Dario Cecchini is regularly referred to as the greatest butcher in the world. In the little Italian village of Panzano, an hour drive south of Florence, he’s the eighth-generation butcher at Antica Macelleria Cecchini. The good and the great of the culinary world visit him, order from him and talk about him with near reverence.
Prince Charles is a big fan, Elton bought his steaks at auction, Jamie Oliver insists everyone should try his food (you can in Dubai this weekend – see bottom), and chefs around the world know and rate his work.
So how did this one butcher, in one tiny Italian village become so revered and what is it that he does that sets him apart? The answer to that lies not only in what he does, but how he does it and now he’s on something of a mission to educate the world.
In his own words, Dario Cecchini…
“I’ve been doing this job for 43 years, and my village is very small, we don’t even have 1,000 inhabitants. My family have been doing this work for eight generations, passed on from father to son and I think the world is looking for answers to the many questions about eating meat. We probably won’t resolve the dilemma and the dilemma is “to beef or not to beef”
“The world of meat is run in large parts by industry and only in a very small part by artisan butchers like myself. The people who come to my butchers in Tuscany are looking, in some way, for the sense in eating meat. In all of these years my family has sought to base their work on taking responsibility for, and having respect for, the animal.
“The important thing is guaranteeing the animals have a good life and honest compassionate death, and being sure that every part of the animal is used well from nose to tail. Then sitting down and enjoying the meal this animal has given us and in turn giving thanks to this animal. This is the important thing.
A butcher has a great responsibility in the food chain because our work is the only work that involved killing to feed ourselves
“A butcher has a great responsibility in the food chain because our work is the only work that involved killing to feed ourselves, and it’s a job that still today in some cultures is left to priests and holy men. And the work of butchery requires great responsibility – you can’t give the life of an animal just for one single filet.
“I originally studied to be a vet and that gave me ideas about the wellbeing of the animal, it helped me to understand that an animal is not an object, but a life. It’s not an easy conversation to have because you’re talking about the wellbeing of the animal in order to lead it to being butchered, but we are serving you the life of an animal. The death of this animal is nourishing our lives so appreciate it. Enjoy it. And be thankful for it.
“My sister and I grew up eating my grandmother’s food and our butcher shop is very small and there wasn’t a lot of extra money in the family. We never ate was a steak. When we were growing up my sister and I thought that an animal probably had five heads, 20 feet and ten tails because that’s what we grew up eating. We couldn’t understand where the animals that we’re cut in our shop came from because we never saw any that matched up to the meats we were eating.
“The steaks were what brought money into the shop but they were all for the customers – I ate my first T-bone steak a la Fiorentina for my 18th birthday. It was an amazing experience but I realized that everything I had eaten up until then was equally as delicious. Trip and blood and muzzle, all as good.
A butcher is always standing there next to death and if he doesn’t have spirituality it can be a disaster
“I learned from my family this respect for food and to never waste anything and to try to make others understand. An artisan cannot be a missionary, but an artisan’s job is to seek to do good work every day and try to find solutions. That’s what I do. We do it in a tiny village, but it’s a strong message and since I am the last of my family I find that it has fallen upon my shoulders to speak for my father, grandfather, great-grandfather and all those who came before me.
“People should be looking at knees and offal. Far too often in this world people look at meat in terms of a pyramid, where at the tip are filet and T-bone and as you work your way down through the animal they are of lesser and lesser value. I see meat instead as a harmonic circle where every cut can be equally excellent if it is prepared well. People are not looking to eat these wonderful parts like the beef tendons and the brisket
“If you go to a butcher and want something else then boiled beef knees is a good place to start, it can be an amazing dish. The beef knees have this incredibly flavorful meat, and the beef tendons that lead into it and cartilage together is a wonderful mix. When we serve our beef knees dish, it lands on the table first and then after the guests have enjoyed it we give them an explanation of what it was and many times they are shocked that they enjoyed something they previously only bought to give to the dog.
“The place mats at our restaurants have a cow drawn on them and we have the first couple of lines of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno. It’s a moment in the beginning of the epic poem and the person writing the poem is in the middle of his life and he is lost in a dark wood and he is seeking to find the right path to being himself out of this darkness. I think that using all the animal well from nose to tail is my way – a metaphor if you like – for finding my own way and my own path straight and true though my life.
“A butcher is always standing there next to death and if he doesn’t have spirituality it can be a disaster because he doesn’t understand. In some cultures you couldn’t be somebody who butchers animals all your life because people became worried you would become used to the killing, and you cannot become used to killing, you have to have a spiritual side to it.
Having happy animals you end up having happy meat and that brings happiness to our lives
“People come to me looking for answers. They certainly don’t come to me looking for Michelin stars. Our dishes are very simple, with very few ingredients, we serve our steaks – for example – with no dressings, nothing. Just meat and fire. Very often, that simplicity is the most difficulty thing to reach. There is a certain difficulty in creating a dish that has only three or four ingredients. Having happy animals you end up having happy meat and that brings happiness to our lives.
“I hope I leave behind something that betters the life of butchers and animals. I want to show that there are other ways of doing this. I have hope for the future because a new generation of butchers has been born. For a long time the work of an artisan butcher has become less and less important because it looked like industrial meat raising was the answer, but industry cannot bring forward this message because they are a business looking to make more and more money. But a new generation of butchers is being born and I’m happy to be a small part of the inspiration for this movement.”
On Thursday 23 and Friday 24 November, Dario is guest chef at Seafire at Atlantis the Palm Hotel. He and Seafire’s Chef de Cuisine, Raymond Wong are serving a six-course menu for AED450 per person, including dinner and welcome drinks. The beef-based menu will include marbled beef cheek terrine, syphon oxtail tea, savory short rib donuts and Dario’s signature Sua maestà Bistecca alla Fiorentina.