Pagans, Grilled Meat and Fire
Umbria is old, people have lived here seemingly forever, certainly pre-Etruscan, obviously pre-Christian and there is still a strong pagan connection to meat and fire. It’s the defining smell at festas and gatherings: meat sizzling over a wood fired grill.
I grew up in New Jersey with back yard BBQ’s and we had a charcoal grill just like everybody else, after I was married we had our new home one of our first purchases was the gas grill. I figured that I knew a thing or two about grilling meat, but it wasn’t until we came to Umbria that the whole primal thing kicked in. The meat cuts are rougher here, the meat is tougher, you have to actually chew it, and sometimes you actually have to gnaw at the bones to get any meat at all. It’s beyond delicious and incredibly satisfying. None of that sissy soft meat here, you need teeth and a gullet if you are going to eat meat in Umbria. Most preparations here are simply salt and pepper and maybe a little rosemary. Stop. Grill meat, slap on a plate with a piece of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil and eat it while it’s hot. Wash down with a slightly rough red wine.
There is a place in the nearby city of Citta di Castello that is part pizza joint and part steak joint. The meat is lined up in the refrigerator cases, and these are BIG dinosaur steaks, 3 inches thick and dinner plate sized. No dry aging, no pre-seasoning, they would split a gut laughing at the suggestion of sous vide, they think Australian lamb is for babies before they cut teeth. I think the place is called Trattoria Fez or something like that, but everyone knows it as the Steak Nazi’s place. Friends or ours have been banned for asking for their steak to be anything but blue, we didn’t get banned but he refused to give us our vegetables and we never saw our waitress again. The meat gets a little sear and comes to you blue in the middle. Now, I like rare, but this stuff is still breathing. But when you need a steak fix, this is the place and you just hope the Steak Nazi will be in a good enough mood to actually cook the meat. I’m pretty sure you have to finish your steak or they don’t even offer you dessert, they just show you the door.
I’ve been perfecting my own steak and last night we nailed it. Who needs to submit to Steak Nazi terror anymore!
The journey to a perfect steak requires fire. The first thing you need to do is not even think about anything but a wood fire, no little wet chips in the back of the gas grill. You need to build a fire. Burn the furniture in the living room if you must, but you need wood. Our friend Tomaso is probably the maestro of building a cooking fire; he has a complex method that involves feeding large logs in and getting a red-hot pile of embers. We’re not there yet, but we have adapted the Paul teepee method where the logs lean up against the back wall of the fireplace, it’s been working pretty well with our slightly green wood. You want a pile of red-hot embers, not a lot of flame and smoke. Last night Jeff got a perfect blazing ember fire. It takes a good hour before the fire is ready so plan ahead.
Use a big thick steak, preferably with bone, gristle and fat because these all add flavor. Generously salt and pepper the steak. I like to add some fresh thyme and rosemary on top of the meat. It burns off, but still adds flavor.
When the fire is red hot, place the steak on the hot grill. Resist the urge to turn it too many times; don’t cut into it if you can help it. I use the press method. Before you put the meat on the grill, press the thickest part of the steak with your finger, and now remember how it felt: soft and yielding. As the meat cooks, it firms up and with practice you can tell how done the meat is just by pressing it. When you are first starting out, feel the end of your nose, that’s what a medium rare steak feels like. Unless you are a real hard nose, and then you are on your own.
When the steak is done to your liking, place on a warm plate and add a generous drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil. Guaranteed to bring out the pagan carnivore in anyone. And that’s how we tasted our precious unfiltered very virgin olive oil last night. Served with roasted potatoes and roasted cauliflower and some Schiopetto red wine from Friuli. Later on, we howled at the moon and gave thanks to Diana and Bacchus.
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