If you’ve never tasted corbezzoli, giuggiole or pepini, you can try them at the Festa del Bosco (“Woodland Festival”) in the northern Umbria walled castle-village of Montone. Just stop at one of the first stands, adorned with leafy branches, intertwining vines, creating a “woods” effect. The bright red corbezzoli (translated as “arbutus”) and the walnut colored olive-shaped fruit, giuggiole (“jujubes” but also called “Chinese dates”, cultivated by the Romans, though probably originating in the Middle East) grow on our land, too, but I’d never seen the pepini (“pepins”), a small green oval fruit with a melon-like taste (originating in South America).
At this late October/early November woodland festival, over seventy artisans and food producers celebrate autumn colors, flavor, traditions and spirit in this charming four-day mostra mercato (“show-and-sell” event). Aimed at “creating a fairy-tale setting for visitors”, as assessor Roberta Rosini puts it, the festival array of events – from art shows to puppet theater to folk dance performances to musical events of every variety – certainly do enhance the charm of this medieval walled castle village and entice visitors of all ages.
This year was the thirty-first edition of the festival – and Pino and I finally made it (far too many events in late October/early November here in Umbria!) First stop? At the stand of chestnut vendor, Agostino, dark blue wool beret pulled down nearly to his nose, who filled us paper cones of his roasted chestnuts. As we munched them, he talked about the dearth of chestnuts this year due to an abnormally wet spring and summer. His roasted chestnuts warmed our hands as we wandered stand-to-stand along the winding medieval alleyways of Montone. We paused to try – and buy – the Sardinian sheep’s milk cheese from a woman and her son and tasted the just-milled olive oil on bruschetta at the next stand where the producers, mother and daughter, told us that olive production was down about 60% this year, also due to climate ravages. The woe of olive producers all over Italy this year.
Then the decision on which of the three taverne for dinner. Not an easy decision as each taverna – one for each of the three rioni of the town, Monte, Verziere, Borgo Vecchio – posted enticing menus. But on the Verziere district menu, the tagliatelle al sugo d’oca (homemade fetttuccine with a meat sauce of goose meat) tempted me and the pork shank (stinco di maiale) with roasted potatoes won over Pino. We shared the typical Umbrian peasant dish, fagioli alle cotiche (a bean soup with pigskin).
An ebullient family group was at the table next to ours and young volunteers ran back and forth from tables to kitchen, serving up the goodness. Young Veronica smiled for me for a photo as she brought out an order of anipasti – and all the volunteers in the Verziere kitchen willingly posed for a group photo before we headed home.
Where do the proceeds from the Montone taverna dinners go? For the financing of the Renaissance splendor of their summer festival, The Donation of the Sacred Thorn.