Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Tale of Two Butchers

Tuscany, particularly the Chianti region bordered roughly by Florence to the north and Siena to the south, is a place, like so many others, rich in paradox.

On the one hand, it is the cradle of the Renaissance, the home of fashion houses like Ferragamo, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli, world renowned among epicures for wine and olive oil, a romantic mystery for historians who puzzle over the still obscure Etruscan culture that flourished in the time of Homer. It is celebrated almost ad nauseum for its beauty: the undulent hills, the slender cypresses, the grand villas, the quaint medieval villages, the Apollonian grace of its olive groves, vineyards, and sunflowers, the air fragrant with rosemary, sage, wormwood, mint, and wild fennel, and, above all, the ethereal golden light of its late afternoons.

On the other hand, it is a provincial place where young men blast techno from their tiny Fiats, driving like they were in the Mille Miglia, or just sick of living. Its ballyhooed cuisine is mostly simple grilled or boiled meat. It is a land of stark class divides between the extremely rich (often foreigners) and an overwhelmingly Communist working class struggling against a collapsed Italian economy, all overrun in warm months by every sort of tourist. Its network of winding, tiny, ancient roads can easily turn into an adventure in the Dionysian: vertical dirt roads barely passable by mule, vast forests of chestnut, oak, wolves, pheasant, and wild boar, the occasional shrine to the Holy Mother, a desperate and futile bulwark against a land teeming with far older, more unruly spirits.

It also happens to be home to the world's two most famous butchers, Dario Cecchini and Stefano Bencistรก Falorni. Tuscans love meat with a passion. Cooking “sulla braccia,” over fresh, glowing coals, usually in the hearth of some ancient home, evokes the reverence of ritual. Stefano's village of Greve has six independent butchers, in addition to a butcher counter in the Coop (the supermarket) that would put most artisanal markets in the US to shame. Tiny Panzano has two independent butchers, plus another in their Coop. They all know what they are doing. So what sets Dario and Stefano apart?

In the English speaking world, Dario's fame far exceeds that of Stefano or any other butcher, thanks in large part to his ardent, eloquent, and heartfelt admirers, including Bill Buford, Faith Willinger, and Jaime Oliver. Stefano, while lacking such influential advocates in the English speaking world, is, like Dario, a regular on Italian television, and perhaps better known for his salumi than any other butcher in a nation obsessed with salumi, a nation where, moreover, Tuscany is widely considered, at best, a middling region for salumi.

Dario and Stefano are about the same age, on the long side of "middle age," both basking in the golden light of late afternoon, as one might say after too much Chianti and Tuscan sun. Both run butcher shops of which they are the eighth generation inheritors, both dating to the early 1700's. Both of those shops are living homes of the old Tuscan culture, the one that predates highways and industrialization, that was there before the Renaissance, that feels a closer kinship to the Etruscans than to Rome, that is, seemingly, as old as the hills. At both stores, the men and women who work there banter playfully with local regulars and each other, in varying degrees of the local contadino accent. Both Stefano and Dario are large men with large hands in a place where most of the locals are quite small, giving credence to old wisdom about the virtues of meat. Both live in the villages of their births, Stefano in Greve, Dario in Panzano, neighboring villages on the Chiantigiana. Both are fierce defenders of an artisanal Tuscan food tradition both more widely known and celebrated than ever before and perhaps more genuinely threatened. Both are the overwhelmingly dominant personas in their towns, in which people often say, in typical half-derisive awe, that there will soon be statues of them in the main squares (in Stefano's case, he would either join or replace Giovanni da Verrazzano). The similarities, as though there weren't enough, end there.

Oh yes, there is one more commonality, of interest only to me. I worked as a stagista, or unpaid apprentice, for both of them.

Dario is nearly always laughing, beaming, hugging his dear friends (including those he just met), singing, reciting poetry, expounding on the dignity of the artisan and the crime of industrial food, handing out free homemade wine and lardo, holding court in his little shop like a mad and benevolent king, which is, in effect very much what he is to little Panzano. More than king, even, he is almost a patron saint, famous locally for taking in, looking after, and often employing the cast-offs, the troubled, the addicts, the people most in need of help and acceptance, and those typically least likely to get it. On occasion, he bursts with anger, often rooted in indignation at those who question his choice to source beef from Spain (it is pasture raised on a family farm, unlike nearly all Tuscan chianine, the local heirloom bovines, now living miserably on grain in CAFOs), who ask more than once for a Bistecca Fiorentina (thereby ignoring the rest of the animal, and the fact that the Fiorentine all go to his restaurant Officina della Bistecca, where they can certainly get some), who ask for their porchetta sliced thinly (it dries out), and so forth. He always wears red. People often leave his store believing he is a giant, not only because his massive head, hands, and shoulders tower over them as he stands on a not-so-obviously higher level behind the meat case, making him seem a full two meters (that's 6'9" for my fellow Americans... by the way, he's actually about six feet, or 183cm for my non-American friends). Dario is very big, but not too big for Panzano. Herein, perhaps, is the key to his appeal: grand champion of the small.

Stefano, dressed in white like the many other butchers who work for him (his butcher shop is much larger than Dario's and offers a much wider array of fresh and, especially, cured meats), is often seen as aloof. I have known him for virtually all of my thirty-three years and volunteered the autumn of 2010 to work for him, in exchange for his knowledge, which he shared with some initial hesitation but ultimately with great generosity. I think he likes me, though I can never be sure. If I enter the store for the first time in months or years, he may or may not greet me. The greeting may be a smile and nod. If I stand around long enough, he will, maybe, at some point, come over and speak to me with great intensity for a few minutes. Then he will walk away. When I leave, he almost never says goodbye. Stefano inspires more fear than Dario. He is usually quiet, but when he decides to speak up, his booming voice, grand gesticulations, and enormous presence easily dominate almost any situation. His Tuscan accent is so thick that I still usually struggle to understand him, though I've managed to forge close friendships with people speaking only Italian.

Stefano works with all kinds of meat, but mostly pork. He is most famous for his salumi, or cured meat, including salami, prosciutto, lardo, pancetta, capocollo, guanciale, etc. Dario works with no poultry, no rabbit or lamb, the occasional mammalian game, and a steady influx of pork, but mostly beef. His #1 catchphrase is "To beef or not to beef!" (Other catchphrases include, "Senza furia e senza paura," meaning "No rush and no fear" and "Viva la ciccia!" meaning "Long live [the Tuscan dialect word for] meat!") He makes almost no salumi, only guanciale. Both are, for any doubters, truly past masters. I have now seen a lot of career butchers, most of them raised in the proud tradition of Tuscany. Dario and Stefano both combine precision, grace, and speed to a degree I have seen in no one else, with the possible exception of "Maestro" Orlando, the seventy-two year old master butcher who does most of the day-to-day butchering for Dario (after all, Dario's daily duties also include running a busy shop, running three restaurants, and managing the demands of an international foodie media that can't get enough of him).

Where Stefano is proudly “all business,” Dario routinely denies that his business is a business. Both are preturnaturally hard workers, often up before dawn, often working well into the night, often working seven days a week, often doing physically tough and obviously dangerous work, and rarely taking a vacation, which can only be at the instigation of loved ones. Stefano has built, through hard work, talent, and business savvy, a small empire of pork and wine. That empire is already blurring the lines between the artisanal and the industrial. If there is a spiritual or ethical component to Stefano's work, it is manifest only in the quality of his products. Dario has built his little empire of beef and, well, more beef, through hard work, talent, and an unrelenting commitment to honoring the animals, honoring the artisan's dignity and way of life, and resurrecting the dying or lost traditions of Chianti. His empire has little room to grow. It is reaching the upper limits allowed by its fierce artisanality.

On my last day with Stefano, I'm pretty sure I did not see him. Finally, a few days later, after several attempts, I found him in the store, where he gathered some nice products for me as a thank you. I'm not sure he said much of anything. But it was touching. On my last night with Dario, working dinner service at his restaurant above the shop, Officina della Bistecca (Workshop of the Steak), I stepped outside for a breath of air, when I noticed Dario singing in his booming baritone. Then I noticed he was singing to me. I think it was an Italian version of Auld Lang Syne. It's foggy because he quickly threw his (massive) arms around me, catching me a bit off guard. He held me, in Dario fashion, longer than I might have expected, had I expected to be hugged in the first place. Then he pulled back, holding my arms, beaming from ear to ear, and told me that from now on, this was my home, and that whenever I come back, I should always feel that I am home.

I do not know if they are friends, though I am pleased to have found the photo above. I never asked either what he thinks about the other. I do not want to know. I'm afraid that either might color my view of the other in ways I'd rather avoid. I'm afraid of revealing my divided loyalties, if that is not too absurd a notion to express. I figured that by now I would know, but I don't. So be it.

What else is there to say? Actually, a lot. Too much. About the Apollonian order of white-clad butchers, scores of hanging prosciutti, and queued customers in Antica Macelleria Falorni. About the Dionysian spectacle of roaring disco music, fast flowing wine, endless plates of free porchetta bites with pepper jelly, lardo crostini, and fettunte (bread with Dario's very good estate olive oil), booming voices, laughter, and New York City subway-at-rush-hour type crowds in Antica Macelleria Cecchini. About my friends and colleagues, young and old, who populate these fraternal twin temples of meat, for I certainly spent more time with them, and learned at least as much from them as I did from their employers. But I'll leave it at this.

Grazie, Stefano!
Grazie, Dario!

Grazie, Chianti!
E viva la ciccia!