Summer 2013 marks the 20th anniversary of the first time Pedar and I went to Italy together. We were grad students: I had just finished my first year and he was supposed to be working on his dissertation. We had both received summer travel grants from the University of Michigan to do research in Italy; we decided to pool our resources and travel together. We flew to Rome, rented a VW golf, and spent the next three weeks driving further and further into Southern Italy. We had known each other less than a year (having met the previous summer in Tunisia), and that trip solidified many aspects of our relationship. Most importantly, it is when Pedar delegated all food-related decisions to me.

Now, twenty years later, as we prepare to leave for Italy with our three children, my head has been swirling with the culinary possibilities. Italian cuisine is more regional than most Americans realize. Umbria, which is the only land-locked province in Italy, is known for its its woodland delights, such as wild boar and fresh mushrooms, particularly truffles (start saving up, Pedar…). Umbria is also home to Chianina beef, a breed of cattle native to the Chianina Valley, which divided Umbria and Tuscany.

Vastus et albus

Recently, I have been reading a lot about Chianina beef. The breed dates back to the Roman period. Columella, who wrote a treatise on Roman farming, is likely referencing these cattle when he says, “Umbria vastos et albos, eademque rubios; nec minus probabiles animis quam corporibus.” (VI.1.2) “Umbria has large and white [cattle], some are even red; and they are no less agreeable in their spirits than in their bodies.” These cattle were originally used as draught animals, probably because of their large size and ‘agreeable spirits’. As mechanized farming took over traditional methods in the 20th century, breeders started using the Chianina cattle for meat.

It turns out that Chianina beef has 25% less fat and 36% fewer calories than most beef breeds in the U.S. In the 1980s, Texas Tech developed a lean Chianina beef for the US market (Time 5/19/1986 vol 127, issue 20), but it has not taken the American market by storm as originally predicted. If you are interested in finding Chianina beef in the US, check out the American Chianina Association website.

In Italy, Chianina beef is famous as the preferred breed for Bistecca alla Fiorentina (Florentine steak). Classic Bistecca alla Fiorentina is a 2″-thick steak seared over a wood-fired grill. It is marinated in olive oil and rosemary, although there is some debate as to whether the marination should occur before or after searing. The steak is served rare. Pedar will have to learn to eat red meat that is still red.

What goes better with steak than wild mushrooms? I am expecting to find the markets in Perugia full of all varieties of funghi. However, I will have to prepare them surreptitiously. If you have ever had a meal with Pedar, you probably know that he is philosophically opposed to eating anything that does not qualify as animal, vegetable, or mineral. Mushrooms are easy enough for me to forgo in Greencastle, as the varieties available in the Kroger are generally unappealing and usually dried. Fortunately, Simon, our oldest son, will try anything. He has promised to be my fungus-buddy, and I am looking forward to tasting as many mushrooms as possible with him.