Mare o montagna, (mountains or seaside)? This is typically what Italians ponder when trying to decide where to have the annual scampagnata celebrating one of their most dearly held festivals, Ferragosto. While I have been fortunate to take part in the mid-August festivities in Italy, it is also a time honored tradition for me here at home thanks to my father.
Ferragosto, the ides of August in essence, a mid-summer celebration that dates back to the Roman Empire, when Emperor Augustus declared that the entire month of August would be dedicated to the Feriae Augusti (Festivals of Augustus). It was a time to relax after the hard work of the harvest, where the gods of agriculture and the change of seasons were feted and marked by collective rites, eating, drinking and sexual excesses. The festival evolved from being a month-long event, to one being celebrated in the second half of August and later became a one-day celebration. With the advent of Christianity, the date turned into one of the most important Catholic holidays, Assumption Day, the day that the Virgin Mary was Assunta in Cielo. Whether Christian or Pagan, it is one of Italy’s most cherished holidays and it is always monumentalized by gathering friends and family and creating huge tables of food to be shared on the beach, in the mountains or at home.
Typical Ferragosto food revolves around fresh vegetables, cold fruit, cold salads and cold pastas in an effort to combat the heat of a mid-August day. The coals are also fired up for grigliate of steaks, seafood, sausage and porchetta. The pranzo di Ferragosto (also the title of a famous Italian film) is an astounding array of tempting picnic dishes that equal one incredibly memorable meal. Of course no mid-August lunch would be complete without the cocomerata, the consumption of the cocomero (Roman dialect for watermelon). It is a holiday staple all over the peninsula, where it often sold at roadside stalls as well as street festivals. Watermelon is considered a refreshing cleanser after the meal, in many senses as it dribbles everywhere. The Romans in fact have a saying, “mangi, bevi e te lavi ‘a faccia”, translation, with watermelon, you eat, drink and wash your face all at once.
A day of relaxation, fun, sun and food, how could this be anything but the perfect holiday and one that I cherish. I still look back on the last one I celebrated in Italy quite fondly. A scenic drive along the highway to our picnic destination, surrounded by greenery, in the mountains of Calabria. My father and uncle first making a pit stop at the local butcher shop to purchase crapettu (goat) for our grigliata that would be enjoyed alongside the rest of our bountiful buffet. Nonna’s homemade bread with local cheese, soppressata, olives, tomato and cucumber salad, lasagne, melangiani chini, and piteyi just to name some. And all in the company of my incredibly large family, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents. Even though it was years ago, it is still a vivid memory.
So beloved is this day in fact, that we honor it here at home in Canada, thanks to my father. For as long as I can remember, he has always made a point of gathering the family to enjoy menz’agustu (in our Calabrese dialect). Each year he prepares an elaborate barbecue and always goes out to purchase a special Italian dessert to cap off our feast. I have now carried on this tradition and am always present for Ferragosto with my family and lovingly engage in the food preparation alongside my dad. While it is not a holiday observed on the North American calendar it is one that is preserved in my heart. Buon Ferragosto and Buon Appetito!