We tend to associate carnivorous barbecuing with Argentina (asado), South Africa (braai), Australia (barbie), the US, etc, but in parts of Italy meat is master and cooking it over charcoal or wood is a serious tradition. Think of Tuscany’s famous Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
It’s a simple way of cooking and is all about the quality of the ingredients—including the charcoal or wood.
A kind of Bistecca alla Fiorentina
First: get the biggest and best porterhouse or T-bone steak(s) you can afford. This is a sharing steak and it should be at least two or three fingers in depth. The real thing usually weighs more than a kilo.
Leave it to sit at room temperature for at least an hour to get rid of the fridge chill; pat dry with a paper towel; rub in salt and cracked black pepper and brush with a little olive oil; stand on the grill on the bone end for five to fifteen minutes, depending on size, to warm without cooking, as the bone acts like a sort of radiator (optional); cook to very rare over red-hot wood or charcoal, close to the heat; leave to sit and relax for ten or fifteen minutes under some foil (essential); possibly brush and/or decorate with sprigs of fresh rosemary and/or thyme. (I often rub in chopped fresh rosemary and thyme with the salt, pepper and oil earlier in the piece, and also sometimes rub the meat with the cut ends of a clove of garlic sliced in two before doing anything else.)
The sirloin and fillet sides cook at different speeds and it’s essential not to overcook the latter because it dries out. It’s best to place the steak so the fillet is on a slightly less hot part of the grill.
To serve, detach the meat from the ‘T’ and then slice the steak horizontal to the bone so it fans down either side. Think about adding some lemon wedges, possibly charred over the fire. (Some purists hate this as an innovation.) The traditional accompaniment is Tuscan beans, but it’s pretty good with some rocket with olive oil, lemon juice and parmesan—vinegar ruins wine, so lemon is better if you’re cracking a bottle of Chianti or whatnot, and parmesan goes with rare beef like a dream. I also like it with chips or small crispy roast potatoes cooked with whole garlic cloves and herbs.
For a cheaper, boneless and even easier sharing steak use a big piece of heart of rump (a.k.a. centre rump or pavé) or hanger steak instead.
Do: bother to get good quality lumpwood charcoal that hasn’t been soused in accelerants; it makes a difference. If you’re not using locally produced stuff, preferably made by an ancient green-bearded eco-god in the woods, I sometimes use Big K restaurant grade lumpwood charcoal or Green Olive Co longburn lumpwood charcoal.
Don’t: bore on about the provenance and character of the meat and charcoal, or how grand Italy is, etc.
Trivia: bistecca probably comes from the English ‘beefsteak’ and Bistecca alla Fiorentina is said to have been invented for British visitors to Florence (thus Fiorentina, from Firenze, i.e. Florence). Tuscany’s Chianina cattle are the biggest in the world and make for famously good beef; think Italian Aberdeen Angus.
A sangiovese-based wine from Tuscany or elsewhere in central Italy is the obvious choice. Sangiovese, the grape that’s the basis for (e.g.) Chianti and is the most widely grown grape in Italy, makes quite dry, savoury wine that is a famously good pairing with the umami-sweetness of rare beef.
Sangiovese is normally served at ~15–18°C. As a rough guide, the more serious (tannic, complex, age-worthy) the wine, the warmer you drink it—though still not beyond 18°. It’s also often worth decanting it, humble or grand, sediment or no sediment, as aeration can knock off the rougher edges and enhance the flavour. If it’s just a young, basic wine, and you’re not trying to remove sediment, pouring it into a jug does the same job.
Sangiovese is relatively light, and even the darker, more powerful versions like Brunello di Montalcino are only really medium bodied, so if you need some extra heft try a Tuscan blend with cabernet sauvignon or whatnot, Montefalco Rosso from Umbria (sangiovese with some heavyweight sagrantino) or Rosso Piceno from Marche (sangiovese and the more voluptuous montepulciano—the grape, not the place). They also make some keen syrah (a.k.a. shiraz) in Cortona in south-east Tuscany that drinks nicely with steak.
Meat credits: Claytons Butchers of Windermere (porterhouse); Ruby and White Butchers of Bristol (T-bones); Macelleria Orelli Butchers in Rome (lombata steaks, I think). All highly recommended. The Italian steaks weren’t the correct cut, but did a noble job.
Paul Fishman (Windermere, June 2017)