We were fortunate to be able to celebrate this holiday
with our relatives in Italy a few years ago. It started
with a church service and continued all day. After feasting
on what seemed like a never-ending amount of food,
we spent the evening walking around, greeting other
villagers and watching fireworks in the town square,
celebrating with music and, of course, more wine. But the
evening ended with a small glass of my cousin Andrea’s homemade
VinSanto (for which he has won many prizes) and I am
grateful to own a bottle of this glorious liqueur.
Ferragosto, the 15th of August is one of Italy’s most cherished holidays. Everything closes on this holiday and families get together and celebrate. Here in the States Catholics know this day as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary and celebrate by going to Mass. But Italians who hold on to traditions will likely gather together and celebrate with a family meal. It can be as simple as Antipasto followed by grilled vegetables and Spiedies (marinated small cuts of meat that are grilled) or much more extravagant choices even on what will surely be a very hot day as some families will also include Lasagna and a myriad of fancy desserts. Growing up in New York or on the farm in New Jersey at my maternal grandmother’s pensione, we celebrated with all of those foods. Now our family has adopted a more simple meal (since it will most likely be a work day for us) that we tried several years ago. It seems to incorporate all of the customary traditional favorites we grew up with.
Pasta with Sausage and Peppers
3 Tbs. Olive Oil
3 Garlic Cloves – minced
1 Medium Onion – chopped
½ Cup Red Wine (use a wine that you would enjoy drinking)
1 28oz Can San Marzano Tomatoes
1 Cup Roasted Sweet Peppers, red, or yellow – cut into strips
4-5 Links Italian Sweet Sausage – sliced on the diagonal
6 Tbs Fresh Basil – finely chopped
Salt and Freshly Ground Black Pepper
1 Lb Rigatoni
Freshly Grated Cheese – your choice
In a large pan over medium heat, heat the olive oil and then add the garlic and sauté for a few minutes until soft and fragrant. Add the onions and continue cooking until they become soft and translucent.
Add the wine and cook simmer until you can no longer smell the alcohol. Next add the tomatoes, peppers, sausage, and basil. Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper as necessary. A little pepperoncino is also a good thing to add if you like a little spice.
Cook for about 20-30 minutes on a lower heat.
When that is almost ready to serve bring a large pot of water to boil, add salt and pasta and cook al dente’. Drain and then add to the large pan with the peppers and sausage turning to coat. At the table, pass a little extra virgin olive oil and the grated cheese.
A good red wine and Cannoli or Italian Rum Cake for dessert and it’s a Feast. Of course, we will all enjoy a small glass of my cousin Andrea’s homemade VinSanto.
A Little Story about Chiesa di Triano
Montefollonico, the little hamlet where my Father and Grandparents were born sits in resplendent isolation majestically on top of a hill between Val d’Orcia and the Val di Chiana valleys, southeast of Siena, Italy. The views are verdant, sweeping and grand. The people are very proud of their heritage and traditions. Their dialect is Sienese. I am extremely fortunate that I still have family living in that little town that I communicate with regularly and visit whenever we get to Italy.
For a village that might never have had more than 900 residents, there are a surprising number of churches. Not all are in use on a regular basis. Chiesa di Triano (said to be built in 1609) opens only on August 15th to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as it was built to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a church beautiful in its simplicity as it sits alone on a well worn path. The major church for mass and celebrations during the year, Chiesa di San Leonardo, is in the heart of the town and that is where my Father was baptized and my Grandparents were married.
But now, just a bit more about ferragosto! (yes, ferragosto. Is not capitalized, which I find interesting and find no reason for, but I was corrected several years ago when I mentioned this holiday in another article). A short version of the holiday which I am including is interesting for this one day of celebration.
Ferragosto is a typically Italian holiday, that isn’t celebrated anywhere else in the world. While the 15th of August is honored in Catholic countries as the day of Mary’s Ascension to Heaven, ferragosto in Italy doesn’t have only a religious meaning, but a historical and socio-cultural one, too. It is, for Italians, the symbol of summer holidays and, at once, also that of the end of summer: yes, I know there is still a month to go, but everything feels like it’s winding down after the 15th of August. Kids start thinking about school, adults begin taking out the closet their fall garments and umbrellas. Those who don’t particularly enjoy the heat of summer, embrace ferragosto celebrations for this reason.
The name ferragosto comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti, that is, “the rest of Augustus.” Indeed, not only this day, but the whole month of August takes its name from Octavian Augustus, first leader of Rome’s glorious Empire and a demi-god to his subjects.
Some may find curious that the Palio di Siena, which also takes places in August, on the 16th, and other famous horse races like the Palio dell’Argentario in Porto Santo Stefano, or the Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano, were all originally conceived to keep alive the Roman games of the Feriae Augusti, creating an ideal line between Ancient Rome and modern Italy through, of course, the important influence of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when these races – the Palio di Siena in particular – began being linked with the festivity of the Assumption.
Let’s return to the kitchen because, as it happens for all important festivities, ferragosto has a special menu, too. In the past, it was customary to prepare roasted pigeon with rice, sausages and porcini mushrooms, especially in the North and in Tuscany; in Rome, you’d find chicken and peppers, while margheritine di Stresa were typical in Piemonte, as their name suggests (Stresa is a beautiful locality on the Lake Maggiore). These little, flower-shaped cookies deserve some attention because of their history and curious recipe: they were created in 1857 by pastry chef Pietro Antonio Bolongaro, in occasion of the first holy communion of Princess Margherita of Savoia, and what makes them special is the use of boiled egg yolks – along with sugar, butter and vanilla – for their preparation. Legends say the Savoias loved them so much they became a staple on their table for ferragosto celebrations.
The 15th of August in Naples traditionally means frittata di maccheroni, a delicious frittata made with long pasta, eggs, cheese and served, of course, in slices; in Apulia, ferragosto is orecchiette con cime di rapa, one of Italian cuisine’s most popular dishes, while Calabria is all about pasta chiena, typically prepared for important festivities, the most famous version of which includes ragù and meatballs. Sunny Sicily keeps cool with gelo di melone, a delicious dessert made with watermelon, cinnamon and jasmine.
Ferragosto is the climax of summer, a day to spend with friends and family, often having a barbeque together. It falls during the weeks when most factories close for the holidays and the majority of Italians drive to seaside locations for their canonical sea-and-sand vacation. For this reason, traveling around the period can be an adventure: it is usually advised to avoid the freeway on the days immediately before and after the 15th and today many avoid traveling around ferragosto altogether, in spite of tradition, preferring a dinner with friends or the always popular back garden barbecue.
But, ferragosto also brings along a light sense of melancholy with it, because it’s the last summer holiday and fall is just around the corner. It’s time to start packing school bags and perhaps, taking advantage of the beach in the early days of September, usually mild in climate, for one last dip in the sea.
Alas, after Ferragosto, the summer is over, the fall is ready to take its place, but there’s nothing wrong with it: it just means preparations for Halloween and Thanksgiving can begin soon. And then along comes Christmas with its multi-faceted traditions.
AND NOW YOU KNOW!
Il Triano – built in 1609.