Piedmont in northwest Italy is famous for some of the finest foods – white truffles, buttery pastas enriched with egg yolks, creamy sauces of Fontina cheese, and pedigree red wines such as Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco. However, there is another important ingredient that plays a major role in Piedmontese cuisine, which is yet to find the fame outside of Italy of some of these other foods.
Fassone or Razza Piemontese is a breed of cattle used for centuries to provide meat, milk and labour. The pasture-grazing cows provide rich milk, which is used in the local cheeses – Castelmagno, Bra, Raschera and Tome, and until the introduction of tractors, these useful animals did much of the manual work too. But it is the meat that these cattle produce which sets them apart from other breeds.
Recently I tasted a Fassone rib-eye and it was one of the best pieces of beef I have ever sampled. The butcher who sold it to me explained that they only buy meat from female beasts; testosterone in males can make it tough and strong. They then allow it to age for up to 6 weeks, a crucial step in the development of flavour and texture. I fried my steaks on a very hot grill pan, with no oil, for 3 or 4 minutes on each side, turning them a couple of times during cooking so there was even heat distribution. Then (as the butcher recommended) I salted the steaks only after they had finished cooking and left them to rest for 10 minutes. The result was a rich, mature flavour and melting, buttery texture – the best steak I had tried for years.
Of course, much of this exquisite flavour and texture comes with proper ageing, something most butchers, with their fast-turn-around economics, don’t choose to do. As a result, meat of this quality costs more than any old steak (sometimes prohibitively so) but I’d happily forfeit beef for the rest of the year in order to have something this good.
I bought my steaks in London from Macellaio, 84 Old Brompton Rd, SW7 3LQ
The good news is, the Fassone breed is found outside of Italy too: its adaptability to different surroundings (they can happily breed on hills, planes and mountain pastures over 2000m) means they have been successfully introduced to USA, Canada, Brazil and China.
Compared to other breeds, Fassone is a healthier option: they are low in external fat and have a much lower cholesterol than other varieties of beef.
They have a naturally developed condition that allows their muscles to grow to almost double the size – providing larger and juicier steaks. So rather than just growing fat, the ‘double muscles’ create meat which is leaner and softer for a more tender texture.