Sunflowers brought home by husband from our local farmers market evoked intimations of Tuscany that motivated me to prepare the subject of today’s post, peposo, a peppery Tuscan beef stew with a long history.
Legend has it that the stew originated in the early part of the 15th century when brick makers from Impruneta, a town in the Chianti region, south of Florence, worked ceaselessly to provide the approximately 8,000,000 bricks required for Brunelleschi’s massive dome that completed the Florence Cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. To sustain themselves, the workers placed inexpensive chunks of meat, most likely from beef shanks, into terracotta containers, along with peppercorns, garlic, and red wine, and relied on the heat from the brickmaking furnace to slowly cook the stew. In fact, this traditional dish continues to be celebrated today in Impruneta’s annual peposo festival.
This stew has to be one of the easiest main courses I’ve ever prepared; the most tedious job was peeling all the cloves from a head of garlic. There are no vegetables to cut up, no herbs to chop, no browning of meat. Simply cut the beef into large chunks, place them in a heavy bottomed pot along with whole black peppercorns and garlic cloves, season with coarse salt, and cover it all with a bottle of Chianti. You might also add, as I did, a small can of chopped tomatoes, which, although not part of the original recipe, are widely used in Tuscany today.
Next comes the hardest part: place the pot in a slow oven, 320°F, and wait four long hours, as tempting aromas of braising beef, simmering wine, succulent garlic, and pungent peppercorns drive you insane with hunger. The only accompaniment the dish needs is a thick slice of Tuscan bread placed in your bowl to sop up the delicious sauce. Cannellini beans, simmered with garlic, rosemary, and olive oil, might also serve as an appropriate side dish.
While I found many recipes for this dish, both online and among my cookbooks, I ultimately chose what was perhaps the simplest and most traditional. It comes from Frank Fariello’s superb website Memorie di Angelina, a rich resource for authentic Italian recipes. A traditionalist when it comes to Italian cooking, Frank does not use any tomatoes in his recipe since they were not to be found in Italy when the dish originated. And although I debated their use with myself, I ultimately chose to add them to my version for added flavor and body.
This stew far exceeded our expectations; it’s one of those dishes that makes you long for a second helping even before you’ve finished your first. In fact, we can’t wait to warm up the leftover portion, which might, like most reheated braises, be even better.
Peposo, Peppery Beef Stew (adapted from Frank Fariello’s website “Memorie di Angelina”)
1 2.5 beef chuck roast
1 head of garlic, cloves separated and peeled
3/4 ounce whole black peppercorns, or more to taste
Coarse salt, to taste
1 14-ounce can imported Italian crushed tomatoes, optional
1 bottle Chianti, Sangiovese, or other dry red wine
Crusty bread, sliced thick, for serving
1. Preheat the oven to 320°F.
2. Cut the beef into large 2-inch chunks, following the natural muscle separations where possible.
3. Lay the beef chunks into the bottom of an enameled cast-iron Dutch oven or terracotta pot and nestle the garlic cloves between the chunks. Sprinkle the whole peppercorns and salt over everything.
4. Add, if desired, the tomatoes.
4. Pour in enough wine to cover the beef. I used a full bottle. You may need to push the chunks down a little so that they are covered by the wine.
5. Cover the pot and place in the oven for 4 hours or more, until the beef is falling-apart tender and the red wine has reduced into a rich sauce. If the sauce is too too thin, carefully transfer the pot to the top of the stove, uncover, and reduce the sauce over medium heat. Keep in mind that the pot will be very hot; use pot holders for transferring and uncovering the pot.
6. Place a thick slice of crusty bread in each heated serving bowl and cover with the meat and the sauce.
Serves 4 to 6.
Wine Pairing: Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montalcino