One of the fascinating things about living in Italy is the astounding number of festivals that take place throughout the year. Every city and town, even small hamlets like ours, seem to have at least one and sometimes several. The themes are countless. We have seen festivals dedicated to virtually every fruit: pears, apples, apricots, grapes, plums, oranges, persimmons, and others. We have spotted festivals for many different vegetables, including olives, artichokes, and eggplant. There are festivals for grains, flours, and flowers, and festivals for birds. There’s probably a festival for every type of pasta, and those number in the scores.
Eating is always part of every festival. Wine, of course, is a staple. Street food is a big thing, with trucks and carts dispensing all manner of dishes cooked on the spot. Volunteers cook in big kitchens and other volunteers plate the ordered items. We have found a festival (festa) in some location within a short drive of our village of Santa Vittoria in Matenano, in the Marche region of east-central Italy, almost every weekend. Attending more than a few can be exhausting.
Once I went to a festival built around a single object – an ancient piece of farm machinery for threshing wheat. The enormous wooden beast was powered by a belt attached to an old tractor. As we walked up to it, my Italian companion cautioned me not to get too close as the exposed, rapidly moving parts could maim or kill. Nice to be warned. A festival about a machine with murder on its mind. But everyone had a great time. Except perhaps my friend who got into a huge political squabble. He got backed into a fence during the ensuing loud verbal altercation. Perhaps such an animated side-show is part of the festivities.
For the first year after we moved to our village five years ago, we would frequently pass enormous billboards pasted onto the sides of trucks along the roadsides announcing a particular festival. Large photos taunted us with tasty-looking food and lively music. Trouble was, despite the oversized advertising, some crucial bit of information was not to be found. Like the date. Or the location. Or the time. It was frustrating to us newcomers, as we would often hear or read the next day how wonderful a festa was.
Eventually, we realized that well-established festivals were always held on the same dates and in the same locations. Locals who have lived here all their lives know this and need no superfluous information. So, it was left to us to figure it out. As with other aspects of Italian culture, we eventually noticed repetitive patterns and absorbed when and where these amazing local celebrations take place. We could finally plan outings.
For we were enamored not just with festivals but with another frequent event – antiques markets (mercatini dell’antiquariato) aka flea markets. Many places have them but good luck finding out when and where. We searched online and found a calendar of such markets, listing the towns and the dates. One caught our eye, so on a Saturday, we planned a long day trip to a mountain town, Sarnano, we had visited only once before. We drove for an hour up serpentine roads, finally reaching the place. We parked and walked into the center. Typically for these events, the centers of towns are closed to vehicular traffic.
We wandered around for an hour, searching for any sign of the market. The town seemed quiet. No indication of any event going on. It was mystifying. We even consulted the website that described it as a long-standing tradition. Finally, weary of searching, we asked a woman who was sweeping the cobblestones outside her small shop. She said, “Yes. we had that market here for decades, but we haven’t had one for over five years.” So much for the currency of online information.
Now, after years of living in the region, we have internalized the various festivals and markets and other events that go by the terms festa, sagra and fiera. There are subtle differences between the three types, but we have difficulty detecting them. They all involve food and wine, and often music. This is Italy, after all. Now, we are the point of skipping some of them. One cannot party every weekend!
On a recent Sunday, we attended a festival put on by our own town, with its 1,400 people. The theme was the harvesting of chestnuts. Turns out they are edible in many different forms: raw, roasted, pureed, sweet, savory, as toppings, as fillings, creamy, or pasty.
I’ve been to these festivals in the past, but they were fairly modest. Dozens of families would sit down to enjoy a meal at long tables on a piazza, accompanied by music from a local band. In some years, there has been dancing after the meal, with teenagers doing synchronized group moves that they — I assume — must have been practicing for years.
This year the local Chamber of Commerce decided to expand the festival and invite people from the region. The entire center was closed, and various stations were set up for food, drink, and regional products, along with places to sit and eat. The event was well-advertised. Someone skilled at digital cartography made a colorful map of the festival offerings that was exhibited on Facebook in the days preceding the event.
By 12:30 p.m., the lines at food points were long, and the tables were full of people happily wolfing down big platters of polenta, topped with a sauce of mushrooms or ragu, panini with meat, and tubs of chips (aka French fries). Ascolana olives – big olives stuffed with sausage and then battered and fried – were also popular. They are a specialty of Marche, along with vino cotto, a port-like wine made at home by cooking the byproducts of commercial winemaking. The menu was topped off by an extensive array of pastries.
A small band, comprised of several horn players and a drummer worked through a repertoire of popular Italian songs. I always love hearing “Fascination,” even when it comes out of horns. As the day progressed, more musicians joined in, giving the group a larger impact, with notes reverberating off the stone walls. I kept waiting for Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani to show up and dance, as in the 1969 film The Secret of Santa Vittoria. Alas, they did not show.
No chestnut festival is complete without sweaty men raking a roasting trough. A large steel box is fired up with wood beneath it, chestnuts are dumped in, and the men push and pull them over the scalding hot metal. I must confess that I have never developed a taste for chestnuts in any form. But perhaps that’s due to years of living in New York City with sketchy street vendors hawking their product over smoky 55-gallon drums.
Watching the clutch of men skillfully tend the roasting process seemed less unseemly. Not, however, enough to persuade me. Anyway, I was there for the meal and the music, not the chestnuts.
Really enjoyed the article! One of my friends, who lives in São Paulo, Brazil, is the product of Portuguese and Italian parents. He has many interesting observations about the cultural differences. His consistent comment about his Italian family…”Oh! The Italians! The Italians, they feed you to death!”
Wonderful story Mark. It brought back a fond memory of stumbling into a giant gelato festival at the Costello Sforzesco in Milan. It was gelato heaven!