Healthy, holy steaks

Foodies around the world are flocking to the Tuscan town of Cortona for the annual Chianina fair to honour (and eat!) the Chianina... vegetarians are not welcome.

by: Mathias Wildt | 07 Sep 2007

A massive wrestler from southern Italy, Milo was said to eat 18 kg of meat and bread washed down with eight litres of wine in one sitting, 2,500 years ago.

Milo was probably devouring Chianinas, the oldest and biggest bovine breed in the world, and now making a comeback as health conscious consumers turn to leaner meat that can still compete on taste with fatter breeds.

New York restaurants compete to serve expensive, fat rich beef, while the Japanese pamper their Wagyu cows with massages and beer to vein the meat with as much fat as possible. But in Tuscany, where Fiorentina style steaks are two to four fingers thick and can weigh 1.5 kg, the lean Chianina rules the grill for top end foodies.

"Nothing tastes as good as a Chianina steak," said Duccio Masetti, 39, holding a carved T-bone in front of him with two hands as juice dribbled down his chin.

Masetti was one of thousands who thronged the Tuscan town of Cortona for its annual mid August Chianina fair, where 2,200 steaks were cooked on a huge grill. The livestock breed takes its name from the Chiana valley, which the town dominates. Chianina beef costs 30 euros a kg, more than the 20 Euros a kg for Italian prime beef, but a fraction of the price for Wagyu, which can sell for 750 Euros a kg.

"I can eat a kilo"
Masetti, who has driven two hours from his native Pistoia to attend the Cortona fair every year for the past five years, also travelled to Kobe, Japan, last year to taste Wagyu beef. He said he found it cloying after a few bites.

Chianina bulls stand 1.8 meters tall at the shoulder and weigh 1.5 tones. They have short, smooth white coats and short horns. Used in ritual sacrifices by the Romans, Chianinas have also been used to pull heavy loads over the past 1,000 years and almost vanished when tractors replaced them in the 1950s.

Chianinas have an unsurpassed capacity for lean meat production, according to breeders as well as Italian and Australian authorities. The meat has little waste but still retains a marbling of fat in the muscle, resulting in meat with more protein, less fat and less cholesterol than other beef.

Under the rules of the breed's consortium in Italy, the calf must be naturally nursed by the mother and then fed on preservative free grass.

"That's a far cry from the 'meat machines' that are pumped full with growth hormones so they can be butchered at 12 months and cost less than Chianina, which needs 18 to 20 months to mature," said Stefano Falorni, 60, an eighth generation butcher.

His 300 year old shop in Greve near Florence is famed for its Chianina and has become a compulsory stop for foodies from Italy and beyond. Clients include former British prime minister Tony Blair, who likes a roast of a whole fillet, and the pop musician Paul McCartney.

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