Walking around Trieste, you will notice that many butcher shops have signs advertising the availability of steak tartare on Fridays and Saturdays. This struck me as unusual in more ways than one; having grown up in an Italian-American family, Fridays was rigorously a “no meat” day in the Catholic practice of self-discipline and penance. And secondly, we had long been taught that the freshest fish is bought on Fridays thus it would be customary to buy and eat fish on the weekends. And yet, here we are in a bustling port town, where ground raw meat is being sold by the kilo on the weekends.
Certainly, this is a dish carried over from the days of Austro-Hungarian rule and remains a staple in most local restaurants and homes to this day as it is most often served as an appetizer. At dinner parties in Trieste, it is customary to find a bowl piled high with seasoned steak tartare served with crisp toasts and butter on the side. Guests traditionally debate the best way to make it or which butcher shop in town is the best place to buy it. It is seriously a source of neighborhood pride.
In the US, steak tartare is still eschewed by most for fear of bacterial contamination, but, the risk is actually low if basic hygiene rules are followed and the meat is fresh.
So where does this practice of eating raw meat come from?
The idea of eating minced and/or raw meat was popularized in Slavic regions, associated with Mongol encroachment. They and their Turkic allies, the Tatars, were known collectively as being from Tartary, essentially Mongolia. They had a tradition of finely mincing very tough meats like horse and camel, to make them edible, then binding the meat with milk or eggs. According to Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, in making mention of the Huns and their dietary preferences, “though they do just bear the likeness of men (of a very ugly pattern), they are so little advanced in civilization that they make no use of fire, nor any kind of relish, in the preparation of their food, but feed upon the roots which they find in the fields, and the half-raw flesh of any sort of animal.”
These statements can, of course, be attributed to the hatred the Romans had for the invading barbarians. But as it turns out, this story has some bearing on real fact. Just like their nomadic successors, the Mongols, who terrorized Europe some 750 years later, the Huns of the 5th century were preparing their food in a similar manner.
According to the colorful article 10 Disturbing Facts about Attila and the Huns, “While mounted for most of the day, they would place some wrapped pieces of meat between the horse and their saddle, and ride on it throughout the day. Due to the constant pressure and pounding of riding, the meat would become tenderized, and together with the salt coming off of the horse’s back, the Hunnic delicacy would also be added a layer of preservative, as well as a bit of taste. In short, the Huns were eating salted jerky, made between a horse’s back and a… well, Hunnic hard place.”
It is possible that the true story from which this legend arose was that riders often developed saddle sores if they rode for long distances. In order to alleviate the pain, they would place thin slices of meat under their thighs to protect them from friction due to prolonged riding. Either way, minced and/or raw beef became associated with Tatary.
The name tartare is thought to have arisen as the conflation of Tatar and the Greek stories of Tartarus (a region of the underworld aka Hell). The Romans considered the Ta-ta people of central Asia to be savage and barbaric and because of their blood thirsty reputation, they inserted an “r” in their name, thereby linking them with Tartarus (or hell).
Steak Tartare is a dish whose main ingredient is raw beef or raw horse meat, usually, cut into small cubes with a knife (coarsely chopped), although often finely chopped in a food processor.
It was introduced to Russia by their Tatar conquerors and then made its way to Germany where it evolved to the dish we know today with capers, pickles and other seasonings and often topped with a raw egg.
Steak tartare is found in many European cuisines.
The Belgian version, filet américain (préparé), is generally made with mayonnaise and seasoned with capers and fresh herbs. It was formerly made of horse meat. It is usually served with french fries.
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, steak tartare (tatarský biftek) is found in many restaurants. The meat is ground lean sirloin and has a raw egg yolk in a dimple in the middle. The meat can be premixed with herbs and spices, but usually the customer is given spices and condiments to add to taste. Steak tartare is typically served with toasted bread and raw garlic cloves for rubbing on the bread. In Poland, steak tartare is known as “tatar”(The Tartar), “befsztyk tatarski” and is traditionally served as an appetizer with diced onions, pickled dills, pickled mushrooms, and an egg yolk. Below is a recipe from my girlfriend that turned out a very delicious tartare.
Traditionally, the seasoning is done with salt and pepper, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce.
Recipe, for 1 person:
200 g fresh beef, fillet or other tender cut
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon chopped onion
1 tablespoon chopped capers
4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
A few drops of Tabasco sauce
Salt and pepper & olive oil to taste
1 tablespoon pickled mustard seeds
You can chop your own tartare by hand or using a food processor or buy it already ground from your butcher. In a bowl, mix the egg, Dijon mustard, onion, capers, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper. Add the olive oil, whisk.
Add the meat to the sauce. Adjust the seasoning. Arrange the mix in a dome shape in the center of the plate and serve.
Some like to serve an egg yolk on top as it looks pretty and adds a little richness to the recipe.
I love the tartares made at the MACELLERIA LUCIANO in Via di Roiano 7 in Roiano (Tel. 040 414591) also MACELLERIA DA STEFFANONE in via Combi 14 (Tel. 040 305351).
Who makes your favorite?