Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Arqua Petrarca and the Festa delle Giuggiole

Arqua Petrarca is usually a sleepy little town lodged in the middle of the Colli Euganei, a few minutes from the busy towns of Monselice to the south and Padova to the north. It boasts an absolutely beautiful and compact medieval center and panoramic views of the orchards, vineyards, and rolling green hills that surround it. It is usually known as the place where Petrarch decided to spend his final years, and the small and windy uphill roads keeps most of the tourists away (it is not connected to the train system and the bus from Monselice is fairly spotty), but during the first week of October it is packed with visitors from the nearby cities for the festival of giuggiole.

Just like the tomato and the potato, the giuggiole is a plant that is not native to Italy, but has become a staple to its local growers after its introduction by the Romans. Unlike the tomato and the potato however, giuggiole is a largely forgotten fruit in Italy, only celebrated by this small area that is literally infested with it. Walking up the town, one notices that the giuggiole tree grows everywhere, competing only with the equally feral pomegranate. It's a very pretty sight: trees laden with pomegranate and giuggiole fruits, the grounds red with fruits that fell from the tree. Both fruits are so widespread that they are hardly "crops," and i'm sure no one would have minded if I just reached out and picked some for myself.

The giuggiole fruit looks and feels like an olive, with its tough skin and hard pit. When eaten raw, it tastes much like apples that are a little bit on the green side. When made into jams, they taste like apple filling. The taste is so close that these little buggers are actually called "manzanilla," or little apples in the Philippines. Walking down the street and eating them by the handfuls brought back memories of my childhood in the Philippines, where apples were the exotic fruit and giuggiole was the cheaper alternative.

Although good enough as they are, the town produces a number of products from giuggiole, from jams to dried raisin-like giuggiole to a unique but overly sweet liqueur called broda di giuggiole. The stand above even had candles made of giuggiole. Although I think the fruit is delicious, I didn't really get any fragrance from it.

The festival was also a way for the town to show case its other products, such as cheeses, bread, olive oil, wine, pastries, figs (I'm kicking myself for not getting a bag of dried figs, which were better than any dried figs I've had from the supermarket), chestnuts, almonds, and of course, pomegranate. It's always great to see people so passionate about the food they make without the pretense of "quality," only good taste. The town, from the artisan baker to the grandmas selling their backyard giuggiole by the bagfuls, was brimming with such people.

There were also drummers and flag wavers from the nearby walled town of Montagnana, but it was really way too crowded to enjoy the shows. The same goes for the little town, which had a number of twisting little alleyways that would have been great to explore, but not with a few hundred others. I will definitely come back later on and see the town without the crowds, maybe in spring when the fruit trees will be in flower.

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