The Truffle Festival of Sant’Agata Feltria

(In Three Acts)

I: Dawn

Though the dorm room of the convent is frigid, our excitement for the festival pulls me from my bed and carries me out to Sant’Agata Feltria’s cobbled streets. The city is bathed in dawn light and the bells of a church ring out across the rooftops. I  can feel the sound reverberate in the air and as we follow the cobblestones street down to the festival tents on the central square.

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Shopkeepers and festival vendors are preparing their stalls and wares for the day by the first light of the sky and fluorescent lamps. They unload boxes, bags, and cartons from tall white vans, carrying their wares to covered stalls, arranging goods and preparing food for the coming crowds. The local café is open early, and between preparations vendors savor a morning espresso. Even with all the work to be done, most prefer to stop for a few minutes and drink at the café counter instead of taking a to-go cup.

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Even after coffee and a croissant, Stoytcho and I are hungry for breakfast and find ourselves gravitating toward rich smells emanating from food stalls at the square’s edge. People are busily chopping, cooking, preparing, but one couple is willing to take an order of fried porcini at the price of 8 euros. They come out in golden breaded strips, fresh from the deep fryer, and taste simultaneously buttery, nutty, and savory. As we’re munch away, one of the hosts passes us a cup of wine with a wink. This one’s on the house.

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Full, slightly tipsy, and lulled into somnolence by the quiet morning, we return to the convent for a nap.

II: Day

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When we return to the truffle festival after our morning siesta, the town center is thronging with dense crowds, browsing shop and stall for local wares, fall produce, and of course, all things truffle. The first business is truffles, and stalls proudly display baskets full of black and white truffles for the eyes of discerning buyers who peer and sniff and gently prod to pick the choicest specimens. While I would love to buy some, we’re here for only an evening longer and there’s little in the way I could prepare, so my interest is the second business of the fair: truffle products, from spreads to premade sauces to salts and honeys. And every vendor has a few jars open with crackers nearby so you can sample. It’s hard to resist buying everything.

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We try to get lunch at the food stall we ate breakfast from, but the sea of people already ordering from them is impassable, so we opt for truffle pasta at a vendor further from the main square. While it’s truffle-flavored, it’s not as rich as it could be, but still satisfying. The highlight is the pasta’s soft texture, worlds away from the feel of boiled boxed pasta in the U.S. We sit in the shade of a tree and eat slowly.

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The festival also offers a cornucopia of other local foods, from fresh fall chanterelles and porcinis to locally produced sausage, cheeses, and olives to fresh baked sweets. We buy a bag of marrones, sweet chestnuts that are freshly roasted in a steel pan. They taste like maple syrup, with the texture that reminds me of marzipan. Before the day is done, we’ll buy a second bag. But for now, once again full and sleepy, we return to the convent with our purchased truffle products to ship back home.

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III: Dusk

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We wake again in the late afternoon to take one last foray out to the festival. The crowds have mostly dispersed and the cobblestone streets are once again navigable paths. We follow a small crowd of people up a path we have not yet explored, up wide stone stairs and through archways to a vista overlooking the town. The sun sinks behind the hills and orange hues fade to reds, purples, and blues. The church bells ring once more.

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Though most truffle vendors have closed their stalls and left for home, others still sell food and snacks by fluorescent lamplight. We buy a second batch of marrones and two sausages – one for ourselves and one for the Father of the convent – and walk slowly through the central square. In one corner we find a woman selling sweet, medicinal-smelling candies. It’s artisanal licorice, because of course Italy has artisanal licorice. Why wouldn’t they?

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For dinner we return to the food stall where we ate fried porcini for breakfast. We find the same couple still working in the stall’s kitchen, now with a few extra women as help, filling the occasional orders from townsfolk and tourists who have stuck around. We ask for another batch of fried porcini and they recognize us, and before long we get another batch of fresh-fried mushrooms and a couple of glasses of wine. We use Google Translate to tell them that their food was the best, and the man grins brightly. He motions one of the women over to us, who turns out to be his niece who speaks English, and we carry on a conversation. We share how long we’ve been traveling and where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. They tell us about cooking at the truffle fair as a family. During the rest of the year, the hold separate jobs in government or teaching, but each year for this festival the family reunites to prepare and cook and celebrate mushrooms. I’m amazed to discover food so good isn’t from a professional chef.

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As we talk the matron of the stall brings over samples of more food and drink. There’s a few kinds of local cheese, three types of wine, sandwiches, fried potatoes, and of course, more fried porcini. When we try to pay, the family warmly refuses our cash. But I want to leave them with something so I dash back up to the convent to rifle through the treasures we’ve found on our journey. I settle on a sweet cloudberry wine we picked up in Estonia, and dash back down to the central square with it in hand. The Italian word for gift is thankfully the same as Spanish; “regalo” I tell the family, as I hand it to the matron, “di Estonia.” The woman grasps it excitedly, and then turns back to us and asks a question we don’t understand. The niece translates for us, “Will you come back again next year?”

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Afterward:

A generous chap who speaks English (and Russian!) and runs the local produce store insisted on giving us a beer to take home that night, on the house. When we saw him in the morning, he also insisted on giving us apples to take on the bus for breakfast.

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Ancona to Rimini to Sant’Agata

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Early in the morning we hopped on a train headed north to Rimini, the nearest city to our eventual goal of Sant’Agata Feltria, and its famous truffle festival!

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But first, we had to timestamp our tickets. In case anyone is thinking about taking a train around Italy, these are the ticket stamping machines – you put your ticket in the slot, it gives you a stamp with the time on it. No stamp, no valid ticket.

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A few hours later we arrived in Rimini. There a helpful info-clerk pointed us towards the bus ticket booth, which gave us a bus time table book and sold us some tickets. It took a while to work out when each bus was leaving, and to make sure that we’d have a bus to take us back after the festival. The schedule varies by weekday, weekend, some specific holidays. Thank goodness for basic words translating across most languages, and also google translate.

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There wasn’t much to do in Rimini without leaving the area around the train station, so we found one of the few cafes that had wifi available and camped out for a few hours. The owner was pretty happy to have someone to practice English with, so we chatted a bit about our trip and the surrounding Italian countryside.

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As the sun was just barely starting to make its way down, we headed back to the station and waited for our bus. This was the first of two that would take us to Sant’Agata. The first dropped us off in Feltria, the city hub near Sant’Agata, and from there we would take another bus for the last leg of the trip. This is not a destination that’s easy to get to.

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Beautiful Italian countryside passed by while we stared out the window.

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We passed a few towns along the way.

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And some farms near the tracks.

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But mostly it was countryside.

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Fun fact – every hill in Italy has a castle on it! That’s not actually true, but it sure felt that way where we were. As we rode the bus we would point out castles as we saw them – and after a while we stopped because there were so many. I am a little bit jealous of their castle topped hillsides.

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Eventually our bus rolled into Feltria. It turns out this is the only inter-city bus stop in town, so we would come back here an hour later to catch our last leg.

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In the meantime though, we wandered around trying to find food. After a false start, we stumbled in to the town center.

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I found the nearest pizzeria!

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And we had delicious thick crust pizza for dinner!

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Also the town was having a fair! There were toys, fossils, and handwoven baskets for sale in the central square.

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Around the corner there were tents set up selling all manner of crafts – mostly jewelry and clothes, but also soaps, carved decorations, ceramics, and of course food.

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We made our way back to the bus stop and loaded up on the bus. This route is the only bus in to Sant’Agata all evening, so it makes a whole bunch of stops in the middle of nowhere, picking people up who want to go home or make their way to a larger town. The transit network outside the train-connected cities is all by bus, and it’s fairly reliable. The downside is, many of these buses only run twice a day at most.

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At one point our bus had to go through a small town. This town had streets only a hair wider than the bus itself. With walls on both sides. We held our breath.

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The bus driver was running on expert mode, and got the bus through without a scratch. I can’t imagine what the first day on this job looks like.

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Darkness had fully settled by the time we arrived in Sant’Agata. The fair was still only setting up so the town was quiet – anyone up at this hour was hanging out at the cafe. We asked for a hotel in town and were directed up the road and up a hill to the very nice hotel at the top. When we got there it became pretty clear we couldn’t afford the rate, but the hotel owner pointed us to a tourist site for the city and let us use their wifi. He also called the local convent and asked if they had room available. A short walk back across town and up another hill, some bungled Italian with the father of the convent, and we had a room for our stay!

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Why didn’t we have a hotel booked for a very popular local festival in a small town? Not a lot of internet information is available in English sadly. We’re very grateful to the hotel owner who called the convent. In Italy convents act as hostels in smaller towns, taking in travelers, boy scouts, and any other visitors for a very small sum. At this point we were thoroughly exhausted and ready to sleep. But wait!

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What’s that up there in the corner?

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It’s our old friend, a scorpion! After spotting him Natalie put him in one of our camping bowls and we took him outside. After that last bit of adventure, we collapsed to sleep.