Tag Archives: Ash Wednesday

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.


Purgatory Beans of Gradoli: An Ash Wednesday Tradition Since 1600

state of grace

state of grace

Every Ash Wednesday in the town of Gradoli a peculiarly-named event takes place. The Pranzo del Purgatorio or ‘Purgatory Lunch’ is a communal meal organized by the Confraternità del Purgatorio, whose members go about town collecting ‘fat’ donations like prosciutto and other salumi from locals, items that are then auctioned in the town piazza to fund the lunch. The humble, centuries-old menu consists of fish from nearby Lake Bolsena, olive oil and wine produced in the area, and a special variety of stewed white beans. These beans, in fact, have for so long been associated with Gradoli and the brotherhood that they’ve come to be known simply as Fagioli del Purgatorio—purgatory beans.

There’s one way to cook the small, soft-skinned, no-soak purgatory bean (300+ years of tradition will cement tastes, I guess). The recipe, like the Gradoli lunch event itself, is meant to be what Italians call magro, meaning lean, as it is the first meal of the Lenten season. So, when making my own batch of purgatory beans, I did my best to get in the spirit of the thing by beating back a decadent urge to toss a few chunks of pancetta into my soffritto. Instead, I followed the recipe I found repeatedly on the web. The quantities below are for a very large pot of beans.


500 grams of dried fagioli del purgatorio
3 large garlic cloves
4 fresh sage leaves
2 bay leaves
½ a white onion
3 Tbls olive oil plus more for drizzling
salt & pepper
water (or….see below)


Peel and dice the onion and garlic.  Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large pot. Cook the onion and garlic until soft then add the sage and cook for another minute. Add the dry beans and enough water to cover them plus about 1.5 inches. Now add the bay leaves, stir well and cover the pot. Cook for 60 to 90 minutes, checking them regularly. They are ready when the consistency is to your liking. When the heat is off, add a level tablespoon of salt and stir thoroughly. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil and fresh ground pepper.

(Incidentally, I used some savory leftover chicken broth for about half of the cooking liquid. Don’t tell!)