Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
Black Celery Festival in Trevi
This year, on October 10th, I'll be heading back to Trevi for the wonderful celebration of the "black" celery, taking some friends along with me.
Celery is justly celebrated in Trevi. After all, celery is a key ingredient in many Umbrian recipes. A stalk of celery, a carrot, an onion, a handful of parsley are called odori (best to translate as "the flavorers"), those essential ingredients which season many an Umbrian recipe (see end of this article). Throughout Italy, odori are added to shopping bags laden with fruits and vegetables if purchased from greengrocers or the outdoor markets at no cost. We just have to ask.
In the days we farmed here in Umbria, we planted the odori as our neighbours taught us: in a corner, generally near each other - so as to be nabbed quickly when needed. Near the end of September, our farm neighbors - Peppe, Quinto, Checco, Pica - generally bound the celery bunches with brown paper (which they'd salvage from bread and other market goods) to lighten up the stalks, making them more tender for eating.
The celery-growers near Trevi do the same.
Because Trevi's celery is not just any celery, this tiny Umbrian hilltown dedicates its most important annual festival to the apium graveoleus, a dark celery variety cultivated in Italy only on the outskirts of Trevi. Cultivated here for centuries (and nowadays by fewer and fewer farmers), the so-called "black celery" has recently been designated one of the 15 or so IGP products of Umbria (the black truffle of Norcia, the Cannara onions, the saffron of Cascia are others). IGP - "Indicazione Geografica Protetta" - is a term which indicates that the product may be grown ONLY in a specifically restricted area. So limited is the black celery production that virtually all of the annual cultivation is sold in Trevi during the "Sagra del Sedano Nero e Salsiccia" (see SAGRA for more on this type of festival), the "celery festival". As very late autumn is traditionally the period of the pig-slaughtering here in Umbria, the buonissimo Umbrian sausage is partnered with the celery at this October festival in Trevi.
Not long ago, a friend and I joined in the revelry of the final night of the Trevi Sagra del Sedano Nero e Salsiccia, arriving just in time for the grilled sausage sandwiches, local vino rosso and tastes of all sorts of Umbrian delicacies, from varieties of pecorino (sheep's milk cheese) to wild boar salami to celery paté to sweets made with freshly-pressed grape juice. And, of course, we bought our traditional three bunches of celery (that number three, so sacred in so many cultures and as I write, myriads of associations in Italian folklore and cultural traditions come to mind). We had hoped to eat in one of the medieval taverne (best translated "inn" and in Trevi, re-created in stone-vaulted medieval ambiences), but all three (one for each terziere or section of the town) were overflowing with jubilant groups of friends, dining on varieties of celery dishes and other autumn specialties in the stone-vaulted medieval cellars.
Later on that week, my husband Pino and I were more successful: we had dinner in the charming taverna (vaulted ceilings, old brick floor and once an olive mill) of il Terziere Matigge and enjoyed the company as much as the food! Rina, the cook, shared her recipe of celery bruschetta and Sara, who served us (like all at the festival, she is a volunteer and had worked all day in a local factory), made sure we had generous portions of the celery Parmesan (though by the time THAT arrived we were more than satiated..., and more followed!) and another server, Simone, talked enthusiastically about his exhausting race in the Palio dei Terzieri which traditionally launches Trevi's annual October festivities early in the month.
Enthused with our "taverna experience", I returned yet another evening with a group of ten Americans, most of whom had toured with me here in Assisi. The torches here and there illuminated the narrow backstreets and pointed-arched Gothic doorways along our walk to the taverna. Jovial groups in the taverna were enjoying the feast as well as each other - as did we. Dr. Michelle Toohey (Pittsburgh, PA) who joined in, put it aptly: "Only the Italians can make celery such an incredible celebration of both taste and friendship. How very special to share this experience!"
Rob and Janina Cushman, who have had a villa here in Umbria (near Todi) for many years, write: "Anne often offers tours to our villa rental clients - as well as us - opening our eyes to some of the hidden treasures of this wonderful area. When she calls or contacts us, we listen! Last week, she suggested we join her group at the Black Celery festival in Trevi. The dinner was certainly unique: sitting at long tables in a vaulted room, with nothing but locals and being served the meal by shop owners and farmers (all volunteers for this festival)... a memorable experience." Rob and Janina Cushman (www.lemandorelle.com).
A Recipe with Celery
Umbrian Lentil Soup
Ingredients (for about 6 persons):
Soak the lentils overnight in cold water. (Try to buy small, tender lentils which do not require hours to cook. Here in Umbria, the lentils of Castelluccio are the best - they cook very quickly and have superb flavor. Sought after all over Italy. If you ever come to Umbria, be sure to pick some up!)
Rural version: my farm neighbors would start with a soffrito (or "gentle fry"); that is, by covering the bottom of the saucepan with olive oil. Procedure: heat olive oil, but do not burn, and put all vegetables in oil, stirring with wooden spoon (only! never use stainless steel with legumes, I have been told). Stir until vegetables are golden. Add lentils and about 1 quart water. Add generous handful of finely-chopped parsley near the end of cooking. Simmer until lentils are tender. Drizzle with olive oil when serving, if desired.
Anne's version: to avoid any sort of frying (even if minimal) of olive oil, I put all ingredients in pot together (except olive oil) and simmer. Simmer til lentils tender and drizzle olive oil on the soup before serving. (My version is probably better for the health - but the rural version is best for the palate!).
For both of the above versions: small hot red pepper may be added during cooking - but watch out!. A sprig of fresh rosemary adds wonderful flavor to the soup. Optional: near the end of cooking, add a generous bunch of Swiss chard, chopped or torn into small pieces.
© Anne Robichaud, 2008. Do not republish without permission.
This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.
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