Tuscany: Peasant Stew & the King of Tuscan Wines

Peposo Notturno: Peasant Stew
It’s the early 1400’s, and you’re a poor worker, firing tiles for the magnificent Duomo inder construction in Florence.  The meat you can afford has gone around the bend, and you need to spice it heavily to make it palatable.  Also, it’s tough, so you’ll need to cook it for a long time.  Put the pot in the corner of the oven where you’re firing tiles for your workday, then take it home for supper. Sounds great, huh!  This is the history and story of Peposo Notturno.

Peppercorns

Peppercorns to help make the stew palatable!

I first read about this story in Bill Buford’s wonderful book Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
If you care anything at all about Italian culture, Tuscany, food, cooking, or great writing, you should read Bill’s book.  In one chapter he tells the story of the dish and gives a very short recipe. Here’s a another nice version of the story from The Tuscan Magazine.

Brunello di Montalcino is often considered the peak of Tuscany's wines

Brunello di Montalcino is the peak of Tuscany’s classic wines

Brunello di Montalcino
All this month, we’ve been drinking Tuscan wines at home, and today is no different. Brunello di Montalcino is generally considered the top classic wine of Tuscany (the Super Tuscan folks may disagree here).  Made 100% from a special variant of the Sangiovese grape grown in the small region of Montalcino, Brunello is a bit like Chianti pumped up to a volume of “11”. As Italy’s first DOCG wine, it has strict regulations about grape growing and cellar conditions such as long aging in wood.  It’s also expensive; good luck finding a bottle for less than $50!

Mocali Brunello di Montalcino

Mocali Brunello di Montalcino

Mocali Brunello di Montalcino 2008 ($49 locally)
Eye: Clear, deep translucent garnet red. Warm, brick at the edge
Nose: Cherries, pepper, a bit of vanilla from oak but well restrained
Mouth: Ripe (for Italy), strong red fruit, quite tannic.
Overall impression: Reminds me of Chianti but richer, smoother and more tannic. This wine was a baby, and would benefit from several more years in the cellar to show its true grandeur.

Toscana Bianco
Tuscany is well known for a variety of red wines, mostly based on the sangiovese grape, plus international grapes that go into the popular Super Tuscans.  White wines are a different story.  With the exception of Vernaccia di San Gimignano, there aren’t many white wines to be found.  When you do find one, though, it may be worth trying!

peposa_brunello_bibigraetz_italianFWT_20150124_173

Bibi Graetz “Casamatta” Toscana Bianco IGT 2011 ($13 locally)
“Casamatta” or “crazy house” is Bibi Graetz’s house white wine, intended for easy, immediate drinking. It’s made from a combination of 60% Vermentino, 30% Trebbiano, 10% Muscat. It’s fermented and aged in stainless steel to retain freshness.

Eye: Clear, medium yellow-green
Nose: Needs time to open up and blow off a bit of artificial candied fresh smell.  30 minutes later, the nose is clean and full of pineapple, lemons and stones
Mouth: Medium body, pretty ripe, tart acidity with really full fruit.

If you choose a high-pepper version, red wine can be a challenge

If you choose a high-pepper version, red wine can be a challenge

Wine Pairing with Peposo Notturno
I was initially concerned about the pepper level, especially my preferred high pepper level in the dish, when pairing with a tannic red wine.  If you love lots of pepper in this dish, you’d be well advised to steer clear of a tannic red.  The Brunello di Montalcino was very nice on its own, but the pepper seemed to amplify the tannins just too much.  The Bibi Graetz was the better of the two wines in the pairing. Lacking any tannins, there was no conflict with the strong pepper.  The Casamatta has sufficient body and ripeness to stand up to the big flavors in the stew.

Whole peppercorns were too much for the tannins in the Brunello.  Crisp white was a better choice

Whole peppercorns were too much for the tannins in the Brunello. Crisp white was a better choice

Note on the Pepper in this Recipe
In his book, Bill Buford isn’t specific on whether the peppercorns should be whole or ground.  After trying several versions, I decided to tweet to Bill and ask.  To my happy astonishment, he answered!  He prefers coarsely ground pepper, still large enough to provide tangy bite.

I’ve tried this dish both ways: whole peppercorns and ground, and even a mixture. The whole peppercorns are pretty intense, you need to be a real pepper lover to go with those (I am!). I haven’t tried more than 2 Tbsp of pepper in a single recipe, so proceed with care if you go higher. I like 1 Tbsp of ground pepper in the pot and 1 Tbsp of whole peppercorns in a cheesecloth suspended in the liquid.  Then, you can adjust how many of the intense whole peppercorns you want in a serving.

Peposa Notturna, Tuscan Tile Worker's Pepper Beef

Note: when cooking with wine, choose something you’d be willing to drink.  Cooking will reduce and concentrate the flavors, make sure they are good flavors to begin with!

Ideally, cook this meal in a terracotta pot.  I used a dutch oven, as I don’t own a terra cotta pot.  Mine turned out fine, but I wonder how it would taste in terracotta?

This dish’s greatness is its simplicity. There’s no need to brown the meat at the beginning.  Don’t be tempted to add onions, other spices or vegetables to the preparation. Pretend you’re a poor tile worker and you have neither the time nor the funds for anything more!

Ingredients

  • 1 kg (2.2 lbs) inexpensive beef: shank, stew meat, brisket
  • 1 750ml bottle of Chianti
  • 1 head of garlic, broken into cloves, skin removed
  • 1 – 4 Tbsp coarsely ground black pepper, according to your taste.

Instructionspeposa_brunello_bibigraetz_italianFWT_20150124_87

  • Pre-heat the oven to 225° F
  • Cut the meat into medium size cubes
  • Pour the bottle of wine over the meat
  • Dump in all the garlic
  • Dump in all the pepper
  • Mix it up
  • Cover and place in the oven for at least 4 hours, don’t hesitate to go 8-10 hours.
  • Check occasionally to ensure liquid hasn’t completely evaporated
  • Serve over a piece of coarse bread, or as we did, mashed potato/turnip/rutabaga blend

peposa_brunello_bibigraetz_italianFWT_20150124_187

Comments
5 Responses to “Tuscany: Peasant Stew & the King of Tuscan Wines”
  1. This is awesome! You know I love Brunello & the stew looks delicious. I’m fascinated by the book. Is it similar in style to Peter Mahl’s A Year in Provence? I’m going to look it up. Thanks Jeff. I always enjoy your articles.

    • Thanks Michelle! In the book, Bill quits his job as an editor at the New Yorker (!) to apprentice at Mario Batali’s Babbo in NYC. Starts at the bottom in the kitchen, eventually goes to Italy to apprentice. with several different artisans. Well written, will give you a new appreciation for restaurants, Italy, and artisans.

  2. d d b says:

    I’ll cook that!

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