Peposo: the dish behind the Duomo

Image credit: Ron Reznick: digital-images.net

Image credit: Ron Reznick: digital-images.net

What do Florence's Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (aka the Duomo) and a hearty Tuscan dish of stewed beef, the peposo alla fornacina dell'Impruneta, have in common? Read on.

Once upon a time, in Impruneta—that rolled-up-sleeve sort of town that insinuates itself into the vineyard-strewn hills just south of the Tuscan capital and which, since at least 1098, is famous for its rich clay soil and the terracotta it produces—a group of rough-hewn, bestubbled laborers in the brick furnaces were hard at it, hunger licking at their insides like flames, and, as Italians throughout history are wont to do, discussing their options for lunch.

{Though our protagonists may be medieval men, you can bet that the Tuscan they were talking differed little from that of today. Get a group of contemporary toscanacci together and you'll hear much the same speech: those aspirated, throaty c's that sound like a bellows in the hands of an over-enthusiastic chambermaid; the muscular cadences and roughly-chopped syntax, spiced up with good-natured ribaldry and liberally seasoned with blasphemous-yet-benign oaths and abundant raucous laughter}

Eventually, the foreman—a pragmatic, no-nonsense sort of fellow in charge of loading the hot kilns that spit forth their bounty of red tiles, bricks and orci (earthenware pots)—wipes the sweat from his brow with an oily rag and calls over an errand boy. Handing the lad a few coins, he barks, "Fetch some beef. The cheapest you can find." Cattle—particularly the ancient, revered race known as Chianina—being plentiful in Tuscany, this was an easy enough task. And while the nobler cuts were earmarked for those with plenty of florins in their pouches, the poor-man's cuts, such as muscolo, were within a laborer's reach.

The boy presently returned with a good quantity of meat. It had been abundantly seasoned with pepper so it'd keep, and the foreman added even more (hence the name peposo, deriving from pepe [pepper], meaning a peppery dish). He cut it into small chunks with a crude pocketknife and threw it into a large terracotta pot. Knowing the sinewy beef would need to cook at length in order to soften into something less resembling hide and more forgiving to medieval dental work, he grabbed a full flask of the ubiquitous red wine—Impruneta being in Chianti country, after all—and up-ended its entire contents into the pot. He then placed the pot just inside the maw of the roaring furnace, where the heat was mellower, and left it there to slow-cook for hours.

Terra cotta urns, or orci, of Impruneta

Terra cotta urns, or orci, of Impruneta

Later, when the scent of the simmering meat had become almost too much to bear with any pretense of fortitude, and fatigue made them stoop like willows in the rain, the men dragged the pot from the kiln's mouth like an unwilling molar and hunkered down around it, reaching in with great chunks of bread and scooping the meat up into their mouths. That heretofore tough cut of cow now yielded to their hunger like an impatient virgin; it was butter-soft and dripping with a velvety, wine-dark sauce which their rustic bread soaked up like perfect absolution. They washed it down with still more wine, clapped the foreman on the back, and were satisfied. And from this auspicious beginning the humble peposo of Impruneta was to go on to achieve something very grand, indeed.

 

Brunelleschi's dilemma

In 1420, when scaffolding enshrouded the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and the great cupola was under construction, the workers—perhaps understandably—tended to blow off the steam that comes from sweating over such a colossus of engineering by climbing down to take their meals and disappearing for what was, to Brunelleschi, a rather alarming amount of time into the rough-and-tumble osterie hidden in the sinuous alleys nearby. They would come back thoroughly soused, mount the scaffolding unsteadily, sing bawdily, and recommence their work with visibly diminished dexterity. The brilliant architect hit upon a solution: since the four million-odd terracotta bricks used in the dome's construction were being fired round-the-clock and brought in daily from the kilns at Impruneta, he ordered a continuous supply of generous potfuls of peposo and had them delivered along with the brick shipments and hoisted up onto the scaffolds, together with countless loaves of bread and a carefully rationed (and watered down) quantity of vino. The men thus lunched under their boss's watchful eye, high above the teeming city, leaving Florence's taverns to the riffraff.

And so it was that the rich red earth of Impruneta helped nourish Brunelleschi's vision, just as the peposo—born of Impruneta's kilns—nourished the men who would help him realize it.

Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Peposo at Burrasca. Brunelleschi would be pleased.

Our peposo is served as it often is these days in Tuscany: with polenta. It's a wonderfully warming and deeply comforting dish, perfect for winter. Come see us and taste for yourself the savory foundation upon which Florence's incomparable Duomo was built; there's no telling what fabulous things you'll accomplish with a bellyful of the stuff.

—Elizabeth Petrosian