SURF & TURF – Ox Tale

Last Thursday, the 92nd Fiera Regionale del Bue Grasso (Fair of the Fat Ox), Italy’s number one livestock fair, was held in Carrù, in the province of Cuneo. In this evocative account, Nicola Ferrero, director of and a habitué of the event, records his impressions. The piece is followed by a small Christmas gift for our readers: the recipe for Bollito misto alla piemontese, the mixed boiled meat dish that graces many table here in Piedmont during the festive season.

Thursday, December 12, the Fair of the Fat Ox in Carrù!.

It snowed yesterday, just enough to coat everything with white.

This morning the sky’s gray and it’s cold, but it’s not snowing. Not yet at least. The climate’s just right. Like last year. Like the year before that.

The Fair’s all a matter of rituals and gestures and the pleasure of repeating them. They conjure up a sense of security, something solid to cling onto. And the weather has to be cold and inclement.

When the animals snort, you’ve got to be able to see the puffs of vapor condensing in front of their massive great heads. You’ve got to dress in heavy clothes, you’ve got to stamp your feet. The real purists don loose black mantles.

It’s cold on purpose to make you yearn for a bowl of hot beef stock. So that’s the first thing you do, the first ritual of the Fair. That sets you up for lunch, for the Grande Bollito di Bue, the grand platter of boiled beef, for which may the Lord make us truly thankful!.

Before sitting down at the table, though, it’s compulsory to go and see the animals. Under the pavilion roof, bulls, oxen and calves of rare beauty. Some big and powerful, others muscular and stocky. People crowd round them and examine them and touch them. They talk and pass judgments just for the sheer hell of it.

Then, when you’ve had enough of the cold, it’s off to the Moderno, Carru’s historic restaurant, for your hot beef stock laced with a drop of Dolcetto. It scours the stomach and does you a power of good.

People trail up to the first floor of the restaurant. They bump into one another and say hello and pat each other on the shoulder, all people who haven’t met in a good long while. And the stock warms them up and cheers them up.

Then it’s back down into the piazza to see which animals have won the prizes. The next stage in the preparation is a brief stopover at the Macelleria, the butcher’s shop, for more greetings and more hellos. We then move on to the Pasticceria, part wine bar and part cake shop. It’s like stepping back in time: a small counter, a few tables, crates of wine piled up in a corner—pure Fifties.

So we all meet up again in the Pasticceria. This time for an aperitif, served with Signora Dalmazzo fantastic anchovies, her capunet (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat) and her frittata. Last year the Signora also stewed some tripe, but this year we arrived late and missed it.

So here we, are all packed into a single room, chatting away, listening to the incredible tales of Dino Barachin (hands as big as flatirons), making bets, arguing with mates up from Tuscany who claim their Chianina breed is better than our Piedmontese. We arrange a an eating match—boiled braised and barbecued beef from both breeds—to settle the matter once and for all..

Signora Dalmazzo’s Pasticceria is the last stop before lunch. We say our goodbyes and everyone sets off for his or her chosen restaurant to face the last rite of all, the Bollito—the cuts, the sauces, the unwritten rules that accompany this moment of gastronomy and conviviality.

But that’s a different story …

Nicola Ferrero is the editor of

Adapted by John Irving

In Piedmont, Italy, Bollito misto is a popular dish at Christmas too. Here’s the recipe.

Bollito misto alla piemontese

Mixed boiled meats

Serves 4

500 g ox head
500 g loin beef
500 g stewing steak
500 g ox tail
500 ox tongue
1 small chicken
1 cotechino

For the stock:

1 large onion
3 cloves garlic
2 sticks celery
1 sprig rosemary
5 sprigs parsley
5 grains black pepper
sea salt

Pour 5 liters of water into a large pan, add all the stock ingredients and bring to the boil. Pour 2 liters of the resulting stock into a second pan. Place the loin, tail, tongue, stewing steak and chicken into the first pan of boiling stock. After about 10 minutes, lower the heat, cover with a lid, and leave to cook for about two hours (the chicken, which takes less time to cook, should be removed after about an hour and a quarter).

Place the head in the second pan and bring to the boil. Lower the heat after 10 minutes and leave to simmer for about two hours.

Pierce the cotechino with a fork and place in cold, unsalted water in a third pan. Bring to the boil and cook for an hour.

When all the meats are done, drain, slice at the table and serve with green bagnèt (parsley and garlic sauce), French mustard, mostarda di cremona and cognà (wine must).

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