Ferragosto: the Taste of Summer

Wed, 08/14/2013 - 07:00
For most people outside of Italy, the 15th of August probably doesn’t mean anything in particular. For most Italians, however, this is the day when we celebrate summer at its most glorious time, a day when families get together for countryside walks and relaxing picnics. I remember spending my Ferragosto eating refreshing slices of watermelon during the day and watching fireworks by the sea at night. watermelon slicesFerragosto (feriae Augusti) goes back to Roman times when the Goddess Diana and the God Vortumno were celebrated for fruitful crops and abundant harvest. Celebrations were much longer than just a day and used to start on 26 July and ended on 15 September. During that time festivals, feasts and parades animated the entire country and kept people awake for days. Still today it is easy to bump into some local festivities which often involve the enthusiasm of the entire village and the general merriment. The Palio di Siena, the annual rowing competition at Porto Santo Stefano or the Palio dell’ Argentario are just a few of the typical mid-August celebrations. And of course we all know that, where there are celebrations, there is food. And Italians always find a good excuse to eat. So it is for Ferragosto! Being a celebration of summer and an auspice to good crops and nature, the typical dishes that are traditionally eaten at Ferragosto involve wheat or spelt, fresh fruit, and roasts. Some of these dishes might not even seem particularly summery being quite saucy and heavy and I, too, for example, was surprised to discover that roast pigeon is the mid-August dish par excellence - “A Ferragosto si mangiano i piccioni arrosto” says a popular proverb. Italian cookies When I was not spending my holidays by the sea I would be staying on the Tuscan Appennino where every bakery would offer zuccherini montanari, small soft doughnuts flavoured with aniseed. I learnt to make them with my paternal grandmother and the secret for soft dough is to add olive oil, rather than only butter, as well as a generous dose of aniseed. Once the dough has risen, small ring-shaped biscuits are created and then cooked in the oven; the final touch is an aniseed flavoured icing. So this year, even if I know that I will spend my August Ferragosto in Cambridge, I won’t give up the celebrations. Armed with my zuccherini in one hand and a leg of roasted pigeon in the other (and perhaps a juicy slice of watermelon too), I will be in my garden relaxing and toasting to all the good things that summer brings – even the English one! Riviera fireworks