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.
It’s black summer truffle season here in the Tuscan Valtiberina and these alternative fruits of the forest are everywhere. Less pungent than in some other areas of Italy they are often served grated over pasta or grilled meat in abundance. There’s one restaurant in the village where the set menu looks like its own truffle festival with the antipasti, primi, and secondi all featuring this local treasure. I’ve yet to discover a dessert using black truffle—chocolate truffle is, of course, something quite different—but watch this space.
Legend has it that two gods once competed for the patronage of an Ancient greek city, and the people decided to choose based on what gifts the gods would offer them. The sea god, Poseidon, offered them the gift of water, essential for life. The goddess Athena offered them the gift of a single olive tree. The people chose this second gift, and to this day the city has born the name of Athens.
This story shows the value that Ancient Europeans placed on the olive tree and its fruit, one of the oldest of European crops. Its utility, and versatility, has proved such that not only does it remain a staple of all mediterranean diets, but the plant itself represents prosperity and its prerequisite: peace.
Christmas comes but once a year, but it’s a little known fact that in Italy, children get two bites at the panforte. Another festival, with huge similarities to the festivities on the 25th December, occurs just twelve days later. On the night of the 5th January, Italian children hang up their stockings at the end of the bed and go to sleep having been warned not to open their eyes if they should hear noises in the middle of the night.
When they awake in the morning, they will find their stocking filled with chocolates, sweets, and often presents, if they’ve been good. If they’ve been bad they will find lumps of coal. But it’s not that Santa Claus is so busy with the kids in other countries that he takes twelve days to get to Italy. This time the gifts are bought by a peculiarly Italian character, an old, old lady known as la befana.
The magic of Florence is legendary. The city, with its red-tiled roofs fills the wide valley of the river Arno, straddled by the ponte vecchio, literally paved with gold shops. The enormous cupola of the duomo, also red-tiled, has given Florence one of the most recognized skylines in the world, to rival, Paris, London, New York, but it’s a renaissance skyline—how precious.
Most tourists regard Florence as a hot city, where the art-filled arcade of the Piazza della Signoria provides welcome shade for the consumption of gelato, and where the breezes skipping up the river Arno from the sea offer respite from the ninety-degree heat.
In the winter, however, Florence is a cold city, and at this time, with fewer tourists, and much shorter queues at the Uffizi gallery, it can be a Christmas treat in itself.