Despite outliers who try to get a jump on the holiday commercial frenzy, the Christmas season in Italy officially begins with l’Immacolata on Sunday December 8th, the day when Catholics celebrate the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. And what a beginning it is. We’ve noticed that almost everything here happens collectively, so it feels as though everyone has been given permission to, well, party.
On December 8th, towns all over Italy mount solemn religious processions in honor of Mary’s birth on land and at sea while retailers fling open their doors . . . on a Sunday. Municipalities turn on town Christmas lights and crank up the holiday music, which, oddly enough, is almost entirely American. Since we live in the historic town center, we’re serenaded for about four hours in the morning and another five or so after the lunchtime pausa. In our town, sadly, the continuous loop fails to feature the best versions of the classics. As a result, Mariah Carey and “All I Want for Christmas is You” are falling rapidly to an all-time low on my own personal holiday hit meter.
So we decided to celebrate l’Immacolata in our own way by joining some friends on a nonsecular hike in the hilly countryside southwest of Martina Franca. Through GFC Associati, the graphic design firm we use for our Pascarosa Extra Virgin Olive Oil, we have gotten to know a great group of young designers, cultural historians and artists who are working to engage Italians and foreigners in the rich cultural life of this area through music, dance, art and outdoor excursions like this one. Their project, called L’Ecomuseo di Valle d’Itria, is a wonderful effort because they aim to draw attention to what is unique to this part of the world with an eye toward reinvigorating local identity and traditions for a new generation.
We met the group at Martina Franca’s unofficial gathering place for out-of-town jaunts, the Agip gas station. As noted in another earlier post, group events in Italy are truly group events in every sense of the word. From start to finish, everyone travels together—usually paired up in a subset of cars to make the event even more convivial. Our excursion was no exception. We were about 20 strong, so after the accustomed milling around and counting heads, we joined two fellow excursionists and created a car caravan as we set out for the starting point of our journey.
A local employee of Italy’s Corpo Forestale, the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Forest Service, led the walk. Our guide Zio Mimmo (Uncle Mimmo) revealed himself to be a trove of information about the rocky hillsides we covered, but his knowledge went far beyond the flora and fauna of the region. He shared local lore about the masserie (farmhouses), now abandoned, that dotted the hills, with particular focus on the way families lived in these stone fortresses. From the transumanza, the traditional twice-yearly migration of sheep and cows from the highlands to the lowlands to the annual olive harvest, Zio Mimmo pointed out relics of this civilization now lost to time and modernity. And the landscapes were stunning, with the rich perfume of thyme, savory and mint wafting up from the ground as we walked among these wild plants.
As we neared the end of the walk, we came upon a clearing in the forest with a rough stone house and a cultivated area full of cime di rapa (turnip tops), peperoncini (hot peppers) and fennel. It turns out that the some of the forest service staff had restored a tiny old farm building as a kind of rural refuge when working in these remote places. It’s as cozy a place as you could hope to find in the wild, with all of the amenities required for rough living, including an extensive collection of Italian pin-up calendars. Using their refuge as a staging area, the staff had assembled to make us a restorative spuntino (snack) after our exertions.
Coals made from forest oak and native olive trimmings were topped with slices of country bread and small octopus bodies. The forest workers covered the toasted bread with new olive oil, wild oregano and pomodori a pendola, local tomatoes that are suspended on strings and hung in cellars to last all the way through to the spring. Bags of dried figs and ficazzedde, a traditional Martinese cookie made from taralli dough and grape or fig jam were placed on stone tables in the clearing. We also tasted u per, a fortified wine made from a blend of lightly fermented white grape must and alcohol that is aged for at least a year. It is thoroughly delightful and we are now enthusiastic converts. And since we are in Italy, these forest workers offered espresso all around made in moka stove top espresso pots before we resumed our trek back to civilization.
We made it back to town just short of 2:00 p.m., still plenty of time for our fellow hike companions to peel out of the Agip parking lot on their way to, yes, la cenone della vigilia (the big vigil lunch) at their mothers’ houses in preparation for the December 8th Festa dell’Immacolata. This is a feast that requires abstention from meat, which will be more than remedied by the meaty offerings at the subsequent cenone della Festa dell’Immacolata on Sunday. We were bowled over by the heavy snacking we did just an hour earlier, but these Italians are clearly made of much sturdier stuff. Only then did we put it together why we found octopus and not sausages on that forest grill.
Sure enough, on Sunday, December 8th, our town exploded in a bustle of pre-Christmas celebration after the midday cenone. Despite the cold, the streets were full of families admiring Christmas windows, eating pettole, a kind of yeasted doughnut hole, roasted chestnuts and drinking vin brulée. As we took it all in, we continued to marvel at the iconography and ritual that punctuates every aspect of life here. And we incorporated it all in our own way, with a communion of bruschetta and sip or two of u per at a stone altar in the forest.