La Polentata delle Ceneri

Enrico Pazzagli, 'Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, early 1800s'

Detail of Enrico Pazzagli’s ‘Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, Early 1800s’ **

Polentata’ is probably best translated as polenta festival or fair, and many towns around Italy today are hosting some sort of polenta-centered event. Why today? Polenta has long been associated with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period on account of its ‘lean’ quality—it’s a peasant dish, if you will, part of the cucina povera. If you make polenta the way I do—usually not without a dollop of cream or butter, maybe cheese, and typically alongside a nice roast meat of some kind and shameful amounts of gravy—you might find this hard to swallow. In any case, symbolically if not in practice in all of our kitchens, a serving of polenta on Ash Wednesday marks the close of the ‘fat days’ and the onset of Lenten customs such as fasting, penance, atonement.

Here in Borgo San Lorenzo, locals have been organizing a polentata on Ash Wednesday every year since 1800. It’s one of the longest-running folk events in the Mugello, with a celebrated backstory that’s hard not to get a little enthusiastic about.  In 1799, following the French invasion of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a battle to push out French troops took place in the streets of Borgo (much of the Mugello and Casentino areas were influenced at that time by the resistance movement Viva Maria, centered in Arezzo, where resistance fighters took back their city after Napoleon invaded). After the ‘furious battle in the streets around the Borgo San Lorenzo castle’ had ended, and the dead had been buried, local housewives and peasant women set about cooking huge potfuls of polenta to feed the stricken survivors.

The following year the polentata took place on Ash Wednesday, becoming known as ‘la polentata delle ceneri’ (cenere = ash), and has been held every year since in the town’s Piazza Garibaldi. According to Aldo Giovannini, a local writer and journalist who has published numerous books on the Mugello and possesses an archive of over 90,000 images of our territory, the polentata was kept a simple affair, free of the concerns of social class—a testament to la libertà.

** The watercolor is by Enrico Pazzagli, a local artist who creates  beautiful works of Mugello landscapes, scenes, towns, and more.