
1 litre Chianti wine. (The average bottle contains 75cl so you’ll need two bottles. That leaves you half a litre to drink while the peposo is cooking. So actually you’ll need a third bottle to drink while you’re eating…)
15 whole peppercorns. (Some say 20g per kilo of meat, but bear in mind that some pepper is ‘pepperier’ than others, and the age of your peppercorns will also affect their potency.)
A head of garlic
Get medieval with the ingredients. Hack the meat into 3-4cm cubes – but don’t be too fussy. Any smaller pieces will actually ‘melt’ into the wine and make the sauce thicker and even more delicious.
Put the cubed meat into your terracotta dish. Bash the head of garlic with your fist, remove the excess of papery skin, and chuck the garlic in with the meat. Sprinkle some salt, add the peppercorns and the wine, cover (if your terracotta dish doesn’t have a lid, cover it with some very unmedieval aluminium foil) and stick it in your furnace at 130-150 degrees C. Cooking time is 3 to 4 hours – although the longer the better – and the only attention it needs during that time is an occasional stir. If the meat is nearly ready but the sauce is still quite liquid, take the cover off the dish for the last half-hour of cooking, and leave the oven door open a crack.
When the peposo is ready, slice and toast your Tuscan bread and serve the peposo on top of it. After every delicious bite, wipe your mouth enthusiastically on the sleeve of your medieval tunic.
Variations on this recipe through the centuries include the addition of tomatoes – but tomatoes didn’t arrive in Europe till the 1490′s at the very earliest, so they were certainly not in the original peposo dish. Keep your peposo real.
Every year the town of Impruneta, 14km south of Florence, holds a ‘Peposo Day’, usually in the first week of September. The four districts of the town compete, preparing their best peposo, and a distinguished jury of politicians, journalists and enogastronomic experts decides the winner. Well worth a visit – especially as the public gets to eat all the peposo afterwards – and that’s one piece of information you won’t find in your average guide book.
In Vinci, the Ristorante Leonardo serves a delicious and very authentic peposo: www.ristoranteleonardo.com