“Ecco ci! – Here we are!”
Antonio flung his arms wide, ready to envelop each of us in one of his customary bear hugs. He and his wife Lori had just arrived at the café in the main square where we were waiting for them in the early evening sunshine. We had been lucky to bag a table on the pretty terrace with its uninterrupted views across to the distant Sibillini Mountains as the whole place was packed with people who, like us, had come into Montelupone for the village’s 59th Artichoke Festival, aka Sagra del Carciofo.
Il carciofo (pronounced ‘car-CHOFF-oh’) is a local speciality. And when I say ‘local’, I mean that in practically every field within the village’s boundaries there are at least a couple of long, neat rows of the deep green mounds like huge prickly cushions from which the edible buds appear in spring and reach fist-sized maturity in early May. Moreover, a lot of the local growers have achieved ‘certified organic’ status for their produce and/or are members of the local Slow Food community: yes, they take their artichokes very seriously in Montelupone. So seriously, in fact, that since 1960 or so, the village has recognised the artichoke’s contribution to the local economy and to the community’s individuality with this annual, weekend-long celebration of the artichoke.
Only it hasn’t quite been ‘annual’, of course. Thanks to the pandemic and its accompanying restrictions, the last time this open-air festival involving a long list of artichoke-based eating and drinking plus lots of stalls, processions, music and dancing took place was in 2019. But after three years’ absence, it was back in all its glory last weekend, and not only as a celebration of the artichoke, but also, it seemed, as an expression of civic solidarity and resilience – and in effect as a means of marking the village’s official return to normality. As such, it was a party no one was going to miss.
So having finished our aperitivi and caught up on the difficulties Lori and Antonio are having with their solar energy installation, we set off to join the mêlée of black-clad grandmas, smartly casual couples, tattooed teenagers, curly-haired toddlers and over-excited dogs thronging the narrow, cobbled streets that radiate out from the main square. For the entire weekend, these were lined with rows of stands piled high with freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino of various vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced, artisan foods from hams to honey.
This, however, wasn’t where the main attraction was – the stands gastronomici. They were in the small park that is almost hidden behind the small square where the war memorial is located. And as we made our way there, back through the main square, past the stage where a live band would be performing later and out the other side towards the Parco Franchi, we bumped into our new pal Francesco. This is the neighbour from whom Mr Blue-Shirt will probably soon be renting some workshop space and who is also a good friend of Antonio’s. He was there with his girlfriend Donatella and a couple of friends we’d met at another recent get-together. So having exchanged hugs and handshakes, ‘come stai?’s and ‘tutto bene?’s with everyone, we all joined the queue of people stretching from outside the park gates to the far side of the football-pitch sized space. Here stood a row of open-fronted marquees that housed a huge makeshift kitchen from which plate after plate of freshly cooked food was being served by a team of some forty volunteers to the would-be diners who were waiting to take their pick from, among other things, whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork stuffed with artichokes, artichoke lasagne, artichoke risotto, artichoke salad, artichoke omelette, artichoke fritters, and deep-fried olives stuffed with artichokes. Having been served our selections, we carefully carried our food-and-drink-laden trays to the row of marquees along the left-hand side of the park from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching on their artichoke feast while being entertained by folk dancers and accordion players.
Francesco had somehow managed to bag a whole table for us all in the far corner of the marquee, and so here we remained for the next couple of hours, talking, laughing, joking, eating and drinking, offering each other tasters from our plates and making assessments of the different dishes until we had all finally eaten our fill of artichoke goodies and naturally declared all the food buonissimo. But I suspect that what every single person in that noisy, chatter- and music-filled marquee had enjoyed above all was the simple pleasure of coming together with others, the renewed sense of community and the sense that normality had finally been restored to the life of the village.
With the sky having by now darkened to a star-studded inky-blue, we made our way back through the still crowded streets to the now even more crowded main square where the band was filling the warm evening air with popular Italian rock ballads. The huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show looked slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall, but it was so heartening to see the ancient square buzzing with life and energy and fun once more – just as it should be.
Gradually, we all went our separate ways, some to meet a different group of friends in the bar, some to sample the artichoke ice cream at the gelateria, and others simply to listen to the music. After a digestivo in the bar with Antonio and Lori – just a normal grappa; we decided to give the specially made artichoke grappa a miss – Mr Blue-Shirt and headed home. And as we drifted off to sleep to the distant sound of the band floating in through our bedroom window on the soft night air, I hoped that we would not have to wait another three years until the next Sagra del Carciofo.