The axe factor: Why are people queuing up outside a provincial butcher's in a tiny village in Tuscany?
Prince Charles is a fan. Jamie Oliver urges his readers to seek him out. Elton John even paid him £2,500 for a steak. So what is it about the Dante-spouting Dario Cecchini that has the carniscenti queuing up outside a provincial butcher's in a tiny village in Tuscany?
My conversation with Dario Cecchini, in the room above his butcher's shop in the village of Panzano, is interrupted by the arrival of a courier.
"I have to see him," says Cecchini. "He's collecting some meat for Sting."
Panzano is a village with a population of 3,000, on the old road between Florence and Siena.
"You mean Sting the, er ..."
"Yes. I went to a party at his villa a couple of days ago. The guy who introduced us said, 'This is Dario Cecchini. He's fairly well known around here.' And Sting said: 'Is he? Me too.'"
It's almost 20 years since I first met the man who in recent years has been described, in Le Figaro and The New York Times, as "the world's most famous butcher". Back in 1991, his reputation for excellence didn't extend that far beyond Chianti, let alone Italy. Even in those days, though, walking into his shop was an unforgettable experience.
The first thing you noticed was the music: at that time he had a CD machine which might be playing Verdi, Puccini or Jimi Hendrix. Then there was the wine – a flask of fairly bracing local red, a glass of which he would press into your hand whatever the time of day. And the conversation: Dario, who used to have more time to sit and chat on the shop's sofa, was endlessly articulate on the subject of history, music and literature and – then as now – would occasionally break off, without warning, to recite Dante at some length.
In between times, working at his own speed, he sold meat. Three-inch-thick cuts of ' bistecca alla fiorentina – the T-bone steak now banned in the EU – thick, home-made garlic sausages, hanging from the wall next to strings of dried chillies, and generous slices of his finocchiona, salami flavoured with fennel seeds: all lovingly laid out like the works of art they are. The only smell came from the mixtures of aromatic fresh herbs he prepares for seasoning.
These were scenes for which my childhood butcher – Bert Sibbert of Burnage, Manchester (famous only for once employing a local teenager called Noel Gallagher) – had done nothing to prepare me.
Dario, who speaks very little English, went to the same schools as my wife, who is from Panzano, and whose family still live in the village. I'm trying to remember, I tell the butcher, when I noticed the first sign of his impending global reputation – which would see him catering for people such as Elton John and Prince Charles, and become the most important figure in Heat, the bestselling 2006 book by Bill Buford, in which the American journalist describes his "adventures as a kitchen slave".
"I want you to go and see Dario the butcher in Panzano," Jamie Oliver had urged his readers in Jamie's Italy, published a year earlier. "Shake his hand. Tell him you're a friend of mine."
"I think the first unusual thing I remember," I tell Cecchini, "is a hand-written fax taped to your wall, from Jack Nicholson."
The butcher laughs.
"When that arrived," he says, "I thought it was a joke."
he career of Dario Cecchini, who is 55, is a heartening affirmation of the theory that, even in the age of globalisation, if you do something brilliantly, and with passion, people will eventually notice – wherever you are. He has never sought to expand his empire beyond Panzano, but four years ago opened his first restaurant in the village. There are three now, and they're always packed. Each of them is, by the daunting standards of Euroland, affordable. His most expensive, Solociccia ("Only Meat") offers a six-course fixed menu, with coffee, bread, wine and "Military liqueurs" included, for €30. The cheapest, McDario's, serves his own 250g "burgers". Lovingly crafted from the finest natural ingredients, they have no bun and are covered instead in a delicate, barely perceptible dusting of breadcrumbs. Usually ordered rare or medium-rare, they are served with roast potatoes and three home-made sauces.
"I got the idea when I was walking with Kim." (His wife, who is from California, married him "in a field, surrounded by goats", two weeks ago.) "We were walking in San Francisco. I'd been invited to a very famous restaurant –organic, sustainable and all that stuff. But to eat there you had to have $70. The same way that, in London, to go to Jamie Oliver's, or the River Café, you need a lot of money. Kim and I were in the most deprived area of San Francisco. I noticed how the poor congregated around fast-food outlets, for the very simple reason that they could afford them. Then I started to ask myself, could we make really good food at a low price?"
"Bearing in mind the litigious history of McDonald's," I ask him, "haven't you been worried that they might..."
"Their letter," he replies, "arrived last week."
The butcher laughs, as well he might. A court action by the American giant which drew international attention to the contrast between their own product and Cecchini's typically impeccable "burgers" might not be the most sensible suit they ever launched.
A few hundred yards down the road from Cecchini's shop is Panzano's lumberyard, where the owner, who had both arms blown off in an explosion as he was trying to extinguish the burning tyre of an HGV, somehow manages to cut and load your winter firewood with prosthetic forearms carved from oak. Dario, too, with his florid complexion and muscular build, seems physically to blend into his wares. He could, you might think, only ever have been a butcher. Yet, although his father's family has been in the business here since 1750, this was not his intended career.
"When I was young, I had to work here in my spare time, because my family had the butcher's shop. But I had always dreamed of being a vet; of just helping animals. I was especially interested in looking after animals that belonged to contadini (land workers). I never aimed to get rich by cosseting ladies' lapdogs."
He was studying veterinary science at the University of Pisa when his father, Tullio, died in 1976. Dario had lost his mother three years earlier.
"I had a younger sister and a grandmother to take care of. Somebody had to take over the shop. So I left my course in Pisa on the Monday and started in the shop on Wednesday. I'd learnt some things helping my father but, looking back, I had very little idea of how to go about it. I was taught by my father's friend, Orlando, my maestro. He's an excellent teacher."
"A knowledge of anatomy must have helped?"
"Yes. The thing is that, with the odd exception, like fishing, being a butcher is one of the few jobs that requires you to kill. I've tried to focus on respect for the animal. The crucial thing for me is that the animal should have as good a life – and death – as possible."
"How do you feel about vegetarians?"
"I have nothing but respect for vegetarians until they start telling people how to live their lives. There's an old tradition – maybe the oldest – in the countryside here, which says a contadino has to leave the land in a better condition than it was when he inherited it. I believe that is our duty. I love animals. I eat them. There can be no greater expression of love. Like Christ, offering bread and wine: 'Eat. Eat of my body.'"
Everything about Cecchini is extreme: his energy, his generosity, his enthusiasms; even his passion for literature. Moderation is a concept he has never quite got the hang of. He's a tactile man, sometimes alarmingly so, and his handshake has always been of the kind that threatens to crush your fingers like Chipsticks. And Dario seems almost to have grown, physically, with his international fame. The first major piece about him in English, by Mark Lucas, appeared in The Independent 10 years ago. "I have to be careful not to get too big-headed," the butcher, who has a certain sense of irony, told Lucas. "I woke up this morning and I thought that I could fly."
Over the years, his style as a vendor has become grandiose to the point of theatricality. The platform behind his meat counter is elevated like a stage, from which, if the mood takes him, he declaims poetry, or sings. Outside his shop is a life-size model of a cow in psychedelic colours. The front of the store is painted so that it resembles what some might mistake as a grandiose tribute to Doncaster Rovers. The horizontal red-and-white stripes, Dario says, were once a familiar sight in Chianti.
"You're flamboyant at work, to the point that people have written about you almost like a caricature." (When bistecca alla fiorentina was prohibited in 2001, Cecchini, whose speciality it had been, staged a mock funeral outside his shop, complete with hearse, a coffin containing a metre-long spine of beef, a sobbing widow and a framed photograph of the deceased. Afterwards, he publicly auctioned his last steaks for charity. Elton John bought one for £2,500.)
"Have you always been so extroverted?"
"I've always been very shy."
"I never really noticed that side of you."
"Very shy. Especially with girls. I was very sensitive about my father dying. I think it's because..." He pauses. "I didn't want people saying, 'Oh, that poor kid, his dad's died, you know.' So I decided to put on a smile and leave my troubles at home. I didn't want people to pity me."
To suggest that Cecchini is interested in upholding Tuscan culinary tradition is a bit like saying that Captain Ahab was a fundamentally well-balanced mariner who had a mild preoccupation with one particular cetacean. Even so, driven by concerns of feed quality and animal welfare, he now buys much of his beef from a small organic farm in Catalunya. His main point of reference is a 19th-century Florentine book, Artusi's L'Arte di mangiar bene (The Art of Eating Well). Though he's been flown over to cook at places such as the Four Seasons in New York, and appeared regularly on television both in the UK and in the US, such experience seems only to intensify his attachment to his village.
"Leave Panzano?" he says. "Never." '
I'm not sure Dario Cecchini could exist in Britain. Years before Jamie Oliver was publicising his philanthropic ventures, or Dario had any money, he was accommodating, in his house, several members of the community who were, by all conventional standards, dysfunctional. Nobody in Panzano would deny that the place has more than its fair share of what would, in a less enlightened age, have been described as village idiots. One middle-aged resident has wandered around the main square for several years under the impression that he is the 9.15 bus to Florence. Three years ago there was an unfortunate incident when the driver of a large articulated lorry got his vehicle stuck in the tight, cobbled street that leads up to the church. When people asked him why he'd gone up the narrow road, which has a low arch, he told them: "I asked this guy down in the square if it was OK. He said: 'Sure, I drive my bus up there every day.'"
There's a proud tradition here of looking after people who are alcoholic, mentally confused, or otherwise impaired. But even in Panzano, Cecchini stands out for his benevolence and I've always felt that, on this level, he has an almost saint-like quality.
" I remember meeting these people, years ago, at your house. Some of them were really quite alarming. Why were they there?"
"They had nowhere else to go. Some had been on heroin. I met most of them through the local priest, who was a very charismatic man."
He mentions the name of an alcoholic Vietnam veteran, now dead, who was here in the early 1990s.
"You remember him? Mamma mia. I'd come in and find him unconscious on the floor. I used to have to put him to bed."
It's a tradition he has never abandoned. ("Everybody here," one of his waiters told me once, "has had problems of one kind or another.")
A member of his current staff "lives in an institution. He's been through all kinds of misfortune and now he lives in a madhouse. He kept coming in to the shop. Then he asked for work. How can you say, 'Go away?' So now he has a standard contract, and he does his job like everyone else. The others know that he isn't perfect, but he gets the same salary."
Although Cecchini's meat has become too expensive for most locals to buy on an everyday basis – on Sunday, market day, his shop is so crammed that German, Dutch and American tourists spill into the road – a sense of duty to the community remains at the heart of everything he does.
It is true that, over the years, he has been no slouch at self-promotion, and once proclaimed: "I, Dario Cecchini, am thy butcher and thou shalt have no other butcher than me." Recently, though, he seems to have lost a little of his zeal for publicity. He seems especially to have wearied of journalists. He locked one foreign reporter in his fridge.
"People like Gordon Ramsay and Jamie Oliver," he says – "are essentially a brand. When Jamie, who I know, and like, wrote his book on Italy, he talked about how everyone comes here, to the shop, and I offer all of them something to eat and drink, for nothing. He said he couldn't understand how I could do that and still turn a profit. But I'm genuinely not thinking about making money when I offer a stranger a glass of wine, or food (usually Tuscan bread spread with seasoned lard). Being a good host is one of my greatest pleasures in life. I love to see people enjoying the moment. So they have a glass of wine, listen to the music, eat a small crostino – and relax."
"Of course, with all that free wine they might get so utterly relaxed that they end up buying more."
"They might. In some cases. But if they don't buy anything, it doesn't matter."
"You seem to be doing OK for money."
"Money comes in and I spend it. But I spend it on things I like; on sculpture and paintings. [Half of his shop has now become an art gallery.] Or on another work project. I'm always happy when I'm in the shop, even if I work 15 hours a day. I've been working for 35 years, trying to achieve that feeling of... well, you know those people who meditate to the point that they levitate? When I have my knife in my hand, the feeling is almost like playing music. It really is. But it took years to get to that point. I've got 14 stitches here, 14 stitches there, from when I was learning."
"Some people who are driven as intensely as you are tend to be subject to depression."
"I've had periods in my life where I have suffered a great deal.
"From love. From loneliness. From lack of money. In the 1990s I wasn't that easy to live with. You saw me – I was far more tense and wound up than I am now. When you have a lot of energy, as I do, it can be difficult to keep things under control. I think that's why I am so drawn to Dante. Dante, for me, became a spiritual discipline. His writing works like a drug, it really does. And things are much better now. You have to learn to know your limits."
Has he read Bill Buford's thoughts on the time he spent here? "I haven't read his book. I know he wrote things that were... well, I can't really be sure what he wrote, so to talk about it would be gossip."
"You know," I tell him, "I've been a pretty loyal customer over the years."
"The thing is that... all that stuff I bought – it wasn't, strictly speaking, for me. What I mean is..."
It's a moment I've been thinking about with unease for some time.
"I don't eat meat."
Cecchini roars with laughter, and shakes my hand.
"Congratulations," he says. "Once I went to this huge industrial slaughterhouse. The smell of blood was everywhere. All I could think of was Mozart's Requiem, the "Dies Irae". For weeks afterwards, I wasn't sure if I wanted to go on in this business."
"But I think I should try out your restaurant. The all-meat one."
"O thou that comest to the abode of pain," he says, quoting from "Canto V" of Dante's Inferno, "look how thou enterest and in whom thou trustest."
A couple of days later, we join a slightly apprehensive group of tourists waiting on the steps of Solociccia for the earlier of the two nightly sessions, from seven till nine. You sit at a long wooden table with around a dozen other guests, as at a family dinner. The German merchant bankers who form the most voluble branch of our family this evening, one in a shirt embroidered with a two-headed eagle, are just beyond conversational range, at the far end. I have to admit that the crostini and Dario's legendary roast ciccia (the word that gives his restaurant its name is actually a colloquial, childlike term for meat) is extraordinary even if, after 20 years of lentils and tofu, attempting this last dish feels a bit like eating stockbroker.
One course, tenerumi in insalata, is made, as Cecchini explains, with "meat from the knee, which is a cut that nobody uses. It's very important to me to use all of the animal, out of respect for its life. Meat from the knee is almost always thrown away. When I explain – especially to Americans, who are the world champions at throwing things away – that they've eaten knee, and liked it, they can never quite believe it."
Clearing out the first set of guests in time for the 9pm session is a problem Dario has solved, in a stroke of genius, by offering diners glasses of his explosive grappa outside, on the steps of his shop.
He'll be up at dawn, he says, the following morning.
"What," I ask him, "do you see yourself doing in 15 years' time?"
"I'll be here. Here in Panzano. I've been thinking about making bread; that was the business that my mother's family was involved in, for generations. I want to carry on learning about food. That's the most important thing for me. I don't need a villa and I don't want a Rolls-Royce. Being successful at your chosen trade – that's the main thing in life. "For me," Dario explains, and it's a phrase I can't recollect hearing him use before, "that is more than enough."
Dario's shop, Antica Macelleria Cecchini, is in Panzano in Chianti, Italy, tel: (+39) 55 852 020, dariocecchini.com
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