Every year in the outlying province of Benevento an unusual and wonderful event takes place. Like bees honing onto a flower, the men of Pontelandolfo flock to the main square . They come every afternoon, proud and defiant, to challenge one another, individually and in groups, to a grueling contest of…cheese throwing.
La ruzzola del formaggio, once characteristic of rural populations all along the Apennines, is a tradition dating back to the Etruscans as immortalized in the Tomba delle Olimpiade at Tarquinia. A fresco depicts a man launching a large round form, his posture almost identical to those of current day cheese-throwers. Played nowadays almost exclusively by farmers and stonemasons who, during the winter months have more free time, the men show off their strength and prowess by hurling huge forms of cheese weighing up to 34 kg. Since la ruzzolata (ruzzolare meaning literally to tumble or throw) takes place during the shortest days of the year, these men look forward to the event not only as a pleasant pastime, but as a way to earn extra money, by making and taking bets on the various players and contrade, similar to the Palio of Siena. Participants pay an up-front fee of €30,00 plus 1.5 kg. of pork or 1kg. of veal (in lieu of the festivities that takes place at the opening of the tournament).
The object of the game is to launch a form of cheese along an astablished path of about a kilometer through the city, passing twice around the main square and down to the war monument. The man or team that finishes the distance in the least number of throws wins.
To throw the heavy forms, a rigging made of rope called a zaa’glia is wrapped around the cheese and then strapped to the wrist by a brace which is held in place with either duct tape or leather straps.
The winding of the rope around the cheese is a vital part of the ritual and depends on an assistant, who gauges the size and weight of the form. It will be wound, unwound and rewound until the pitcher is sure he has found the perfect grip.
Lastly, the helper stands in front of the pitcher and carefully ponders the road ahead, considering the incline and scanning the pavement for depressions, potholes, or anything that will affect the course of the cheese. Next he takes a few long paces, tracing the perfect trajectory in his mind and then stops, turns around and stands, legs apart, at the exact point where the thrower is to aim. The pitcher lifts the form and gently swings it back and forth, then, with truly awesome strength, heaves it forward while simultaneously pulling back on the rope, sending the cheese spinning along the cobblestones. This process is repeated, first up and then down the street. There is little yelling or shouting… this is earnest business. A form of cheese can cost up to 150 euro, a large sum for the hardworking people of these areas.
There is something especially poignant about this simple, yet manly pursuit. For some reason it reminds me of fairy tales, fables and ancient heros. On Sundays little boys imitate the gestures with tiny forms of cheese, or hold on protectively to their fathers’ jackets as they puff and sweat into the night. This is a place where time has stopped. There are no costumes, no music, no sbandiatori or tourists. In a world where local traditions are slowly dying, here is a town vitalized, with men proud of their identity yet happy to explain the history and nuances of the game. It’s been a tranquil yet inspiring afternoon, well worth the weight!
La Ruzzola dei Formaggi begins January 17th and lasts until Ash Wednesday
A trip to Pontelandolfo to see la ruzzola del formaggio makes an excellent day’s outing from Rome or Naples. If possible, reserve a table at ‘La Pignata’, the cozy family-owned restaurant run by Canadian-born Chef Irene Mucilli (www.ristorantelapignata.com). They have a well-stocked cellar and feature the best local wines of the region such as Mastroberardino, Feudi di S. Geregorio, Antica Masseria Venditti, Mustilli, La Rivolta and Corte Normanna. A full four-course meal with wine costs (on weekends) approximately 35,00 euro per person.
The Roman poet Giuseppe Gioachino Belli wrote a delightful poem on the ruzzolata called Er gioco de la ruzzica, which I am unfortunately unable to translate:
Sta cacca de fà a rruzzica, Dodato,
Co la smaniaccia d’abbuscà ll’evviva,
Nun è ggiro pe tté, cche nun hai fiato
De strillà mmanco peperoni e oliva.
Come sce pôi ggiucà, tisico nato,
senza dajje ’na càccola d’abbriva?
Nun vedi la tu’ ruzzica sur prato
c’appena ar fin de ’na scorreggia arriva?
Co ddu’ pormonettacci de canario,
d’indove mommò er zangue te se sbuzzica,
tu protenni de prennete sto svario?
Stattene in pasce: ggnisuno te stuzzica;
si ppoi vôi vince tu, vva’ a Montemario,
pijja la scurza e bbutta ggiú la ruzzica.