The palio has long celebrated roots throughout Italy. So long, in fact, they stretch as far back as the thirteenth century. But what is it, exactly?
When one thinks of the word “palio,” the internationally famous series of horse races in Siena immediately comes to mind. Held every year on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August, these races occupying all of the piazza del Campo pit horses representing the city’s different “contrade” – or neighbourhoods – against each other for the grand prize – the palio.
A palio to win a palio?
The term “palio” is derived from the Latin word pallium or ample garment or cloth. In the context of Italy’s pali, it refers at once to the traditional type of dress competitors initially wore to the event, to every neighbourhood’s individual flag emblazoned with its symbol (the wolf, the wave, the turtle, the caterpillar, for example), and to the prize the winner received at the competition’s close: a large banner embellished with gold tassels atop a lengthy spear.
Historically, “palio” has come almost exclusively to be associated with programmed equestrian races, occurring throughout Italy, but most abundant in Tuscany. Eventually, the connection extended to water races, too, like the Monte Argentario palio in Porto Santo Stefano, or the Gulf of La Spezia palio near Genova. But that has been the extent of my experience with the palio.
So imagine my surprise when, on the first Sunday of this month, I took my brother and his girlfriend to Pienza – a location made famous for its pecorino cheese – and found a very different kind of palio taking place there: the Cacio al Fuso.
I’ll describe the scene: a crowd had gathered at Piazza Pio II, before the city’s main church, entirely cordoned off. In the centre of the square, embedded into the brick pavement, is a marble ring, inserted five hundred years prior by Bernardo Rossellino – the town architect. At its centre was a wooden pin. From it, chalk lines and circles had been drawn out on the pavement, each corresponding to a different point value. Men of all ages had lined up at a point on the perimeter of the square, kneeling on a rug, to take their turn rolling what looked like a pepper-encrusted form of pecorino as close to the pin at the ring’s centre as possible. Five points for landing the cheese between the pin and the ring; four in the circle immediately outside the pin, three in the following circle, and so on.
This is Pienza’s palio: a game called “Cacio al Fuso” – or “Cheese to the Pin” – a late summer tradition since 1960. And the cheese being rolled? Only Pienza’s finest, 90-day barrel-aged pecorino.
Seems easy, right? If you can bowl, you can take home the title. Hardly. The square’s paved irregularity and its integrated slope make cheese rolling a daunting, if entertaining task.
On the building to the right of the church, Pienza’s contrade are colourfully represented in small triangle banners: Casello, Case Nuove, Gozzante, Le Mura, Il Prato, San Piero.
And the winner? We didn’t stick around long enough to find out. The first weekend of September is also typically the time for a tasting of the city’s most renowned products at stands and small shops lining the narrow cobblestone streets. It beckoned to us. But we agreed, unanimously, that perhaps the best prize for this palio would be … you guessed it … cheese! Though perhaps not the one being rolled.