Palio di Siena: The craziest (and tastiest) horse race in the world!
Siena is the scene of one of the most anticipated and exciting historical horse races of the year. To celebrate, the entire city takes to the streets to eat and drink at parties that last all week. These communal dinners bring people together to share in centuries-old traditions of camaraderie and local culinary specialties.
The Palio will finally take place again this year, and this week's menu will give you a taste of what could be served on their communal tables decorating the streets of Siena.
Featured wine: Le Maestrelle, Super Tuscan, Antinori 2019
This wine earned 90 points from the Wine Spectator. This beautiful blend (not available for purchase anywhere else but here at the Food Club) is a Super Tuscan that is fresh and lively enough to serve with a slight chill. Perhaps a bit more refined than what you would find served at the long communal street tables in Siena during the Palio festivals, it is worth every sip and pairs well with this week’s menu.
If attending the Palio horse race in Siena is not on your “Must-do-at-least-once-in-my-life” List, it should be. You will never experience anything quite like it. It takes place twice a year on July 2 and August 16 and has been deeply rooted in the fabric of the city for centuries.
Siena is divided into 17 “contrade” (neighborhoods) and its citizens are fiercely loyal and competitive as they vie to win the coveted Palio (commemorative banner.) The parade that proceeds the race is spectacular in its own right – with floats, trumpeters, drummers and flag throwers all dressed in beautiful Renaissance garb. The race itself takes place in Siena’s main square, converted into a track with tons and tons of sand. Only 10 or the 17 Contrade are chosen via lottery to race. The starting line is lively, as the 10 horses are squeezed onto the small track. There are always numerous false starts as jockeys openly fight for the best position, arguing, taunting and trying to bribe each other. Contrade pay their jockeys very well – they are experienced horsemen, relentless competitors, and skillful negotiators. Once the race begins, the only rule is that a rider may not interfere with the reins of another horse. It is a fast and violent race on bareback, usually resulting in both injured men and horses. If a jockey is knocked off, the riderless horse can still win the race. The 90-second race is thrilling, but over in a blink of an eye, resulting in either euphoric exultation or profound despair. One tradition that creates an interesting mental picture is that of grown men celebrating by sucking pacifiers or drinking wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth.
Participants and spectators alike are caught up in a frenzy as they chant and feast in the streets for days leading up to the big race and throughout the night after. Tables and chairs are set up in the city’s squares and along its small winding streets as each contrada hosts multi-course extravaganzas. These city-wide communal dinners bring people together to share in centuries-old traditions of camaraderie and local culinary specialties. A typical Sienese celebratory dinner would exemplify the simplicity and straightforwardness of Tuscan flavors. This would be on display at the beginning of the meal with a simple Antipasto Toscano and platefuls of assorted crostini. Our Crostini ai Funghi are crisp toasts of our homemade bread, rubbed with fresh garlic, dipped in extra virgin olive oil, and topped with a coarse pâté of cremini, shitake and oyster mushrooms and truffles.
A particular type of chickpea is cultivated in the area surrounding Siena. Strozzapreti della Miseria was probably invented following WWI when the availability of ingredients was limited to what families could find or grow locally. The chickpeas are prepared in a sauce of onion, carrot, celery, tomato, and pancetta tossed with our homemade fresh “priest stranglers” pasta. It is finished with a sprinkling of Pecorino Toscano made in the town of Pienza, not far from Siena.
Arrosto Senese allo Spiedo, or roasted meat skewers, would definitely be found at a Palio dinner. We make ours by alternating chunks of chicken, pork tenderloin and homemade fennel sausage with the addition of large croutons and bay leaves.
Crostata di More. Without a doubt, every Tuscan household has its recipe for blackberry jam tarte. Especially now in August, country roads are crowded with the parked cars of foragers looking for wild blackberries. We would walk for hours, picking our way through the prickly bushes. Returning then to spend days in the kitchen with bubbling pots of preserves and lines of glistening jam jars. This homemade jam spread over a cookie crust is the formula for Italy’s most popular confection. It is the perfect sweet conclusion to this gigantic street party, also because it is a wonderful way to continue enjoying your wine.
Le Maestrelle is the suggested wine pairing for our simple festive dinner. It is a blend of Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah, creating a balanced, soft and savory wine. It has light tannins and a vivid finish that is best served lightly chilled.
Che gioia! What joy! It appears Italy has reopened its doors to travelers. From what I hear the tourist trade is in full swing. Not since WWII had the Palio been cancelled. Siena is alive again with preparations for this beloved event. The pageantry is back in its full splendor and Siena's citizens are once again setting their communal tables throughout the city's streets.
And they are off!
PS. This video helps portray the unique excitement of the Palio.