Colourful and tasty, wild strawberries that have an ancient and mysterious origin linked to the pangs of love are celebrated every year in the famous Nemi strawberry festival. The strawberries grow hidden in the woods of Nemi, a well-known town on the edge of the enchanting lake of the Castelli Romani, hiding between bushes and trees until they expose themselves when they are completely ripe.
The history of this strawberry is linked to the Nemus Nemòris, the sacred wood of the goddess Diana, goddess of hunting and goddess of the woods, which wood is today is located between the village of Nemi (Guide of Nemi) and the small lake. The myth tells of the tragic love born between Adonis and Venus, goddess of love and beauty, and of the jealousy of Persephone.
Persephone was a minor goddess of the underworld married to Hades, the undisputed sovereign of the dark who, jealous and irritated by the behavior of Venus towards the boy, asked for help from Mars. The enraged war god turned into a boar and killed Adonis, the contested boy, during a hunt.
The tears of despair of Venus when she came in contact with the blood of Adonis turned into small red hearts from which the wild strawberries were born.
This myth led to a feast in honour of Adonis that was then somehow taken up by the feast of St. Anthony of Padua on June 13th. For this reason in Rome in Piazza Campo de’ Fiori the ‘fragolare ‘ (strawberry pickers) prepared a basket with the statue of the saint and around there laid baskets of strawberries that were then distributed to passers-by. The festival is celebrated in some paintings of the time.
In 1922 the celebration was moved to Nemi where, on the first Sunday of June, girls of all ages wearing the traditional costumes (red skirt, black corset, white blouse and the mandible on the head), walked the streets of the village distributing the strawberries.
The strawberry festival had been moved to Nemi because this was one of the cultivation centers of one of the tastiest species: already in 1877 in the Acts of the Parliamentary Jacini Inquiry, the wild strawberries of Nemi were included among the typical products.
Perhaps due to the microclimate of the lake, perhaps due to the volcanic soils, perhaps due to the characteristics of the water, Nemi’s strawberry has a particular and unique taste, is rich in vitamin C, calcium and phosphorus, and today is an IGP product – Indication Protected Geographical. Since the 1950s, from the woods around Nemi a real agricultural production began.
The Nemi strawberry festival takes place under the banner of joy with concerts, flag-waving processions and tastings with an extraordinary fireworks display on the banks of the volcanic lake. As well as the fruit there is also an exhibition of flowers: local florists embellish with their creations some scenes of the historical centre.
In the popular tradition, magical virtues were attributed to the strawberry. It is said that in order to avoid snake bites, the leaves should be collected on June 24th, dried in the sun and made into a belt. This, worn, would keep the snakes away. In fact, once, the strawberry, was a symbol of purity because, while it grows in the ground and is continually being squashed by the snakes, it stays pure and does not imbibe the despicable venom of these animals.
Even in America there are special legends related to this fruit and among the Indians of Ontario was the belief that when a man dies his spirit remains alive and enters the land of the dead wandering until it reaches a huge strawberry. If the soul tastes this fruit, it forgets the world of the living, but if it does not touch the fruit, it returns to the earth.
Returning to Nemi, for decades the cultivation of wild strawberries has filled the entire basin of the lake with flowers, perfumes and songs, thanks also to the creation of a special system of stone terraces. Today, next to the traditional forest, in which the strawberry ripens in May and June, there are grown re-flowering ones that bear fruit until autumn plus the larger traditional ones.
In Nemi the ‘tears of Venus’ can be enjoyed with a view from the beautiful lake that reaches the sea or by walking on the land of the emperors such as Caligula who had built a ‘floating villa’ right on the lake that today is visible in the Naval Museum of Nemi (Museum of Roman Ships).
But the strawberries can also be drunk with a particular infusion called the Fragolino di Nemi.
Any excuse is good for letting go of the temptations.