On a recent Friday night, driving home in the dark, I saw a string of flashing lights approaching along our country road. As I passed, I realized that a flatbed truck, bedecked with corn husks and olive branches, was transporting a statue of the Virgin Mary. I remembered then that the next day, December 8, would be a holiday, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is revered in these parts--all her special days are celebrated. December 8 also marks the end of the agricultural season, when one of my favorite, very local festivals occurs: the procession and blessing of the tractors.
So throughout the next bright and sunny winter morning, tractors rumbled past my house in the Niccone Valley, to gather at the village church of Spedalicchio. At around 10:30 I heard a roar, and I knew they had formed their column and were heading back, some 60 of them, to the church at Niccone. As I do every year, I dashed out with my camera and snapped some pictures as they passed. My friend Remigio led the parade in a little Fiat 500, then with smaller vehicles in front, around 60 tractors rolled by, all miraculously cleaned up and gleaming in the sun. The last was a huge tobacco harvester, followed by the Virgin on her float, serenaded by a tinny recording of the Ave Maria.
I hadn't been to this festa in a few years so I decided to bring up the rear and join my neighbors. At the church in Niccone, the Virgin was carefully carried inside to her usual resting place, while the band from Umbertide played more Ave Maria. The bishop of Città di Castello blessed the tractors and the farm families who had gathered for the event. Mass followed.
Everyone broke for lunch, took their tractors back to the farms, and then returned in the afternoon for some spirited competition: who made the best wine in the valley (Girasole, my neighbors, won); the fishbowl lottery, well organized and run by parish ladies; and what I'd come for, the Guess the Weights of the Pig and the Lamb Contest, a perennial highlight.
Often getting the squirmy, oinking pig on the scale had proved to be complicated and hilarious, but eventually it was accomplished, and no one was surprised when the son of the man who weighed it won the pig. I heard some grumbling over that. Sadly, this year the pig was eliminated, replaced by a prosciutto. Several years ago, my neighbor won a little lamb, which often frolicked in the field separating our houses, followed by several geese. One day I missed him and asked Alvano where he was. "Nel frigo", he replied, "In the fridge". He was, after all, not a pet, but I was a taken aback.
Prosciutto sandwiches made with torta al formaggio, a savory bread studded with bits of cheese, along with wine, torcolo cake, and vin santo were served and the festa lasted into the night, until all the numbers in the fishbowl had been chosen and all the prizes won. No one remembers how this celebration started 48 years ago, but it's grown, and this year there were more tractors than ever.
A good sign for our valley.
Read more about the Upper Tiber Valley, its history, foods, farms, markets, and fairs in my new book, Sustenance: Food Traditions in Italy's Heartland