This Tuscan beef stew has a long history. The story goes that it was invented by the furnace workers (fornaciai) who baked the terracotta tiles for the Brunelleschi’s famous Duomo in Florence. They mixed roughly cut up beef shank, salt, lots of black pepper and red wine—Chianti, of course—in terracotta pots and let it all bake slowly in a corner of their furnace until it was time to eat. The original slow cooker recipe?
The dish is still popular in Tuscany today, and the little town of Impruneta, a few kilometers south of Florence, is well-known for its annual sagra (festival) dedicated to the dish. These days, peposo is more likely than not to be made with tomato sauce, but being the traditionalist I prefer the original, pre-Columbian version.
In any event, once you put the ingredients together in a pot and pop them in the oven—and there’s no browning or soffritto to mess with this time—this tasty dish quite literally cooks itself. After all, those fornaciai had more important matters to attend to… just like you. But I warn you, the ambrosial aroma of peposo as it slowly bakes in the oven can be very distracting.
Serves 4-6 people
- 1 kg (2 lbs) beef for stew
- 1 head of garlic
- 20g (3/4 oz) whole peppercorns
- Salt, preferably roughly sea salt, to taste
- 1 bottle red wine, preferably Chianti
Cut the beef into large chunks, along the natural muscle separations where possible.
Lay the beef chunks into the bottom of a terracotta pot and insert the garlic cloves interspersed among the beef chunks here and there. Sprinkle the whole peppercorns and salt over everything.
Pour over enough red wine to cover the beef.
Cover the pot and place in a slow oven (160C/324F) for 4 hours or more, until the beef is falling apart tender and the red wine has reduced into a rich sauce. If the dish is still too liquid and you’re ready to eat, remove the cover, which will allow it to reduce more quickly. Although unconventional, just before serving you can also add a spoonful or two of potato starch mixed with an equal amount of water to give the sauce some liaison.
Most Italian recipes for Tuscan beef stew call for beef shank, which can be hard to find. My favorite cut for any sort of braised beef is chuck. You can also use, of course, those pre-cut ‘stewing beef’, although I’ve never quite figured out exactly what cut it is. If using chuck, you may want to trim off some of the excess fat, but leave some on for flavor. Although I haven’t tried it (but I will!) I bet that short ribs would be fabulous made this way.
Like many traditional recipes, there are multiple variations on the theme. As mentioned, the most common has got to be the use of tomatoes, either just a few or a lot (see the related articles listed below for some lovely examples). Some recipes call for ground pepper, which gives the dish a more pungent flavor than leaving the peppercorns whole, so I would use less of it, perhaps half as much by weight. Some recipes call for much less pepper than this anyway, something like 15 peppercorns for this amount of meat (although personally I’d never be patient enough to count them out!) And some recipes call for leaving the head of garlic whole, peeled only of the excess papery outside skin, and perhaps trimmed on top, nestled in the middle of the beef. Other recipes call for cloves left whole and unpeeled. Finally, you will also find recipes that call for a sprig of fresh rosemary or sage to go into the pot along with the rest.
The traditional cooking vessel for making this Tuscan beef stew is a covered terracotta pot. It does give the dish a special taste and, for me, it provides a real sense of connection with those original furnace workers. (What can I say, I’m a romantic at heart…) If you don’t have a terracotta pot, enameled cast iron works perfectly well. And, of course, in a pinch any oven-proof dish will do.
Peposo is traditionally served with slices of Tuscan bread, accompanied perhaps with beans or sautéed spinach. It goes equally well, to my mind, with mashed potatoes or polenta. The latter is not very Tuscan, perhaps, but very nice nonetheless.