December 20, 2013 7:12 pm

A beefed-up Christmas with Dario Cecchini

The Master Italian butcher proves that a humble cut can be good enough for the most important feast of the year
Dario Cecchini's brasato al midollo©Jason Lowe

Dario Cecchini is probably the most famous butcher in the world. His macelleria in the Chianti village of Panzano is a meat mecca – a walk-in encyclopedia of Tuscan food selling all cuts of beef, cooked meats, fresh lardo, salumi, ragus, sauces and seasonings. The Cecchinis have been in the butchery trade for eight generations; little wonder that New York chef Mario Batali is one of many who have trekked to Panzano to learn from Cecchini’s expertise.

Prone to declaiming chunks of Dante and blowing a hunting horn, he is on rather quieter form when I meet him in London, the morning after he has presided over a suitably meaty dinner at the Towpath restaurant in Hackney. At 58 years old, he cuts a striking figure: tall with muscular shoulders and black hair swept back, dressed in red plastic clogs, red trousers, a leather jerkin and a red handkerchief tied round his neck.

Cecchini is preparing marrow-braised beef shank, a dish usually eaten in Italy on Christmas day. “When you have killed an animal to feed yourself you really need to use common sense and use every cut. This recipe shows this process. It’s a humble cut but a good one. The ugly duckling becomes a swan!”

Photo of Master Italian butcher Dario Cecchini©Jason Lowe

Dario Cecchini: 'Making good food for rich people is easy; it's harder to make it for everybody'

Taking up the beef, he swiftly slices it from the bone, the meat effortlessly falling away with the sheath of muscle still intact. The thick creamy marrow is scraped out and packed inside the roast: “This particular cut has a sweetness to it. The tendons and the cartilage can be a problem but cooked in the right way (slowly) the humidity of the shallots and the sweetness of the rosemary and marrow create a heavenly taste.”

Everything goes into the pot. Cecchini tries to add the bones for a little extra flavour but they won’t fit. “Never mind,” he says jovially, “you can use the bones to make a nice broth later on.” He loves the democracy of this relatively cheap cut. “No one would consider a shank to be so good that it is served on the most important feast of the year. Making good food for rich people is easy; it’s much harder to make good food for everybody.”

As Cecchini predicted, the slow cooking has transformed the fibrous chewy meat into a meltingly tender dish, the shallots cooking down to a richly flavoured sauce. Most of us are unthinking meat eaters. Cecchini’s hyper-consciousness is stimulating. “I am not really interested in organic,” he says, “but I want to be an artisan who has a conscience about what he does. I am actually quite convinced that I will be reborn a cow.”

Contact details: Antica Macelleria Cecchini, Via XX Luglio, 11 50022 Panzano in Chianti, Fi, Italia; +39 055 852020; Officina Della Bistecca +39 055 852176; Solociccia +39 055 852727; Dario Doc +39 055 852176; dariocecchini.com

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Brasato al midollo (Marrow-braised beef)

Ingredients (serves 6-8)

Beef shank (about 2.5kg including bone)

Marrow from shank

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

A handful of fresh rosemary, leaves only, finely chopped

1/2 cup olive oil

Dario Cecchini's brasato al midollo©Jason Lowe

1kg shallots, peeled and left whole

200ml vin santo

For this recipe you need a boned beef shank and a marrowbone split vertically. You may have to ask for the marrowbone to be split in advance (if so, it’s fine to use the bone from a different shank).

In the picture the meat has been cut into two pieces but it’s actually better to get the butcher to bone the beef shank so that the meat stays in one piece, butterflied out vertically.

Dario Cecchini's brasato al midollo©Jason Lowe

Heat the oven to 180C. On a cutting board, lay open the boned meat, cut side up. Season the open side of the beef with 2 teaspoons of sea salt and 1 teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. From the split bone, scoop out the marrow from each side with a teaspoon.

Place the marrow in the centre of the opened meat, in the same direction as the grain. Sprinkle with chopped rosemary. Roll the meat tightly, enclosing the marrow, and tie the roast with butcher’s string (plain cotton string).

Dario Cecchini's brasato al midollo©Jason Lowe

Place the tied-up beef and the olive oil in a large ovenproof casserole with a tightfitting lid. Add the peeled shallots to the pan. Put the lid on and cook for 2 hours. Add the vin santo, and turn the oven down to 150C and cook for another hour. Test the beef to see if it is tender; it will probably need another hour – if so, add another splash of vin santo and pop it back in the oven.

After four hours or so remove the beef and allow it to rest for 10 minutes. Cut the strings, slice across the grain, and serve with the shallots and pan juices.

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