Monday, September 12, 2011

My Steak in Umbria

I just spent a relaxing week lounging by the pool in a villa in Umberia. And while I made occasional forays to local restaurants and pizzerias I cooked and ate in far more than I ever do at home in NYC. A quick trip in to the town Umbertide provided a bounty of local produce from the small outdoor market in the square and a variety of meats from Macelleria Rinaldi on Via Roma.

I purchased several pounds of the local style pork sausage that is sold throughout the region - it is porky and salty without a hint of fennel. It would probably be unfamiliar to most Americans as "Italian sausage" but to me it tastes exactly like Umbria.

But best of all I purchased a lovely ribsteak. Grass fed Chianina beef that is dry aged rendering it tender with a pronounced funky flavor that eliminates the soapy, herbaceous notes that I find rather distasteful in wet aged pasture fed cattle. The dry aging is also important because of the relative lack of marbling apparent in the beef.

The beef is so lean in fact that I doubt it would even rate Select on the USDA grading system. Yet the dry aging gives it a buttery texture that I would never expect from such lean beef. I noted that the butchering is slightly different here. The chop contained portions of the Latissimus dorsi and Trapezius muscles that you normally don't see on ribsteaks in the States. At under €10 the steak was more than fairly priced.

While I would have preferred to cook such a steak over hardwood the villa came equipped with a gas grill that sufficed for my purposes. I have heard that there is a rule of thirds when cooking grass fed beef - it should be cooked a third less time and by a temperature that is a third less than that of grain fed beef. I ignored the rule since I always cook steak as quickly and at as high a temperature as possible as I like it steak black and blue.

I wasn't able to achieve that on the gas grill but I manged to at least get the hatch marks right with out over cooking the steak.

I appreciated the extra belt of muscles capping the spinali dorsi - my favorite muscle on the steer - it helps protect it from over cooking.

The steak came out a perfectly rare (note the color above is direct daylight which tends to wash out the look of meat a bit) It had a decent enough crust, considering the circumstances, a delicate texture and a wonderful tangy, creamy flavor. It was simply delicious.

Admittedly it was not the same experience as eating a fattened, grain fed dry aged USDA Prime steak with its over the top boldness. But never the less there was something contextually very satisfying about the experience. The steak imparted a real sense of terroir and also of history. And not just because of the pasture feeding but because it seemed such a logical by-product of the local agrarian economy.

Traditional meat consummation and production in old world rural communities such as those in Umbria was never the principle focus of farming. Cattle were worked as draft animals, their meat consumed when they no longer served that purpose.

We have perverted this in the modern world. Meat has become its own agri-business. While I love the results at the high end such as the best grain fed USDA Prime dry aged steaks and boutique hamburgers, the results further down the food chain is, unfortunately, the bland, boxed, wet aged commodity beef that most of the country dines on.

This unassuming steak in the Umbrian hills brought this into stark relieve. There is of course no going back, there simply isn't enough farmland to produce beef the old way. But I don't mind wallowing in nostalgia when it tastes this good.

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