Tag Archives: food festivals

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.


Fricandò all’Ivrea: Ugly Never Tasted So Good

ugly but good

well hello, gorgeous!

Stews are not, as a rule, photogenic. This recipe from Carol Field’s Celebrating Italy* for fricandò all’Ivrea, however, is too good to hide away in a corner. So look away if you must, but believe me this ‘meat stew in the style of Ivrea,’ a town in Piedmont close to the border with Valle d’Aosta, will win you over by the bite.

There’s a neat back-story to fricandò. Field reminds us of the French-Italian interplay coloring so many things piemontese, referencing two legends on the dish’s origins. According to the first, fricandò was introduced to the French by Caterina de’ Medici. Personally, I find Cate Medici’s purported influence on French culinary concerns to be a touch exaggerated, yet I will concede it is certainly possible. A competing theory has Napoleon’s cook bringing the recipe from France to his post-wars restaurant in Milan—a tale that intrigues to be sure but seems just as difficult to corroborate (Google was no help at all). Whomever we credit, the linguistic likeness of the Italian fricandò and the French fricandeau (veal larded in prosciutto or other pork fat then roasted and glazed in its juices) would suggest we’re dealing with a braise-and-stew cooking method that has long possessed broad appeal to Northern Italians and French alike.

Field’s recipe is reprinted here almost word for word. I reduced the overall portions by about a third, but did not alter the called-for amounts of the cooking fats, vinegar, and tomato paste, as I was striving for a smaller overall portion of stew without changing too much the characteristics of the sauce. This was a bit of a risk, I admit, but it worked out well. If you are cooking for 3 to 4 people rather than 6, follow my parenthetical notes on amounts. Do keep in mind though that Field’s comment ‘this dish tastes even better the next day’ is absolutely true.  If you end up with leftovers you won’t regret it, so if you want to make a really big pot of stew, follow Field’s indications for 6 people.

Ingredients for 6 people

2 ½ Tbls (about 40 grams) butter
3 carrots, finely chopped (I used 2)
2 onions, finely chopped (I used 1)
2 celery stalks, finely chopped (I used 1)
4 Tbls olive oil
3 mild Italian sausages (I used 2)
3 pounds (a little less than 1 ½  kilograms) baby-back ribs, cut into 2-rib sections (I used about 2 pounds of ribs)
6 cloves (I used 4)
2 bay leaves
2 ½  Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls tomato paste
salt & pepper
4 potatoes, peeled and cut into chunks (I used 3)


Melt the butter in a large, heavy pot and add the chopped carrot, onion and celery. Sauté until soft and transfer to a plate or bowl. Line the bottom of the pot with the olive oil and add the ribs and the sausages (prick them a few times first) and brown on all sides. Here Fields says to now drain off the fat, an indication I chose to ignore and would encourage you to do likewise. Add the cloves, bay leaves, and vinegar and turn the heat up high and let the liquid bubble until it evaporates. In the meantime dissolve the tomato paste in 1 ¾ cups water (I used 1 ¼) and add to the pot when the vinegar has mostly evaporated. Return the vegetables to the pot, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook over medium-low flame for 1 ½ to 2 hours. Turn the meat occasionally. If it gets dry add a bit of water. Add the potatoes and cook for another 30 minutes, turning them frequently so they absorb flavor.

For my version the total cooking time was 2 hours: 1 ½ hours for the meat then an additional 30 minutes after adding the potato.

culture bites

Fricassee, a similar dish typically made with chicken and a white sauce, and fricandò/fricandeau have a common word root in the French frire, to fry. Fricassee comes from frire + casser, to break or cut up (in pieces); while fricandeau derives from the formation frire + casserande/viande (meat) + the suffix eau. The English/French word fracas and the Italian fracasso, synonymous with skirmish/skuffle/uproar/crash, derive half their root from their respective language’s same-meaning verb—again casser in French, and fracassare in Italian, from the Latin quasser. Fricasso ‘the little skirmisher’ is one of many aliases of the ‘Capitano’ stock character in commedia dell’arte.

If Ivrea sounds familiar it’s probably because you’ve seen footage or heard mention of the yearly Battle of the Oranges, a bizarre and savage old festival the town puts on every Carnevale season.

*The complete title of Field’s book is Celebrating Italy: The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods 

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!)