Dinner in the Contrada: more than horses
If there is one place in the world where you can really understand how food is a communal, social ritual, it’s Siena. Just visit any one of the 17 contrade (districts), which twice a year compete in the famous Palio horse race, and observe how any one of the countless dinners in that district is organised.
Eating in the contrada isn’t a matter of passing the time. Eating in the contrada is eating with your family, sharing joys and griefs, hopes and expectations and stories. An extended family, you understand, where thousands of fellow dinner guests, of every age, come to the table for the same occasion.
The contrada sits down together for dinner many times throughout the year and – as is often the case at home – somehow achieves an importance and solemnity that goes beyond even the most noble banquets.
In general, these events are self-catered, in the sense that the people of the district take it in turns behind the hobs. The result of such an enormous operation is unpredictable. As they say in Siena, “ci sta il pane e la sassata”: literally meaning “bread or a slingshot, both are fine”, idiomatically meaning that eating badly is as likely as eating well. But when the contrada eats together, the first rule is: “It’s all good!”
Complaining would be out of place here, even when justified. In general, those who volunteer to prepare the food have at least some interest in cooking, but it's not their main pursuit in life. Those who "serve" in this kitchen, however, almost always have an abundance of patience, passion and goodwill to call upon.
That's why, behind their enormous pans bubbling with ragù and ovens stuffed with untold bounty, it’s only a minor sin if they get the dose of salt slightly wrong or overcook the pasta. Cooking for thousands is the work of heroes. You wouldn’t bet on “celebrity chefs” doing any better.
In the contrada, the kitchen is always a gathering place. From smaller brigades, ready to heat up a light dinner for two or three hundred people, to whole armies assembled to feed an entire district of a city – everyone works together. Who cleans, who cuts the slices, who divvies up the portions, who stirs the ladles: everyone has their role, and everyone knows what they have to do.
It’s a perfect machine, made even more magical by the fact that its cogs change with every outing, because every year the volunteers are different.
The menu is written according to the rules of what’s in season and what’s local, and it adapts to circumstances and the number of expected diners.
The contrada often eats together, not only when the Palio is on. Cenini take place every week, or even more often, in the società – a word that refers to the venues managed directly by the contrada itself, where its people meet throughout the year to celebrate friendship and love. The banchetti (“banquets”) are usually lunches organised to celebrate special dates on the contrada’s calendar. Then there are summer dinners, which take place outside; and of course, the feasts on the actual days of the Palio, eaten just before the race.
These are the most eagerly awaited and most widely attended meals of the year: in order to fit everyone in, every contrada has to peacefully invade the streets and squares of the historic centre with long rows of the tables. The roads are closed to traffic for the occasion, and each district unfurls the colours of its flag.
On the days of the Palio (from 29 June to 2 July and from 13 to 16 August), there’s a lot of work to be done in the kitchen. On days as special as these, the contrada breakfasts together, lunches together and, of course, dines together.
Leading up to the big day – the day on which the race is run – there are various times that food and anthropology unite, and some dishes are seen almost as an offering to the gods.
And that’s before we’ve got to the dinner that precedes the day of the race: thousands of people sitting at the table together, praying for victory. It’s a scene that would give any onlooker a thrill of excitement.
In the event of emerging victorious, the contrada will celebrate with a series of cenini that might go on for months before the solemn “Cena della Vittoria” (victory supper) draws a line under it all. This dinner, the best and last, has the winning horse as the guest of honour.
In conclusion, dining with your contrada is a real experience, and if you have the opportunity to do so, do not pass it up. It’s not for everyone: it’s for those who appreciate sincerity, simplicity and frankness. Nobody will be talking about mise en place; the portions will not be gourmet-sized. But you will find yourself in a unique environment, where what’s served to you represents passion in its purest form.
The morning of the “tratta” (meaning when the horses are chosen by lot) the contrada typically eat a breakfast of tripe, anchovies in pesto, hard-boiled eggs and bomboloni - a sort of fried croissant, filled with cream. The word bombolone also refers to the horse that is tipped to win. A mixture of power, strength and fortune, which culminates in triumphant sweetness - you can taste victory before it comes.