Endless Summer, Italian Style
It’s August 15th, the day when ancient Romans rested, the Virgin Mary’s sinless soul and uncorrupted body ascended into heaven and modern Italians take to the nearest body of water to escape the inevitable August heat wave. Called Ferragosto today in a nod to its origins in antiquity during Emperor Augustus’s rule, this holiday marks the pinnacle of the summer season in Italy. And like every holiday here, it is celebrated en masse in exactly the same way all over the country.
It’s hard to describe the summer torpor that gives rise to Italy’s annual beach exodus. And although this summer has been cooler than most, the mercury seemed to rally, at least in southern Italy, to give Italians what they want the most: a scorching day by the sea punctuated by family meals that celebrate summer’s generous bounty. Most families start early on Ferragosoto, packing the car with all of the essentials for a prolonged family outing at the same beach they’ve frequented for generations. The essentials are broadly defined. From beach chairs, umbrellas, towels, toys, beach robes, tanning products and rubber sandals to the multicourse meal that will feed a crowd, no exigency is left to chance. Once everyone is accounted for, the group sets out, caravan-style, in a multitude of vehicles, all in close communication via cell phones lest someone lose their way on the road they’ve traveled without incident for most of their adult life.
After parking is negotiated amidst much discussion to determine the best location, the march on the beach begins, with everyone toting something as the group makes haste for the shore. Most of the food will stay behind, maintaining its warmth or carefully cooling in its insulated containers until l’ora di pranzo (lunch time), the pinnacle of the day. In the meantime, though, foccacia and panini have been assembled and tucked into bags destined for the beach in case anyone is hungry in the few hours before the troops descend on lunch. But snack at your peril; there will be no return to the water for hours lest you sink like a stone in the three-foot tide
Camp is struck after a careful assessment of the most advantageous location available on the beach and its proximity to the nearest family group. Unlike standoffish northern Europeans and other Anglo Saxons, Italians know that every activity is so much more fun when experienced in comitiva, that is, in a group. In the unlikely event that the beach is deserted save one or two groups who arrived earlier, you can be sure that they are sitting within a meter of one another, chatting happily, despite having only just met. And the whole, extended family is present, from the tiniest tot to the most senior of senior citizens. All of the men are invariably wearing Speedos, no matter their age. Cigarettes are smoked amidst nonstop conversation, endless card games are played and cell phone ring tones rule the airspace.
And the water? Not nearly as crowded as you might think. Brief, restorative dips to accompany children who might need to fare la pi-pi pass for water sports, comprising the majority of the activity. There are always one or two grandparents swimming along in a languid breaststroke or a group of eager teens trying to operate a paddle boat. Teenagers do an awful lot of splashing and diving in an elaborate courtship ritual; vendors pass by regularly calling “Cocco bello!” as women stop to admire beach caftans suspended on rods toted tirelessly up and down the water’s edge. By midday, there is a background buzz of conversation that hums above the rhythmic slap of the waves, swelling as the crowd grows, then growing quieter as, one by one, families repair to the main event.
Mothers and grandmothers have already decamped, returning to parked cars to set up il pranzo (lunch) in anticipation of the onslaught. Portable tables are assembled and covered with oilcloth, terracotta pots and other baking dishes are liberated from their kitchen toweling warming ovens and thousands of plastic plates are stacked at the ready. When the rest of the family arrives, freshly showered and snuggled in their terry cloth beach robes, a hush descends on the land. Il pranzo di Ferragosto is underway and will continue for the next several hours in blissful adherence to ritual.
Some families are especially organized and have brought all of the necessary implements to grill sausages and other favorite meaty treats. Others focus on fish, with whole sea bream, Adriatic sea bass and red mullet on the menu. Parmigiana di melanzane (eggplant parmesan) is a perennial favorite since eggplant and tomatoes are at their prime. Zucchini alla scapece or alla poverella (grilled or fried zucchini layered with garlic and mint) and cold salads, often made with with farro, are also an antique summer staple in these parts and are likely to turn up, too. A holiday pranzo is unthinkable without pasta, but its execution at the beach presents serious difficulties, so pasta al forno (baked pasta) saves the day with a healthy dose of the ingredients southern Italians love best: tomato sauce, macaroni, mozzarella or scamorza and, to gild the lily, thinly-sliced mortadella or tiny meatballs. Watermelon is obligatory, followed by any number of bakery treats guests have brought to sweeten the experience. And there is even espresso, prepared early in the day, generously sweetened and stored at the ready in slim thermoses.
At this point, families give in to post-prandial stupor, finding quiet corners to recline for the afternoon pisolino (nap). There will be no swimming for hours, not even so much as a tiny, experimental toe dare penetrate the water. In fact, a casual observer might glance at the beach and wonder where are the people went. No worries; everyone is resting up for round two, which won’t start before 5:00 p.m. Only after another few hours of card games, beach volleyball and splashing will Ferragosto at the beach be concluded. Then the lengthy sorting, packing, showering, changing and car organzing ensues, with the beach swiftly emptying out over the course of a quarter hour. Car caravans negotiate the parking lot at exactly the same time, departing with a spray of gravel in a cloud of dust, returning to their towns in time to prepare for . . . the evening Ferragosto stroll fest called la passeggiata.
We find ourselves relying on insalata di farro during these long, hot days when cooking is a little less appealing than usual. It’s an incredibly flexible, forgivable salad since it holds up so well and adapts beautifully to almost any accompaniment you have around. It’s a natural for potlucks and summer picnics, too. In case you’re wondering, food historian Nancy Harmon Jenkins tells us that farro is the Italian name for triticum dicoccum, but it’s also called emmer (and mistakenly, spelt, which it is not). You can find it in most well-equipped grocery stores or order it from Gustiamo. Here’s a basic recipe, but feel free to customize to render it vegetarian, vegan or reflective of your refrigerators odds and ends.
Insalata di Farro—Farro Salad
2 cups farro
4 cups chicken or vegetable broth (water is fine, too)
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp. lemon juice
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 zucchini, diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 cucumber, peeled, with seeds removed and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1 large stalk celery, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 red pepper, white pith removed and diced into 1/2 inch cubes
1/4 cup sweet red onion, diced
1/2 cup pecorino or provolone cheese (or another semi-aged, flavorful cheese), diced into 1/2 inch cubes
15 basil leaves, stacked on top of one another, rolled tightly lengthwise and cut into fine ribbons
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup mint
Coarsely ground black pepper
Cover the farro in a few inches of cold water and let soak for a few hours. Drain the farro and add it to a sauce pot with the chicken or vegetable broth. Bring the farro to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover the pan and allow the farro and its liquid simmer gently. Taste the farro after 15 minutes. It should be chewy but not too resistant. Timing is dependent upon many factors; it could take as long as 45 minutes for the farro to cook completely. Make sure you don’t cook it so long that it falls apart.
Drain the farro well and place it in a large salad bowl. Dress it immediately with the olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest. Add all of the other ingredients, then taste and season accordingly.
Make this salad at least an hour before you plan to serve it to allow all of the flavors to meld together. Taste it again just before serving; it may need more acid (lemon juice), a little more olive oil or more salt and pepper.
Note: Almost any of the vegetables and herbs can be eliminated or substituted. Some ideas (which are not necessarily Pugliese but are great in this salad) include: fresh corn cut off the cob; cherry tomatoes, carrots (blanch them first), radishes, English peas, green beans (diced), etc.