The jus primae noctis was the feudal right that allowed a nobleman to deflower the wife of a commoner. The legend has it, though, that Violetta, a beautiful miller’s daughter, was unwilling to submit to the right. One night in 1194, first she decapitated Count Ranieri di Biandrate, then instigated a popular revolt that reduced the lord’s residence, Castellazzo, to rubble. 100 years later, the people of Ivrea took to the streets against a new tyrant, Marchese Guglielmo VII di Monferrato, whom they loathed for the exorbitant taxes he made them pay. It was to celebrate and recount these ancient rebellions that Ivrea’s so-called ‘Carnival of the Oranges’, the most subversive in all Italy, came into being. A veritable battle, violent and spectacular, it sets tyrants against the people, with thousands of aranceri, orange throwers, atop carts, chucking their fruit at thousands of others below. At the end, there are no bodies on the field, but ton after ton of squashed oranges and a penetrating, acrid smell that insinuates its way into every corner of every house. Heroine Violetta aside, the other characters were introduced by the French in the nineteenth century: the General who is given the keys of the city by the mayor on the last Thursday before Lent, and the General Staff with their Napoleonic uniforms and dappled horses, specially bred for the occasion. Also from France and the French Revolution – mother of all the other revolutions in the West since – came the Phrygian caps, red symbols of liberty that all the spectators have to wear to defend themselves from the flying oranges.
The battle not only leaves an intense trail of smells and scents behind it, but is also supplemented by a succulent gastronomic tradition in the form of faseuj grass, Saluggia beans, boiled by the ton with pork rinds and salamis on the Saturday night to be ladled out in the various neighborhoods in the wee hours of the Sunday morning. Even the greediest stomachs are satisfied! Then comes the wonderful cake known as Torta ‘900. The trademark of this historical piece of Ivrea confectionery, created at the beginning of the twentieth century by the pastry chef Ottavio Bertinotti, is the exclusive property of the Pasticceria Balla (Corso Umberto I, 16), and only Stefano Balla knows the secrets of the original recipe. If you sit down at one of the little tables, they’ll knock it up for you on the spot, stuffing two chocolate sponge cake layers with a fluffy cream, an amalgam of bitter and milk chocolates.
If you go to Ivrea out of Carnival time, you’ll have more room to wander around the city that was once the capital of Arduin, King of Italy. Artistically speaking, the most interesting point is the ancient acropolis, in the high part of town. Here you find the eclectic cathedral, commissioned by Bishop Warmondo in the tenth century, but now with significant neoclassical alterations. Then there is the so-called Castle of the Four Towers, built by the Savoys in 1358. A quick count reveals that one of the four towers you expect to see is missing – it was destroyed by a gunpowder explosion in 1676. In the lower part of town, you can follow the charming promenade along the Dora Baltea that leads to a public garden and the tower of Santo Stefano, all that remains of the eleventh-century Romanesque Benedictine abbey. Before leaving Ivrea to discover the Canavese region, you should stop at Aquila Antica (Via Gozzano, 37; tel. 0125-641364) to savor the delicious local specialties. Canavese cuisine is hearty with beans virtually everywhere. In Tofeja, for example, they combine with pork rind in a recipe which hails from the 1600s; the dish derives its name from the tofeja, a double-handled pot from Castellamonte. This heavy and filling soup was traditionally cooked in a wood oven still hot from baking bread, and dished out to the poor on the Saturday before Pentecost. The recipe used today is slightly more refined, enriched with pig’s trotters and ribs, spices and flavorings, but the preparation is still the same, with all the ingredients being piled into the tofeja and baked in a wood oven for about six hours.
Leaving Ivrea, you can immerse yourself in the surrounding greenery, a mosaic of forests, vineyards and mountains reflected placidly in numerous lakes. This collage of a landscape is dominated by a number of castles, some dating to feudal times, but mostly splendid jewels of the Piedmontese Baroque. They include the castles of Agliè, restored by Amedeo di Castellamonte and Ignazio Birago di Borgaro, set in parkland; Rivarolo with its elegant portico and fourteenth-century frescoes; Montaldo Doro, six kilometers to the north of Ivrea, with its characteristic fourteenth-century battlements; and Mazzè, which boasts a comprehensive collection of instruments of torture from all over Europe.
Be sure not to miss the wide assortment of gastronomic treats that the area has to offer. Here Piedmontese cuisine is often enhanced by influences from the Val d’Aosta and accompanied by prestigious red, white and dessert wines. In Caluso, you can sleep at Erbaluce (via Nuova Circonvallazione; tel. 011-9891503), a modern hotel with a swimming pool and gardens. In the center of town, Il Gardenia (corso Torino, 9; tel. 011-9832249) is a good place to taste traditional Canavese dishes and excellent cheeses, all accompanied by a decent wine list. Just as good is La Pergola (via Montalenghe, 59; tel. 0125-712747) in Masero di Scarmagno, where traditional mainstays are supplemented by the innovative creations of chef Alessandro Cignetti. Not far away is Lake Candia, which recently became a nature park. About one kilometer down the road is the Residenza del Lago (via Roma, 48; tel. 011-9834885), a comfortable hotel with all the distinctive features of an old-fashioned Canavese farmhouse. It boasts 11 stylishly decorated bedrooms decorated with style, some with adjoining sitting rooms and others with lofts, and a small restaurant that serves local specialties.
We could conclude our trip almost anywhere in this pleasant patchwork landscape, but my choice goes to the castle of Masino, which looks down over the Canavese plain. Home to the Counts of Valperga di Masino for over a 1,000 years, in 1987 it was purchased by FAI (the Italian Environmental Fund), which has since opened it to the public (Tues – Sun). The chapel houses the ashes of Arduin, made Marquis of Ivrea in 990 and King of Italy in 1002. His dream of unification ended two years later, when Henry II ascended the throne and the premature hope for an undivided and sovereign country dwindled for over 800 years. Arduin, nonetheless, became a myth, especially for the writers of the Italian Risorgimento, who saw him as a veritable forerunner of national independence.
Alessandro Monchiero,a journalist, works for Slow Food Editore
Adapted for Sloweek by Annie Adair