The Meaty, Leftovers-Filled Pasta Savored By Tuscan Cowboys

June  6, 2017

I had been living in a corner of southern Tuscany, in the Maremma, for a few months when I began noticing pasta alla buttera (translation: cowboy pasta) here and there—on countryside menus and at various sagre, outdoor food festivals that are especially good places to try regional dishes. I made a mental note to add another job-description-pasta-sauce to a quirky medley of a list that included things like spaghetti alla carbonara and pasta alla boscaiola, named after the charcoal burners and woodcutters that apparently invented and championed the dishes based on what readily available ingredients they had.

One sweltering summer night at a sagra in Capalbio, Tuscany's southernmost town, we ordered the rigatoni alla buttera. The butteri, or Tuscan cowboys, are local icons in the rugged Maremman countryside. The pasta arrived, steaming, in a flimsy plastic bowl, with a plastic fork, and we sat under florescent lights on the long, communal table with a cheap, cold bottle of Bianco di Pitigliano. A thick blanket of pecorino cheese covered the top of the pasta. I swirled it in a little bit before taking a bite.

I can still remember the incredible flavor. With every bite, we tried guessing the possible combination of ingredients that made this cowboy ragù so good. It was quite possibly the tastiest plate of pasta I have ever eaten, and every plate of pasta alla buttera I've eaten since has had to try to match that one.

Pasta alla buttera Photo by Emiko Davies

Afterwards, we found the list of ingredients of the dishes—by law, they're always posted somewhere at a sagra. This one was taped to a window of the kitchen: pork sausages, pancetta, herbs, the usual trilogy of onion, celery and carrot, a splash of wine, tomato to finish. Simple. I raced home to try it myself.

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Once I dove into every recipe I could find of this special cowboy ragù (partly for curiosity, partly for research for my Maremman cookbook, Acquacotta, the thing that struck me most was that each recipe was completely different to the next. The irony, of course, is that although the butteri were raising cattle (beautiful Maremmana cattle, an ancient breed with long horns in the shape of a lyre and a grayish, charcoal colored coat), they themselves could not afford to eat this expensive and sought after beef.

Maremma cattle in southern Tuscany Photo by Emiko Davies

Like the other dishes on my growing list of pasta sauces named after a profession, the cowboys (or more likely their grandmothers, mothers, or wives) were simply using what was on hand—and, as is the case in so many classic cucina povera (peasant cuisine) dishes, leftovers, too. The secret to the ragù's tastiness is that the main ingredients are usually a combination of things, like prosciutto, pancetta, pork sausages or chicken livers, to “beef up,” so to speak, a ragù that actually did not have any beef in it.

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The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.