A little bit of rain does not keep the bidders out of the piazza in Santa Croce Camerina, a small town in southeastern Sicily that is known for its lavish St. Joseph’s day celebrations. Sure there are processions, but food is the centerpiece.
Walking three blocks from the parking lot, there are cooking smells pouring out of kitchen windows, with sugar laden desserts, aromatic tomato sauce, and yeasty breads mingling into a thick food fug. By the time I reach the piazza, I’m dizzy.
My goal is the food auction, which starts at 9.30 am, and continues for most of the day, with a break for lunch, presumably to attempt to consume some of the huge quantity of goods purchased at auction. Just the cheese table alone is a sight to behold as it groans under the weight of 20 kilo loaves of caciocavallo, heaps of freshly made provola, and wheels of pecorino studded with peppercorns. And cheese is just the beginning. There are cases of strawberries, eggplant, fennel and oranges, hand-picked bunches of wild asparagus and mustard tops, and baskets of citron that look like huge knobby lemons, and are eaten in thin slices dipped in salt.
I am invited back stage at the auction to survey the goods, and find baskets of the prized carob-tree mushroom, carefully frozen in the fall and now fetching a handsome price. There are innumerable piles of San Giuseppe festival breads, in traditional shapes decorated with flowers or shaped like St. Joseph’s cane. While I am busy surveying the abundance of produce, a burlap bag at my feet begins to move and I am cautioned not to step on the (live) rabbit. Someone hands a whole pork thigh to the auctioneer, and then a fellow shows up with his young son and a live baby goat. The goat, being frisky, is quickly moved to the front of the auction line. Rather than being sad about parting with it, the young boy is obviously proud of the fact that a man immediately bids on it. After parting with 30 euros, the man wrestles the goat into his car, and drives away with a baa.
We take a break from the food auction to check out some of the tavolate – laden tables – set up in private homes, where townspeople playing the part of la sacra famiglia – the holy family- will be guests at a festive lunch, and then take home a tower of homemade sweets. The presentations are breathtaking, and I am accompanied by Leonardo, a 15-year old nephew who, like 15 year olds the world over, is perpetually hungry. His eyes are popping out of his head at all the sweets and he whispers, “are you sure we can’t eat any of this?” as his hand hovers over a plate of little cassatelle, ricotta tarts. I share his pain, so hustle him out before I give in to temptation and ask him to grab me one, too.
Once out in the street we head forlornly back to the auction, and reach the piazza just at the moment they are auctioning off a tray of arancini. Leonardo gasps and we lunge forward to have our bids heard, and are stunned when no one outbids our screams of “quindici, quindici”! We are soon the proud owners of 10 arancini. We waste no time in moving to a corner of the piazza, and giggle gleefully as we each grab an arancino. They are still warm. The first bite is the point of the arancino, perfectly crusty and not too oily, the rice inside creamy and fragrant. The second bite hits the meaty filling, and a thick string of warm cheese flops onto my chin. “Buono” I swoon. “Buonissimo” responds Leonardo. We grin with our mouths full. Forget the processions-now this is what I call a feast day.