23rd June 2008
It’s 5.45 on the morning after the longest day of the year. It’s warm but the sky still has the soft pale blue, almost white, look of dawn. The sun, low and hazy, has yet to stoke and build up her heat. The brick steps are still cool and there is freshness in the shadows. We are up, the whole family and, with barely a tussle, have managed to assemble - bleary and blinking - by the car.
We drive through the sleepy, breezeless countryside past putty coloured olive groves and inky cypress trees standing still, silent and spellbound as the Sunday morning bells ring in the day. Soon we arrive at Citta della Pieve keen and hungry. Here the streets are being carpeted with flowers and it is this that we have come to see, the Festa dei Fiori in honour of S.Luigi Gonzaga, protector of the Casalino Terziere.
These beautiful decorations are made once a year on the nearest Sunday to the Summer solstice. The festival’s origins are lost in the mists of time but some say it marks the solemn procession of Spring. Many of the designs are traditional, taking their inspiration from the Renaissance and the local master Perugino, but every year new designs are added in rich and subtle colours.
Flowers and scented herbs are grown in the surrounding countryside specially for this extravaganza and for 3 months prior to the day locals collect and dry the blooms and seed heads in preparation. No money changes hands, it is simply the Italian way.
We wanted to be in Citta della Pieve early in the day to see the work in progress, volunteers have been up through the night creating these vibrant scenes. Ordinary people, nonnas and nonnos with their grandchildren, the man from the bar and another, the big gruff man who sells tickets for the Perugino and hides his broken smile. Today he walks up and down spraying the flowers with sugar water which will harden and set the blooms.
There is an atmosphere of hushed business and an up-beat vibe. The whole place glows in the intensifying sunshine, the vivid colour of the petals radiant against the old stone and red brick of the town.
This wonderful show of dedication and artistry is made all the more fascinating by it’s fleeting nature, later this evening a procession of townspeople will walk over the flowers to the main piazza scattering the blooms to the gutter in their wake.
As we walk between the images taking photos, laughing with our girls, chatting with the old guys, restraining the dog and stopping for cappuccio and cornettos, I have to admit it was well worth the wake up call.
The best thing I ate:
Risotto with roast fennel and peperoncino a casa
Yes it’s hot, but sometimes only risotto will do. There is something so therapeutic about the making and eating of risotto, the ritual of adding the stock and stirring, watching while the little translucent grains grow plump and creamy. Followed by the soothing balm of eating a bowl full of bliss.
A good risotto can calm a frazzled spirit, comfort a fragile soul and even cure a hangover! But for this magic to work it has to be made well and that means practice.
The rice should still retain a slight ‘nutty’ bite and the consistency be an unctuous oozing mass, not too soupy, not too stiff.
Find a good recipe for risotto bianco and get practising, I suggest ‘The best of Anna Del Conte’. It is this book that gave me a great tip for preparing risotto in quantity without having to stand and stir, red in the face, while others are knocking back the aperitivo. ‘Jamie’s Italy’ also has a good variation. Once you’ve got the knack there is no limit to the good things you can add to your risotto.
With a nod to Jamie (and for a big gutsy flavour) I stirred in soft caramelised roasted fennel and boosted it with crushed fennel seeds, lemon zest and the subtle hint of peperoncino and, what do you know, even marito’s hangover was cured!
Where to get it:
Make it yourself.