The Summer Madness of Ferragosto Day & Week (or two)
This last Thursday, 15 August, was officially the happy National Italian Public Holiday day called Ferragosto. There are so many national holidays, regional Piemonte holidays and Saints Days here in Italy, it’s hard to keep up. Because all my work is with Irish and UK client’s, I don’t get to partake in these holidays much, in fact this year’s Ferragosto was my busiest day of the year.
But it really is more than a single day off work for many Italians. They tend to have their annual Summer holiday this week and some take 2 weeks. So, the excited anticipation of it builds with every transaction in the shops leading up to it. Shop owners talk feverishly of their holiday plans and warn local customers to stock up on meat, vegetables and other staples, as they will be closed for a week and sometimes two, over this period. And that’s why I am writing this article not out of love for this happy holiday but to warn you, if you are prospective tourists, to think twice about your holiday timings, or else to manage your expectations, because you will find many rural towns shut up and even cities. I know you probably check for public holidays in Italy before deciding on your holiday dates, and you would be forgiven for thinking this was just one day’s holiday. But be warned! :)
I was in Turin twice this week for routine hospital appointments. We approached Turin on Monday, expecting the usual log jams from ongoing roadworks at 9 am, we were met instead - with nothing. Barely a car on the road. It was so eerily quiet. The usual bustling hospital was almost empty. The normally busy consultant was able to schedule routine treatment for Friday, as he had hardly any patients to see, because they were all away. How was that for lucky timing!
After the hospital appointment on Monday, we went into Turin's trendy eatery district of 'San Salvario', hoping to have lunch in our favourite restaurant and we were met with shuttered windows everywhere, as most restaurants were shut. And this the Monday, three days before Ferragosto! So, after eventually having lunch, in the only open restaurant in two blocks, we went on to do a shop in our 'go to' food shop, Naturasi, which is a mid sized chain of organic food stores. We checked on Google to make sure it was open. Sure enough they said they were open, but alas no. When we arrived to more closed shutters, there was a tiny note stuck to the door announcing, 'We are closed for Ferragosto and reopen on Monday'.
You see, in Italy, so many small businesses are family run affairs, apart from the large supermarket chains and corporations. They take this public holiday day, en-masse, as an opportunity to have an extended summer holiday. Closing down their businesses right in the middle of tourist season! They all head to the beach in Liguria, or some to their homes in the hills, to switch off during the hot weather and put their feet up. Logically, why wouldn’t you do that? But economically it doesn’t make sense for a city like Turin to not have eateries, in their trendiest food district, open. That is a problem. How is Turin going to attract tourists in the summer months, which they apparently are trying to do, if people return from their holidays complaining of there being nowhere to eat, or it lacking vibrancy, all because they have timed their vacation accidentally to coincide with Ferragosto week?
Even the petrol stations were unattended. Fortunately, they still have the automated pumps working, but that system is a head-wreck for any new tourists to Italy to work out how to use on their own.
We even got caught out by our local Generali Group Insurance broker. Last week, we had gone in to get a quote on Tuesday, and I were told the shop would be closed for Ferragosto from Thursday (this is the prior Thursday,not the public holiday) through the next 2 weeks but we could return on Wednesday to pay, after looking over the paperwork. This is normally a busy office! We returned on the Wednesday afternoon, ready to pay the insurance, only to find he had shut up in the morning and another little note stuck to the shutter confirmed he would return in two weeks, after Ferragosto!
Even our lovely Italian teacher had to reschedule our usual Wednesday lesson, as she would be working flat out in her family butchers shop to meet the needs of their customers, who panic if they can't buy meat for one day, because they would be closed for the public holiday. It reminds me of queuing in the butcher we first went to at Christmas time. You could possibly be standing in queue for a good 30 minutes to buy meat!
So, I am saying, sadly, it is best not to come to this part of Italy in future years on Ferragosto week or the following week on holiday. Unless you are self-catering and don’t want to eat out or shop in boutiques, or visit family run businesses and instead just want to shop in boring supermarkets, and that really isn’t having an Italian experience! You will thank me for this tip, and instead come other weeks, when you will take home beautiful memories of lovely meals out, cool little boutique shops, smiling petrol attendants, and all the wonderful people and energy that Piemonte has to offer.
Bizarrely, if you do want to risk a trip here in these weeks in future years, and you come to relax and sleep, or hang by the pool all day, there are lots of Festas and events on at night. These are organised by the local Communities, aimed at the locals who remain, the self-catering holiday makers and the few brave tourists who happen to land here for their summer holiday, see these websites and facebook for some of the local Alta Langhe festivals and events in Turin.
i am off to the 65th Cortemilia Hazelnut Festival tonight and tomorrow. Normally, about 5000 visitors head there for the street festival on Saturday night (17th August). If you are going to be there, let me know.
Happy Ferragosto week (or two)!
Recently, we had some Irish friends visit us. It was the first time they had visited the Langhe in Piemonte. We took them off to a local Festa, and they were blown away. Not by the music, which was ear drum breaking. Not by the location, which was on a hill-top with beautiful views all around. Not by the wonderfully entertaining dancers, who took over the cobbled make-shift dance floor with gusto. No, none of these things impressed them as much as the relish and patience shown by the locals queuing for food. Not drink but food - at 9pm at night! In fact, the free wine generously laid out on tables by a local winery was largely overlooked in favour of devouring the food.
I had to explain this cultural phenomenon as best I could. You see Italians in the countryside, barely go anywhere on a night out without the promise of food. It’s similar at Aperitivo time when all the small village bars offer free tasty morsels with the Aperol Spritz or other alcoholic beverage. When you go to the cities forget about free treats with your Aperitivo, you’ll be lucky if you get grissini! This is a countryside ritual that all who come here for the first time can’t believe.
This is why Andrew, or Andrea, his new Italian name, fondly christened by the locals, is particularly suited to life in Italy. He can’t go anywhere without thinking of having a coffee and snack within 10 minutes of arrival. Me? I could go all day without eating, if I wasn’t reminded by his growling tummy.
But back to the Italian's passion for food. We often eat with our lovely Piemontese neighbours, who come from all walks of life. But sit them down at a table and our idea of Western manners go out the window. There is no waiting until everyone has been served or has helped themselves to food from heaving platters. Italians don’t wait, they dive straight in! And because alcohol is secondary to food, they barely toast either. But as most of our female friends don’t even drink alcohol, they don’t see it as so important. This took some getting used to. It felt rude to start eating when others hadn’t been served. It was only due to our fellow diner’s encouragement with the endearing word ‘mangiare’, the Italian word for ‘eat up’, that we bravely ate before everyone was ready.
It’s said that Italians think about food and talk about food more than any other subject. And I can well believe it. Everything is timed according to when they eat. Lunch time has a break so long that they can go home, cook a meal and rest after eating. So revered is lunchtime that no work is done sometimes for 2 hours. Of course, that doesn’t apply so much in the big cities, but they mostly still take a full hour for lunch. Compared to London and Dublin, this is to be applauded for sure.
The only thing is they are not brave eaters in the countryside. We had friends over from Sydney a couple of years ago and we had a welcome dinner with all the neighbours. Some of these neighbours had been serious international corporate players before retirement. But my friend was astonished that the dish she suggested we make for lunch was not recognised by them. It was their first time trying it. The dish was Spaghetti Puttanesca, the world-famous Neapolitan dish. And guess what happened when I tried to serve innocent mint sauce to our neighbour with his lamb one Easter? He was horrified that we would want to taint the taste of the lamb with mint! He wouldn’t be convinced to even try it.
They are so proud of their Piemontese cuisine you can barely get anything else in the Ristorantes and Trattorias. You might spot a rare sighting of Lasagne al Forno if you are very fortunate. The only dish to make it this far North in great numbers is the pizza! But that hasn’t been here for long.
In the Piemonte city of Turin you can get all types of cuisine, but the most prized is Piemontese, and second is Sushi! How this came about is a bit of a mystery, but then it mostly has a base of rice, well this is risotto land and raw fish is similar to carpaccio, so it isn’t as brave as it first appears.
But, like all things in Italy, there is a weird idiosyncrasy to all this eating, they don’t really eat breakfast. This can be very hard on overseas visitors, as they face first thing in the morning a buffet of cakes and croissants (called a brioche in the courtryside) filled with oozing apricot jam. If Italians eat breakfast it tends to be sweet things so that they can burn the calories off. Even Tiramisu was traditionally eaten only in the morning. That’s why in Piemonte they are mostly whippet thin. They tend to have a break before 11am and have a café or cappuccino, and at a push a brioche, though mostly at weekends. This is a little like the on trend fasting diet of leaving a break of 16-18 hours from dinner until the first meal of the day, well I wonder where they got that idea from???
Ahh Italy - I just love it all!
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