The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Montalcino’s Sagra del Tordo and Men in Tights

Posted on | November 2, 2011 | Written by Janice Cable | No Comments

It being a Celtic holiday, Halloween is not celebrated in Italy. However, while there were no Frankenstein’s monsters lurching about, no ghosts in bedsheets and no fairy princesses with candy-filled plastic pumpkins, last weekend there were many men in tights. It was Montalcino’s Sagra del Tordo, or the Thrush Festival, a two-day festival of archery, tiny roasted birds, doublets, codpieces and all things vaguely Medieval.

I admit it: the precise laser details of the festival remain for me a bit blurry about the edges. I had an excellent guide in Laura Gray, the Estate Manager at Il Palazzone, who did her best to translate the comings, goings, marchings, singings, drum-beatings, flag-wavings, colors-wearing and generally inscrutable happenings of the weekend. As Laura explains it, Montalcino is divided into four neighborhoods; each quartiere has a set of colors (blue/white, red/white, red/gold and blue/gold); and the quartieres compete for primacy most specifically on the archery field (and more subtly through the divvying up of cooking responsibilities—it’s a coveted position to be making the pici, the regional pasta dish, for example).

Saturday, the lesser of the two days, holds the pomp and circumstances of choosing by lottery the archers for each neighborhood. All four teams march into the town square from all four sides to the sound of much drumming and singing, and then in a ritual performed by the town council dressed in medieval garb, two names for each quartiere get chosen. It’s kind of like the Hunger Games, but with a far smaller stake and punctuated by the call of heralds.

Townspeople wear the colors of their quartiere. The pride here is strictly geographic. You are born into your group; it’s a geographical sorting hat and there’s nothing you can do to move from one quartiere to another, at least not without bloodshed. Italy really enjoys its affiliations, whether to a football team, to a family, or to a neighborhood. I suppose to want to change quartieres is to forsake the Yankees in favor of the Red Sox, or the geographical equivalent.

Then, of course, there’s lunch. There’s a lot of food, and each quartiere is responsible for a specific roster of dishes. I had some very small bird that was roasted; its wishbone was thin as bar pretzels. It was tasty and crispy, but I still wished that whichever quartiere was responsible for the sausages had not run out quite so quickly.

After lunch, there’s archery. The Sunday schedule is more or less the same, but with less pomp, more archery, and some falconry thrown in for good Dark Ages measure. There is also intermittent folk dancing.

In fact, the archery, while the skeleton of the festival, is almost beside the point. It gives quartiere bragging rights, the right to sing aggressively, and the responsibility of throwing multiple dinners for its members, but despite the medieval trappings and endeavors, the festival seems much more like an excuse for Italians to gather in large groups and eat with their fingers. Which, frankly, is a perfectly enjoyable way to spend a weekend.

And given the fact that rather than originating in the hoary depths of dark history, this festival dates back to the days of Elvis and bobby-soxers, the somewhat relegation of archery and falconry to point-adjacent status makes sense. This festival is mostly about food, about groups, and about wringing the last vestiges of warmth from the lingering fall. To that, I raise my little spit-roasted bird and my glass of Rosso di Montalcino.

There are worse ways to spend a Halloween weekend. And, frankly, all things being equal, I’ll take mine with good red wine and without candy corn.

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