When the locals learned that we were moving to Pieve di Compresseto, a little village in the heart of Italy, they often remarked: “Oh, the Pievesi are famous for their gnocchi festival. They’re known for being a tightly-knit community that likes to be together.”
It wasn’t long before I learned firsthand that this was true. Less than two months after my husband and I moved into town, I found myself surrounded by the villagers in a busy kitchen. Together we were preparing gnocchi for the three-day Sagra dello Gnocco (Gnocchi Festival), hosted by the villagers the first weekend in August since 1983.
However, the Gnocchi Festival isn’t the only food gala this village of 93 inhabitants (one-third who are 70+ years old) celebrates every year. All summer long, young and old meet as a community to celebrate marriages, first Holy Communions, wedding anniversaries, and the patron saint Beato Marzio. You can be sure wherever Italians are celebrating, there’s bound to be lots of delicious food. Here are four of my favorite summer food festivals in the village I now call home.
1. The Gnocchi Festival
Every night of the Gnocchi Festival, approximately 1,000 people ascend the hilltop village for dinner. Just imagine how many gnocchi that means! The village women would not be caught dead opening plastic bags of pre-packaged dumplings or jars of factory-made sauce. No. Never! Every gnocchi must be made fresh every day by hand.
At first, I thought I might be relegated to peeling hot potatoes — six tons of spuds are needed for the entire weekend of gnocchi-making. Instead, on Friday morning, I was ushered to a huge table around which more than a dozen women stood rolling long ropes of dough and chatting away. Well, I say “chatting” but it was animated shouting punctuated with peals of laughter.
Despite my never having made homemade gnocchi before, the women soon baptized me with flour, warm potato dough, and the click-click-click of the pastry cutter.
Everyone’s part during the festival is predetermined, and I quickly learned that there is a strong kitchen hierarchy. I had been warned not to even offer my meager services to the women in charge of the sugo (tomato sauce). These echelon cooks take their posts and secret ingredients seriously.
When I did dare to venture into the kitchen to snap a few photos, I met the most experienced of the workers. Clara, the oldest member of the kitchen staff (age 87), was deboning roasted fowl. “What’s that?” I asked. “They’re geese,” she replied, then quickly fired back with a smile, “Well, they were geese.”
Often, three generations are working side-by-side. Don Stefano, the village priest, also joins in to peel potatoes, and the younger children gather the finished gnocchi onto trays to be carried to the kitchen. There, the dumplings are precooked in boiling water, doused with olive oil, and refrigerated for the final cooking later that evening.
After our work is finished, it’s time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. We all sit down to eat lunch, and this is always the best time for me. Everyone is satisfied with a job well done, happy to be together, and playful in word and deed. Not to mention the delicious plate of fresh homemade gnocchi!
When the evening comes, we are all back in the kitchen ready to feed the hungry crowd, earn some money for village projects, and, most importantly, be and work together. Oh! We also dance. A different band comes every night to entertain the visitors and while the crowd circles the dance floor, we also sometimes find ourselves whirling around the kitchen.
2. Pieve In Vino
This festival, which takes place in July, celebrates regional wine and food and is accompanied by jazz music and a beautiful sunset view. Tables are arranged outside on the church grounds where there is also a small park for the children to play. Your entrance fee comes with a wine glass, a small cloth bag (to carry it around and store it at home), and several wine tickets. Three sommeliers are ready to fill your glass with all kinds of wines, from an aperitivo to a final amaro. Meanwhile, you are welcome to wander around the long banquet tables and indulge in all kinds of tasty treats including local cheeses, salamis, pasta, and dessert.
My job has always been to serve fried vegetables. Three experienced village women stand over boiling vats of hot oil, dip the zucchini, sage leaves, zucchini flowers, and onion rings in a special (secret) batter, and then fry them with great care. I run between their finished product and the wine tasters who are standing in line for the freshly fried delicacies. Everyone always returns for a second plateful.
3. Celebration Of The Local Saint Beato Marzio
Beato Marzio is celebrated by the village every July. Born in Pieve di Compresseto in 1210, he was a mason and would give his extra earnings to the poor as well as visit prisoners and the sick. In 1235, his life radically changed after meeting Saint Francis of Assisi, and at the age of 31, he became a hermit. For 60 years he lived alongside other companions, leading a life of prayer in a nearby cave. He died at the age of 91 and is considered “Blessed,” which means that he is believed to be in heaven and able to perform miracles. Naturally, the town celebrates this holy man with a mass, and there is an anointing of oil afterward for those who wish to be healed.
However, let’s not forget the food! The afternoon ends with everyone eating porchetta sandwiches together and drinking local farmer’s wine.
Now, I have to admit that while the villagers are crazy about porchetta sandwiches, I find them too fatty and simply not to my taste. But that didn’t stop me from helping prepare them beforehand along with a small group of village women. However, I was quickly disciplined by my friend Filipa when she saw me prejudicially setting aside the grizzle. “That’s the best part!” she exclaimed. “Put that back in!”
One of the last and nicest summer festivals in the village is held at the end of August. Not open to the public, the Abbuffata is only for current and former residents and their guests. One gigantic long table is set up on the main road in front of the church, and the meal goes on until midnight. This August, the menu was: Toasted bread with toppings such as arugula pesto, cherry tomatoes, olives, mozzarella, rolled omelet with prosciutto, various cured types of meats, local cheeses, pasta alla vodka, barbequed meat kebabs, grilled vegetables, profiteroles, and watermelon. Not to mention all the wine you could drink!
Abbuffata translates into English as “eating plentiful to excess, especially with company,” and this is exactly what happens every year. As the dinner table winds up along the main village street, more than 100 people settle down to enjoy the summer evening with food, drink, and fun companionship.
Cooking, eating, talking, joking, and praying. That’s village life in the heart of Italy, and I thank all my fellow Pievesi for welcoming me into their lives, kitchen, and hearts.
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