The end of May means strawberries in the Tuscan Maremma.
And with these luscious red berries comes the Sagra della Fragola or Strawberry Festival - one of the Maremma's oldest and most beloved events.
Every May, hundreds of locals and tourists flock to the otherwise inconspicuous town of Marsiliana in the Fiora Valley just be part of the Sagra della Fragola.
And every year since its inception more than 30 years ago, the festival captivates with its humbleness and simple splendor.
On the surface, it's nothing more than a country fete with fantastic food stalls and an arts and crafts market. But underneath all that, it's a nod to the farmers who make up so much of what defines Marsiliana.
While the town has Etruscan roots, Marsiliana's locals identify themselves as 'contadini' (farmers). Generations of Marsilianini have made their living off the land. It's in their blood.
For many years, this small town 20km outside of Manciano provided all of Tuscany's strawberries. But they don't just grow strawberries now. Now the fields around the town are filled with sunflowers and olives, silverbeet and carrots.
And the Sagra della Fragola is the locals' way of thanking their farmers and showcasing their produce.
Restauranteurs make up the main stalls at the festivals. Their tables groaning with pasta al'arrabbiata, roasted homemade sausages and vegetables and, of course, plenty of strawberries.
For €5, you can pile up your plate with restaurant quality-food and then elbow the crowd for a seat at one of the al fresco wooden tables, a glass of the local red in hand.
And then, to be blunt, you just gawk.
What I neglected to mention is that Sagra della Fragola is not an event organised to draw tourists. It's a local institution. A celebration of the Fiora Valley, and no one who lives here ever misses it.
For them, it is a chance to catch up with old friends and gossip loud enough to drown out the sound of the band playing traditional Maremman folk songs. As the night wears on, they push the tables aside and dance with the sort of ease that comes naturally to Italians.
And we, me included, are always left a little in awe. Not because we don't know the dances, but because it's not often that tourists get a glimpse of such an intrinsically local tradition.
To be a part of the Sagra della Fragola is to be a part of the Maremman way of life and the contadini culture that makes the region so beautiful and so unique.
The festival came to an end this weekend, which is what inspired me to write this post. You can always go next year though. It's usually held throughout the last weeks of May.
In the meantime, I thought I would share my mother-in-law's recipe for one of the most popular treats at the festival - the quintessentially local Crostata di Fragole or Strawberry Tart.
La Crostata di Fragole
For the tart base:
For the egg white filling:
- 200g plain flour
- 80g sugar
- 80g butter
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp baking powder
- zest of 1/2 a lemon
- pinch of salt
For the custard
- 2 egg whites, hold onto the yolks for the custard
- 30g of caster sugar
- 30g amaretti biscuits
- 2 egg yolks
- 20g plain flour
- 100g caster sugar
- 250ml milk
- 500g strawberries
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/3 cup apricot jam
Prepare the tart base by mixing the flour, sugar, butter, egg, baking powder, lemon rind and salt in a bowl. Mix until it all comes together in a smooth ball and set aside to rest.
Butter and flour a 20cm round cake tin. Wash and cut the strawberries and leave to marinate in a bowl with the lemon juice.
In another bowl, whip the egg whites until stiff with 30g of sugar. Fold in the crushed amaretti biscuits. Set aside.
On a floured surface, roll out the tart base until it's about 3cm thick and arrange in your tin. Make sure the pastry comes a couple of centimetres up the sides of tin. Spread the egg white and amaretti mixture over the pastry and bake in a preheated oven at 180°C for about 25 minutes or until set.
Meanwhile, prepare the custard by heating the milk, egg yolks, flour and sugar in a small pan. Cook over a low heat until the mixture is thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
Take the tart case out of the oven. Pour over the custard and leave to cool. Arrange the marinated strawberries on top and glaze with the melted apricot jam.
Serve with a scoop of ice cream or cream for an authentic taste of Tuscan summer.