A giant Australian steer recently became an internet star because of his huge bulk, but in reality, it is the Italian Chianina oxen that is the largest cattle breed in the world. The cattle breed, which takes its name from the Val di Chiana in Tuscany, were admired by the ancient Romans for their pure white coats and were used in triumphal marches and religious processions. The beasts were even cited in the literature of Virgil and Pliny the Elder.
A representative of the breed was recognized as the world’s tallest cow by the Guinness Book of Records in 2010. Bellino, a bull who measured 6’7” at the shoulder and weighed 3,750 lbs in his prime, (about the same as an Alfa Romeo Stelvio). He passed on to celestial pastures five years ago. His owner, Massimo Donin, said his record had not been surpassed since, but he has several animals who could be ready to step into his shoes. “The biggest is Barone, who is about the same height,” Mr. Donin said. “I have five large Chianina oxen who participate in agricultural shows and draw carts at religious festivals and marriages. They’re heavy beasts. You don’t want to keep them too fat, or their legs give way.”
Bellino died at the age of 14, after his legs began to fail. Italy’s most recent champion was proclaimed at the agricultural fair of Umbria in April. A Chianina bull named C’è (He’s there), weighing 3,615 lbs was declared the country’s largest and most beautiful ox.
Italy’s farmers’ association was quick to respond to the challenge from Down Under, reasserting the supremacy of the Chianina breed in an official statement. “Ours is a giant breed, while the Australian steer is an anomaly,” said Giorgio Apostoli, Coldiretti’s chief livestock specialist. “The Chianina is the largest cattle breed in the world. It was once used as a beast of burden and is now very popular at traditional folklore festivals, as well as being a meat machine.”
Four Chianina oxen traditionally draw a ceremonial cart before Siena’s Palio horserace and a young heffer is awarded as the prize to the winning team in Florence’s calcio storico, the costumed football game that combines elements of rugby, boxing and wrestling and has been popular since the Middle Ages. It is also a prime source of the bistecca fiorentina, which are delicious large slabs of T-bone steak cooked on a grill.