What Do Anthony Bourdain and I Have in Common?

butcher sample

What do celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain and I have in common? Absolutely nothing until I spent a Sunday afternoon in late October drinking wine and sampling porchetta and salumi at Antica Macelleria Cecchini in Panzano in Chianti. Now I am part of a select confraternity of those whose motto is “meglio spendere soldi dal macellaio che dal farmacista” translated to mean “it is better to spend money at the butcher than the pharmacist”.

MUCCA

This old Tuscan proverb only holds true if you are privileged enough to access and eat meat that according to butcher and shop owner Dario Cecchini have come from animals that have

  • lived a good and healthy life with ample room to grow and thrive
    experienced a humane and “good death”
  • been processed by a good butcher who knows the right way to bring out the best qualities of the meat
  • prepared and cooked by someone who in Dario’s words “can dignify the animal and all those whose labors led it to the table”.

Lofty and solemn words from an Italian butcher who is somewhat of a celebrity himself (Elton John, Sting and Prince Charles buy from him). So much so that Bourdain, never at a lost for a snarky comment, is at his deferential best when he visits Cecchini at his shop in Panzano.

My visit was much more chaotic. I was part of the Sunday afternoon meet, greet and tasting frenzy that surrounds an a gratis sampling of Cecchini’s work. Like attending a gallery showing of a famous artist, fans press through the doorway of the little butcher shop located on a side street off the main piazza. They are offered a wine pour of Chianti from a traditional Italian fiasco and upon entering jostle themselves to a sideboard for a sampling of traditional Chianti salami with wild fennel pollen, lardo made with olive oil, white wine, sea salt and herbs (which Cecchini calls Chianti butter) and Tuscan porchetta that is so good it will bring tears to your eyes.

The logical extension of attending Mass in Chianti on a Sunday morning would be to end up in Panzano in the afternoon. The views from the town are inspiring (Panzano has been called the Tuscan hill town with one of the most beautiful views of Chianti). The townspeople are warm and welcoming and a stop to sample or eat at Antica Macelleria Cecchini (there is a small restaurant next door with convivial tables ) is an uplifting experience that will make you realize the respect and reverence we should have for the food we eat.

The incensual aroma of herbs, meat, oil, wine and herbs wafts through Cecchini’s shop on my visit lingers into the late October afternoon. Cecchini spontaneously sings opera arias and quotes Dante. I pass by and glance at the master of Italian butchers. He smiles and gives me a kiss on the cheek. Some people call Tuscan lardo “Crema Paradiso” .              I would submit that a trip to Panzano’s Antica Macelleria Cecchini comes as close to gastronomic heaven as one can be on earth.

 

Gauging the Maturity of the Blossoms

fennel-pollenIn the heart of the Casentino valley of eastern Tuscany, a valley famous for being the birthplace of Michelangelo, the countryside is covered with a thick forest of pine, cypress and chestnuts and the bottom of the valley is full of wild herbs and flowers. Italians are known to scout the countryside carefully observing the plants, gauging the maturity of the blossoms and determining the right time to pick the edible plants and flowers they use at the table. In the case of the fennel plant this is when green flowers produce a fine dust of pollen that blows on the warm summer breezes toward the end of July.

A tall perennial herb native to the Mediterranean region, Italians have a classical authority for using fennel (finocchio). Well known since ancient times, fennel was cultivated by the Romans for its aromatic fruit and edible shoots. Like many culinary herbs it has an herbal pharmacopeia with a pharmaceutical lore that is impressive. 12th century writer, composer, philosopher and visionary  Hildegard Von Bingen mentions the benefits of fennel in her Causae et Curaewriting “However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.“ Culinarily this Italian pantry staple is most widely known for its seeds.  Finocchiona made of finely ground pork shoulder seasoned with wild fennel, is a classic Tuscan salame and a signature item in a Tuscan antipasto.finocchiona I particularly enjoy rings of fennel thinly sliced from the bulb, sprinkled with coarse sea salt, drizzled with fresh harvested extra virgin olive oil as part of a pinzimonio platter. Our cousins from the Veneto braise fennel for a perfect side dish.

The pollen of the fennel  plant is so highly regarded in the cuisine of Northern Italy that some have been known to say that it is carried on angel’s wings. With an intoxicating aroma (licorice-like, curry) and notes of toasty-sweet hay and honey, it adds an intense flavor and complexity to any dish. Used as a dry rub on meats or sprinkled on fish or vegetables, fennel pollen is often added to rice, pasta and risotto dishes in place of saffron. Each fennel flower contains less than one-quarter teaspoon of pollen (making it expensive and limited) so gauging the maturity of the blossoms and the right time for harvesting the fine dust of the pollen can definitely benefit from some heavenly intervention.