Between the evening of 16 and the day of 17 January, in many places along the Cesanese Wine Route, an ancient tradition of central Italy is played out. It is that of the Panarda banquet and the blessing of animals during the feast of Saint Antonio Abate.
But what is Panarda?
Panarda was a huge banquet that the wealthy people of the town offered to the population during this day dedicated to Saint Antonio Abate and animals. It was a particularly strong tradition in Abruzzo and Ciociara.
In mid-January the cellars of the nobles were full of oil, wine and cereals and, with the arrival of winter, the time had come to share with the whole town a banquet that had no less than 30 courses. Every good thing was prepared and everyone was forced to eat everything in order not to offend the host.
Since 2016 in Acuto and then in all the other towns of the Cesanese Wine Route, some restauranteurs have reintroduced this tradition by transforming it into an opportunity to promote the excellence of the cuisine of upper Ciociaria area. The route crosses the municipalities of Acuto, Serrone, Affile, Anagni, Paliano and Piglio.
You can taste over 20 courses ranging from local cured meats to homemade pasta and it ends with the famous donuts. Obviously all courses are accompanied by the excellent Cesanese red wine in the traditional version in the Cesanese del Piglio Riserva DOCG.
This is a wine that represents the history and flavours of this area and that has been appreciated since Roman times. In fact the word ‘Cesanese’ comes from the fact that the Romans had cut the woods to make room for the vineyards.
In many other parts of central Italy, a distribution of bread or donuts is organized during the morning mass, such as in Vico nel Lazio or in Ceprano. While in Villa Santo Stefano, Panarda is celebrated in the summer during the feast of the patron San Rocco with a distribution of bread and chickpeas. And also in Ciciliano there is a summer version of the Panarda which recalls a miracle of Saint Anthony.
Who is Saint Antonio Abate and what is the Animal Festival?
The Blessing of the Animals is one of the most engaging religious events and takes place on 17 January, the day of the death of Saint Anthony the Abbot, one of the most interesting figures of the Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran Church.
Suddenly the churches are filled with pets and in the churchyard you can find large animals such as horses, pigs and cows. Walking in many villages you come across groups on horseback while in the evening the squares come alive with large bonfires and, perhaps, with the distribution of polenta and wine. Each municipality has its own particularity.
But where does all this begin? And why is Saint Antonio Abate often represented with a pig by his side?
The tradition was born in the Middle Ages in Germany where in each village a pig was bred to give to the monks who managed the ‘hospitals of St. Anthony’, but the story has deeper roots. Meanwhile, for health hygiene reasons, the pigs had to be housed outside the city walls and only the monks were allowed to raise one in the city because they produced medical ointments from its fat.
Saint Anthony was a hermit and treated the sick, especially those with annoying skin ailments that today are called precisely ‘Fire of Saint Anthony’. The ‘fire’ is that of Hell, where Antonio is said to have saved some souls fighting with demons.
Let’s go back to the present day. Respect for pigs and animals has turned into a day dedicated to them (even if Saint Anthony the Abbot is on one hand the protector of pets and on the other the protector of butchers).
In the churches of each town special masses are celebrated where animals that will have their blessing take part. Some of these celebrations have turned into real parties and among the best we recommend the Monterotondo, Palestrina, Cerveteri and Bagnaia, a town near the city of Viterbo.
But Panarda has now become an international event and is celebrated by many Italians abroad like this group from Philadelphia with a 40-course dinner. https://www.phillymag.com/foobooz/2019/11/25/le-virtu-la-panarda-2019/