Digested Digest: Redefining ‘festival food’ – From La Fête to Gran Festa

Posted May 15, 2023 in Food & Drink Features

Spring has sprung and at long last it feels as if the land is coming alive again. Across Europe, work accelerates in anticipation for the more fruitful months ahead. However, in certain parts (more so than others), the arrival of produce is marked with great celebration. Entire regions throughout the continent honour the seasons and their produce with festivals. In southern France, less than a month ago in the Menton region, La Fête du Citron took place, celebrating the arrival of the famous Menton lemon and marking the end of winter. From January through to March, Catalans celebrate Calçot, a tradition known as The Gran Festa de la Calçotada, where people gather and dine on calçot – a long green onion of sorts. The onions are grilled on charcoal then wrapped in wet paper and steamed, becoming sweet and tender. Served whole, they are dragged through romesco, a luscious emulsified sauce made from toasted ground almonds, red peppers, sherry vinegar and olive oil.

In Germany, regions await the coming of spring for the arrival of white asparagus. Known as ’Spargelzeit’, not ‘aspara-gate’, the population consumes over 125,000 tonnes of white asparagus each year (that’s 68 heaving Olympic swimming pools’ worth). It could be considered white gold during this time. In Southern France, the 1st of May is the beginning of the tomato season, where entire villages and towns convene to indulge in these summer fruits. Within the alpine regions of Northern Italy, there are mushroom festivals, where communities feast at long communal tables, tucking into dishes of pasta and rice-based dishes with truffles and cep mushrooms rightfully playing the central role. In 1996, in the neighbouring Emilia Romagna, the Italian mushroom fair was founded to promote local products and the surrounding area. It must have worked, with the help of Massimo (Bottura) of course, as Emilia Romagna is now regarded as the food valley of Italy, boasting over 44 PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) foods, like Parmigiano Reggiano, Parma ham and Mortadella Bologna, to name just a few. Alongside many of these festivals honouring produce and seasons, are fair programs that include wine and food events, cooking classes held by chefs, wine tastings, mycology lessons, meetings, sport, music, excursions, activities for children and magic shows.

Growing up in France as a child, I was fortunate enough to experience festivals like these first hand. It’s worth mentioning that despite being at the centre of it all, the food wasn’t always remarkable. Sometimes the tomatoes were a few weeks shy of ripening on the vine, the romesco lacked a kick or the cut of leg meat, sliced from the half beast cooked on a spit, was tough to swallow. But this was irrelevant. The festival was about the excitement for the season commencing. Tables of produce aplenty, ready to be consumed. Wine poured from the bag, the smell of sweet smoke from the enormous grills wafting throughout the town square, bad renditions of Purple Rain, sung by a lady with permed purple hair. These jovial gatherings are ancient in practice. A communal energy, marked by optimism, summoned from the ground up. An abundance of agriculture in clear sight and a welcome relief that the winter hardships and months of frugality and rationing have passed. It does make you think if people are willing to travel in their hoards to celebrate spring onions cooked in El Mundo newspaper, should we all not place the same appreciation on the arrival of such precious fare?

The Travelling Bilberries

Inspired by a recent visit to Co. Carlow, I learned about a food tradition from baker Seamus Jordan of Plúr bakery. Every August at the foot of Mount Leinster, the local community gathers to harvest bilberries (tiny wild blueberries). They dance, eat and drink to their hearts’ (and stomachs’) content, not 2 km from the bakery. Invigorated by this, last week I had a great pleasure to visit the national folklore archives in University College Dublin (UCD). The purpose of my visit was to discover whether there were more indigenous festivals or ceremonies in Ireland like those akin to Europe. Of course, I was familiar with the likes of Samhain and Imbolg – the Celtic festivals with traditions and customs well documented – as well as more food-oriented festivals like the Galway Oyster Festival. However, I wanted to find out whether there might be a history of festivities that specifically celebrated the arrival of seasonal ingredients.

At UCD, I was introduced to Professor Jonny Dillon (whose name sounds like a guitarist), who appeared to be the authority on Irish folklore and who equally shared a penchant for food and tradition as I did. In his 30s, tall, well-built and tattooed, Jonny wasn’t exactly the sort you might expect to find immersed in university archives (turns out he does play the guitar). When I mentioned the bilberry custom to Jonny, he informed me with familiarity that the ritual was commonly associated with Lughnasa, one of the major Celtic festivals that takes place annually on August 1st and marks the beginning of harvest. Immediately I felt like I was in the right place…Máire McNeal writes that the festival was associated with the Celtic God, Lugh. One myth states that Lugh ordered a week-long festival in memory of his foster mother, Tailtiu, which was held at Teltown in Co Meath. On Lughnasa, it was customary throughout Ireland for people to gather at local beauty spots, like a mountain, with neighbours. The younger generations would climb the mountain picking berries which could be made into bracelets for their loved ones. Although customs differ from region to region, it appears that the practice of picking bilberries was widespread, as was gathering flowers and scaling mountains. Throughout the day people danced jigs and reels and competed in running and jumping competitions. Bilberries were often picked and later made into jams and wines. Although It was exciting to learn about Lughnasa, Jonny was not aware of any other Irish festivals that celebrated ingredients to this level. Many of our festivals followed calendar customs and although food plays a part in them, it was not the focal point.

To gain a better understanding of this, we should look into our past momentarily. Colonisation and subsequently poverty meant years of instability for our people. Where food was scarce, other traditions took precedence, such as literature, music, dance and craft made from locally sourced materials. These customs and traditions became our distraction from hunger. Through no fault of our own, our food culture was stunted.

Ingredient-based festivals

With this realisation, Jonny felt my optimism drop a little before declaring that just because there might be few traditions of ingredient-based festivals in Ireland, it didn’t mean they could never exist. Immediately he launched into a tirade about food and culture in Ireland, touching on writers and pulling out scripts, books, material and paraphernalia I ought to read, including the writing of legends like John Creedon, Máire McNeill, Kevin Danaher and Jim Delaney. He whirled around the archives, dipping in and out of century-old boxes and filing cabinets, pausing at moments to converse in Irish with his colleagues. I learnt that not only did the staff speak Irish with one another, but the filing system was entirely written in Irish. I wondered were there many other professions that still exist today where Irish is mandatory, other than perhaps a teacher’s profession. Surrounded by Irish literature and folklore, there was something quite patriotic about it, in a subtle way. After all, this was a place where the purpose was to preserve and record the very folklore of our people, so it felt only natural that our native language be spoken and preserved here too. I put this by Jonny, asking if it was a requirement to speak Irish. His expression was as if he had never questioned it, but mentioned that although it was not, it would be nigh impossible to comprehend the handwritten Irish filing system if you did not. That made my day.

I spent a full morning with Jonny (which I am so appreciative for). I soon realised that the challenge I had set out would be like searching for a needle in a haystack and that expecting to unearth information instantaneously, was a reality worth forgetting. There is an obvious need for society to better understand and respect food. However, much like the Irish language, forcing responsibility on people will not lead to progress in any great haste. Therefore, if we are to truly reach our full potential and become the food nation we aspire to be, then we must encourage others by demonstrating the sheer jubilance seasonal food brings, marked by way of festivals. As a result, the cultural significance of food can be embraced through festivity, communal celebration, preparation and consumption at large.

Words: Cúán Greene


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