Autumn in central Italy is sagra season. These are local food festivals and with so many typical products coming into season in September and October—grapes, mushrooms, olives, and truffles to name but a few—there’s a choice of sagra to attend every weekend. The two last weekends of October are the time of for the small Tuscan village of Caprese to have its chestnut sagra: the Festa del Marrone di Caprese.
The small village of Caprese, which goes right back to Etruscan times, is perched on a hill overlooking the Upper Tiber Valley. It is a quiet village with a population of about 1,300 people located where Tuscany meets Emilia-Romagna, le Marche, and Umbria. The one major event that happened there, took place on 6 March 1475, when Francesca di Neri del Miniato del Sera, wife of Ludovico di Leonardo Buonarroti Simoni gave birth to a son. They named him Michelangelo and the rest is history.
Michelangelo in Caprese
Ludovico was the local visiting magistrate or podestà and before long he returned to Florence. According to Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, the young Michelangelo was left in Caprese in the charge of a family of stone cutters and stayed there for his first few years. Presumably this experience influenced him in his decision to become a sculptor as well as a painter. Certainly, one can recognize the local landscape in many of his later paintings.
In the early 20th Century the village decided to add the name of its most famous son as an official surname, becoming officially known as Caprese Michelangelo. His birthplace is now a museum with copies of some of his most famous works. Some of you may know that Caprese has a special place in my heart since I have a house there which I bought and restored (alla Frances Mayes in Under the Tuscan Sun) about ten years ago.
Marrone di Caprese Michelangelo DOP
Caprese has always been famous locally for high quality chestnuts that grow in huge quantities on the surrounding hills. The local houses have ceilings made of chestnut beams and terracotta tiles all from the local area. In 2010 the village achieved protected status for their product which became the Marrone di Caprese Michelangelo DOP.
The Festa del Marrone di Caprese
The chestnut festival itself is a typical Tuscan sagra. It consists of stalls in the streets of the historic centre selling fresh chestnuts, and other local products, such as cheese, honey, mushrooms, and truffles. There are also tents where you can have lunch, feasting on ciacce fritte or panini with porchetta (herb-roasted pork: try my recipe here), or pasta with porcini and truffles and so on.
No Tuscan sagra is complete without brigidini. These are aniseed flavoured biscuits invented in the 16th Century by the nuns of the convent of Saint Bridget in Lamporecchio, near Pistoia. They are found at any festa or sagra in Tuscany and are completely moreish. Nowadays they also come in chocolate flavour but the classic ones are my favourites.
The Church of San Giovanni Battista
Caprese has several small churches, one of which is where Michelangelo was christened. (The records are still in the town archives). It’s normally closed since Caprese has a larger, modern church which is now used, but it’s opened every year for the Festa del Marrone.
If you’re in the area, the Festa del Marrone di Caprese runs again next weekend (27 and 28 October 2018). Or why not plan a holiday to Caprese next year, staying in a local rental property, such as this one, owned by friends of mine, which is in a converted chestnut barn. The owner, Catherine Carabine has even written a couple of books about her experiences moving to Tuscany (including a scene in which she has dinner at my house!)
Do you have a favourite sagra? Have you ever been to Caprese Michelangelo? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.