October 5th, St. Francis Street Fair Lives On
The Feast of St. Francis of Assisi on October 4th is a memorable event here in Assisi.
The day after the Festa, Oct 5th, the town becomes an open marketplace as the annual street fair, la Fiera di San Francesco, winds its way through the medieval alleyways of the town. Very early in the morning, 150 vendors (from all over Italy) set up their booths and most of Assisi is a street market until sunset.
Here in Italy, a “fiera” is an annual event, traditionally held in proximity to a saint’s feast day (whereas a mercato is a weekly open market).
Traditionally, the fiera offered the farmers an excuse to rest from their labors and more importantly, to walk (or ride mules, donkeys – and later on, the bus, or in a car) to town. The town was a world rarely visited by the farm people. Going to town meant carefully washing the best clothes one had and tucking into a pocket or inside a bodice the few coins the family had earned from the sale of eggs or wild mushrooms or field greens. At the fiera, the coins could be used to buy dried fruits, sugared almonds, candied chestnuts, or torroni (nougat), all still sold today at any fiera or mercato. Those without a sweet tooth head to the booths offering semenze (various kinds of seeds to nibble): sunflower and pumpkin seeds, peanuts, almonds, roasted chickpeas and dried chestnuts. They used to be sold in paper cones and at times, still are (though plastic bags are gaining terrain).
When we moved to Umbria to work the land in the mid-70’s, our farm neighbors drove into town on October 5th for the Fiera di San Francesco. The farmers always headed to the beginning of the fiera outside of the medieval city gate, Porta Nuova (not far from the Basilica di Santa Chiara, where St. Clare of Assisi was buried in the mid-13th century). Trucks could pull into this open area to unload the largest objects sold by the vendors with booths here at the start of the fiera: huge oak casks, smaller wooden barrels, wine presses, buckets, ladders, hoes, axes and pruning shears. Sometimes, baby chicks, ducklings, and goslings were sold nearby. Not far away was the vendor of the head scarves and smocks all of us women wore when in the fields. Farm people gathered together to chat with neighbors whom they saw rarely due to distances between the farms. Others haggled with the vendors over farm equipment.
They mixed with the local Assisi people as everyone strolled the rows and rows of booths selling everything from clothes to plants to pecorino (local sheep’s milk cheese) to artisan wares, such as objects in wrought iron, olive wood and terracotta. Any fiera still offers such a rainbow assortment of goods, though farm equipment is no longer a central feature. But the porchettaio, the vendor of the succulent panini di porchetta (roast pork sandwiches) still reigns at any fiera, as he has for centuries. The suckling pig is roasted all night on a spit, seasoned liberally with garlic, rosemary and wild fennel. The porchetta is then sliced and served on a panino (roll). On market day, many a housewife resolves the problem of what to serve at dinner that night by bringing home a few etti (etto = 100 g) of porchetta. Enjoy your panino di porchetta with a glass of the local vino rosso, a must, even if you enjoy your sandwich at 8:00 in the morning!
Read about the glorious Feast of St. Francis, October 4th
Read about Pope Francis’ Assisi visit for the Feast of St. Francis
Read about Assisi’s excitement over the election of Pope Francis
Read more about Pope Francis and Assisi
Read about the floral welcome in Assisi for Pope Francis