s I sit here finally unwinding after a long day’s work at my rustic cooking school and B&B, I know that not too far away people are toiling in droves on the nearby streets of medieval Spello, near Assisi. In droves, they’re hurry to complete floral tapestries that match intricately inlaid diagramed etched on the town’s cobblestone pavements.
While I doze, they must hurry to finish their floral “sculptures” before the dawn’s early light, which comes early.
Similar floral rituals exist throughout Italy, but tiny Spello is the reigning queen of the annual May or June extravaganza known as Infiorate.
Without fail, sleepy-eyed citizens known as infioratori work their unique magic floral carpets, fueled by espresso to keep it going. Their efforts correspond with the Corpus Christi feast, a vestige of centuries of rule by the Rome’s papal states (which lasted through 1870). The feast day is celebrated in different ways depending on region.
Spello’s flower carpets are masterpieces of folk art. Like a spiritual installation, they portray the natural world laced with sacred symbols while using a kaleidoscope of natural color. More intriguing is the lifespan of these masterworks. Ephemeral by nature, they endure only through the end of the Corpus Domini procession, whose walkers will trample the tapestries. Order becomes chaos. Like life, nothing lasts.
Spello has held Infiorate since the late 19th century. Postwar tourist interest brought a flood of visitors to witness the creation and display of the short-loved
The procession, far more ancient than the flower festival, generally begins at 11 a.m. The hours before allow townsfolk and visitors alike to view the resplendent arrangements. Later comes a town-wise banquet, with music, dancing and an award given to the best team of infioratori. It’s a massive celebration that heralds the change in season.
Most of Umbria’s late spring and summer festivals celebrate the end of a harsh and cruel winter. The festivities mark a formal escape into summer’s treasured warmth. Color triumphs over grey. Ask yourself, ‘Is there anything more lovely than an Italian village blanketed in blossoms?’ As a child of this hard, at times unforgiving landscape — no place to be on a late January night — I think you can guess my answer.
Risotto Primavera (serves 2-3)
This simple risotto is rich in color: red for poppies, yellow for dandelions, green to mark the slopes of Umbrian hills in summer.
- 2 medium zucchini, thinly sliced.
- 1 bell pepper.
- 1 small onion, diced.
- A few strands of saffron.
- 1 liter (5 cups) water, chicken or vegetable broth.
- 1 tablespoon butter.
- 2 cups arborio, vialone nano, or carnaroli rice.
- 1/2 cup dry white wine.
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley.
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
— Add the saffron strands to 2 tablespoons of water and let it soak.
— Prepare a shallow bowl with a crushed garlic clove and 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Slice the zucchini, grill until just tender, and transfer into the bowl with oil and garlic.
— Cover with a lid or foil to infuse. Grill the bell pepper, wrap tightly in kitchen paper. When at room temperature peel off the skin, cut into short strips, then transfer in the bowl with zucchini.
— Grill the sausages, slice and cover to keep them warm.
— Place the risotto in a large pan. Sauté the onion in butter or in a mixture of olive oil and butter until tender, about 8 minutes.
— Add rice and stir 1 minute. Add wine and cook until absorbed, stirring often for about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup broth and simmer until liquid is absorbed, stirring often, for about 4 minutes.
— After this initial stage, continue to cook, adding more broth and allowing liquid to absorb before adding more, stirring only after you have added the liquid.
— When the rice is tender but still has bite, add the golden saffron liquid to the rice.
— Season to taste with salt and pepper. For extra creaminess, finish with cold diced butter, stirring vigorously.
— Stir in the vegetables, grilled sausages, 2 tablespoons of Parmesan, and one last ladleful of broth. Cover and wait 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley.
— Serve, passing the remaining Parmesan separately.
And whatever the season, smell the flowers.