Tuscany is a land famous not only for its thousands of years of history, and for the quantity and quality of the artworks that are here preserved, but also for its landscape that has been captured in many famous movies (Under the Tuscan Sun, Life is beautiful, Stealing Beauty, A Room with a View – just to mention some), and that has attracted a considerable number of tourists. There is however another essential element that will give you a complete knowledge of this territory, allowing you to fully enjoy it: its food and wine tradition. Since the origins of civilization of this area with the Etruscans, people have started to cultivate and produce some of the products that are still at the base of the Tuscan cuisine: wine (red wine mainly), olive oil, cheese, cereals and legumes.
We will talk more about some of the typical Tuscan dishes, and of its wines as well; and we want to start here with a second course meat dish: the so called “Impruneta’s Peposo”. We have to say that many typical Tuscan dishes are based on meat, and on an abundant variety of cold cuts.
Just outside Florence, to the south (in the direction of Siena), we meet its neighboring town Impruneta. Its history is strongly connected to its bigger and more powerful neighbor, and their relationship is based on the dish we want to talk about. Since ancient times (possibly since the 11th century), furnaces in Impruneta have produced a specific type of terracotta called “cotto” (”baked”). This material is mainly used to produce tiles, flowerpots, pitchers and bricks. Its property is to be very resistant to weather conditions , and it was for this reason that the great Renaissance architect Filippo Brunelleschi, at the beginning of the 15th century, chose it to produce the roof tiles covering his masterpiece: the dome of the Florence cathedral. And so Brunelleschi became the most important customer of the furnaces in Impruneta, that were now producing roof tiles for the dome (1420-1436): it contains more than four millions of them!
According to the legend, it was thanks to this masterpiece of architecture that peposo was born: when Brunelleschi went to Impruneta to do business and purchase the cotto, he discovered a dish that the furnace workers were cooking using the heat of the kilns. It was a type of veal stew that was baked for several hours, placed on a tile in the same furnace where bricks were baked. The meat was covered with an abundant amount of pepper, to which the dish owes its name (“peposo” = “peppered”). Pepper was mainly used to cover the strong taste of meat, in a time when this was rarely eaten “fresh”, especially by the humble people. This meat, baked for hours, was really tender, and it melted in the mouth; when Brunelleschi tasted it, he was so enthusiastic, that he considered it for his worker’s meal. It was perfect to fill their stomachs, not only of wine (working at those heights, under the summer sun was obviously not easy), but also of meat, so that even if they drank a lot, they could not get drunk and lose balance! They could not afford to have accidents in the construction site, because in case of deaths, work had to be suspended to attend the funeral! Brunelleschi was an innovator for his time in taking care of the safety of his workers, even if it was for his own interests. So, even if peposo, due to its spicy taste, made people drink, these had to eat a lot of bread as well, and bread absorbed the alcohol. This is why the architect had a great amount of peposo sent daily form the furnaces along with the tiles.
This nice and fun story about the origins of this tasty dish has been unfortunately discredited from modern studies, proving that it would not be possible to bake tiles and meat together in the same oven; moreover, pepper was a very expensive ingredient at that time, that only rich people could afford: it is therefore quite surreal, that it could be among the main ingredients of a dish meant for workers.. (PETRONI P., Il Libro della vera cucina fiorentina. Giunti Editore; Milano:2009)
And for those who want to try to cook it, here is the recipe*:
Ingredients for 6 servings:
- 1 kg beef muscle (with little fat, and with callosities)
- 12 garlic cloves
- 2 glasses of Chianti wine
- 1 spoon of tomato concentrate (optional)
- Salt and black pepper
Chop the beef into stew chunks, but not too small ones, because the long cooking will make them shrink.
Put them in a pot with high edges, or in a baking tray, along with the garlic cloves peeled and left whole, the wine, the salt, the tomato concentrate melted in hot water (if you like it), and 2 generous spoons of excellent ground black pepper (some use whole peppercorns to make the dish more delicate).
Add boiling water or broth, in order to cover the meat, and place it in a slow oven (140 ° C).
Let it bake for 3 hours ca, stirring occasionally; add more hot water or broth if necessary.
In the end the peposo should be “well-shrunken”, creamy, and soft; taste it sprinkled with more freshly ground pepper and, if desired, served on slices of toasted homemade bread.
ENJOY YOUR MEAL!
*(PETRONI P. Il libro della vera cucina fiorentina. Giunti Editore: Milano, 2009)