The countryside is coming back to life, the air is filled with the scent of fresh grass, the air is much milder. The rigors of winter and long cold nights spent round the hearth are now just a memory. I’ve begun the article like this deliberately because I want to send into raptures all those people who are always getting the wrong end of the stick, who believe that appreciating the bare necessities of country life is nothing but a pointless exercise in nostalgia to be described with one’s tongue firmly in one’s cheek.
Luckily not everyone likes to pretend that our relationship with nature and the four seasons is no longer worthy of attention. Yes, you can still find people who celebrate the advent of spring, thereby rediscovering ancient traditions charged with symbolic significance.
Of all the celebrations rural communities have developed down the centuries to mark the change in season, to propitiate the harvest or exorcise the fatigue of the periods of hardest, most intense labor, the most curious and attractive is is to spring and Lent. I refer to canté j’euv the southern Piedmontese tradition of ritual egg-collecting, collection of eggs, which recurs with surprising frequency under different guises in the history of many areas of Italy and southern and central Europe. The Piedmontese version is still firmly rooted in the local countryside. At night, during March weekends, it’s not uncommon to meet groups of people singing songs in dialect as they walk from one farmyard to the next to ‘ask for eggs’. Laughing and joking as they go, these revelers shout to the farmer or his wife to get out of bed and give them eggs, symbol of fertility par excellence. If all goes well, they may even get invited into the cellar for a hearty glass of wine and a slice of good homemade salami. The tradition boasts very ancient roots and important social connotations. It also deserves attention from a gastronomic point of view. Often, when the farm people know the revelers are on their way, led by the fratucin (a man dressed as a friar who has the job of receiving the eggs from the hands of the farmer), they lay one regional classics such as acciughe al verde (anchovies in parsley and garlic sauce)and tume, forms of homemade cheese.
I can personally vouch for the fact that the experience is worth trying at least once in your life as an antidote to the stress of modern living and as a way of coming back into contact with nature. On Saturday, March 23, this year’s cantè j’euv celebrations will come a climax in the village of Priocca with the participation of groups of revelers from the Langa, Roero and Monferrato districts of Piedmont and from other parts of Italy where similar traditions still survive.
For information on Cantè j’euv Roero 2002, phone ++39 173 611900.
First published in La Stampa 16/03/02
Adapted by John Irving