The August Bank Holiday in the UK is looming but, for Italians, the highlight of summer celebration – Ferragosto – is just around the corner. Saturday, August 15, will see wood-fired pizza ovens lit all over Italy, as families do what they can to celebrate in this unprecedented year of 2020, getting together to share authentic Italian woodfired pizza and a glass of crisp white or full-blooded red wine, evoking the feel of life in the olive groves, no matter where their garden may be. Those UK homeowners with a wood oven, could easily take a leaf out of their book and create exactly the same ambiance.
Ferragosto has its origins in Roman history, originating from the Roman festival of Feriae Augusti, founded by Emperor Augustus, to celebrate his victory over Marc Antony at the Battle of Actium. Originally, it took place on August 1, to give agricultural workers a day of rest after the long harvest season. When power later shifted to the Roman Catholic church, the date was moved to a religious date that already celebrated the Assumption of Mary and so Ferragosto found its home in the calendar, on August the 15th each year.
Not just wood-fired pizza …
In Italy, this is not now just a day for lighting the wood-fired oven, but one on which, in normal times, many different festivals and celebrations take place locally. The Feriae Augusti were not simply a time of rest for agricultural workers but for their animals too – the oxen, donkeys and mules that had worked equally hard in the fields and which were given deserved time off and decorated with flowers – something that still happens, to this day. After a while, the Roman event linked various agricultural festivals together, to create a longer period of rest – Augustali – and this became a time of horse races, for which riders would compete for the ‘pallium’ – a piece of precious fabric. Fast-forward to today’s celebrations for Ferragosto and the Tuscan city of Siena still hosts the Palio dell’Assunta – the famous horse event staged within its medieval city walls.
In Diano Marina in Liguria, Ferragosto is celebrated with a festival of the sea. In Tuscan Montepulciano, locals and tourists alike are thrilled by a historical pageant and games. In Sassari in Sardinia, there’s the Festa dei Candelieri – an atmospheric event with 16th century origins, which enormous decorative candles paraded through the streets. Skies across Italy are lit with fireworks, whilst the streets are filled with music, parades, laughter and Italian chatter.
The Ferragosto lunch
Much of this phenomenon was fostered by Mussolini, who gave the lower classes the opportunity to take trips on “holiday trains” that ran on the dates of August 14, 15 and 16, taking them to the seaside or the mountains, for the price of an exceptionally low-cost ticket. But with no food or board thrown in, it was a case of creating your own Ferragosto lunch – on the beach, by the lake or at your chosen picnic location.
And so, the Ferragosto lunch grew in status as one of Italy’s most loved social occasions – a true celebration of summer, the harvest, family life and friendship. All of these elements can be imported into your UK garden, if you own a Valoriani wood-fired oven, whether you opt for a wheeled baby oven that can take centre stage on your patio, or a built-in oven within a garden installation of your own design. Here at Orchard Ovens, we can provide you with both options and even supply a DIY kit, if you fancy building your own pizza oven, as a DIY project.
Other wood fired celebration dishes
Of course, when we say pizza, we are underselling the benefit somewhat as, when you own a Valoriani oven, you can cook a plethora of items in it – bread, roasted meats, vegetarian classics or tasty lentils, fish dishes, jacket potatoes, even yummy desserts and puds. How about pork loin cooked in the oven, steak with crayfish, or mouth-watering Aubergine Parmigiana to serve up to guests, or a celebratory Roasted Strawberry Decadence?
You can burn delightfully scented alder wood or go for the true feel of the Mediterranean and order in olive wood. You can enjoy the aromas of food cooking in the oven by day or night and the comforting warmth that the oven provides, if you decide to fire up on a cooler evening or chillier day. Just close your eyes and you can imagine yourself in that Italian Ferragosto garden.
Cheating with a gas-fired pizza oven
Don’t say this too loudly, but you can also cheat. If cooking with wood isn’t for you, Orchard Ovens and Valoriani have spent decades perfecting the cooking of pizza by gas, making it taste so authentic that it’s even been given the thumbs up by the guardians of Neapolitan pizza tradition in Naples!
Whatever you do this Ferragosto, or August Bank Holiday, try to live life like an Italian if you wish to exude gioia di vivere – even if you never leave the sanctuary of your back garden.