Once a year, the small village of Carrù in Piedmont is inundated with visitors. Then the smells of meat, wine, straw and ecstasy hang in the air, as they celebrate the fattest oxen.
No matter how fat an ox may be, there is always another one that’s fatter. So say the villagers, whispering among themselves till their mouths water: Remember that one last year, the legs on it! And three years ago, the muscles! No, calls another, 1985, don’t you remember? The fattest ox of all time! Someone else joins them, tries to be funny: The oxen are magnificent, that I’ll admit, but they’re also dumb! Man, they’re dumb animals! Suddenly everyone falls quiet, turns serious. Don’t ever insult the fat ox, they growl. Get out of here! Shaking their heads in disgust, they all agree that that idiot can’t be from here or he would never have dared to talk that way. The tension subsides. Soon it will be meat time. Soon they’ll know the name of this year’s fattest ox.
Carrù is a tiny village in Piedmont, northern Italy. It has two churches, a main street and a bus depot, although few buses ever depart from it. That’s why it is converted into an arena for the oxen. You can see the Alps from here, the Langhe hills rolling away like truffle carpaccio. All year long, everything is lovely and peaceful here, and then the second Thursday in December comes around. That’s when the oxen arrive, and with them the crowds, and the hunger – and the madness. For over a hundred years now, the second Thursday in December has marked the start of the Fiera del Bue Grasso, the Fat Ox Fair.
The clueless call it a cattle fair, nothing more, but the Carrucesi agree that it’s a fair, yes, but a religious one. What they are seeking is the God of Bulls. It’s the best meat in the world and soft as butter, they say, but so full of flavor. The whole of Piedmont on a fork: its valleys, the air, the earth and the grass that grows in it, the hills of Montferrat, the Tanaro River and its water labyrinth.
Restaurant owners from all over Italy come to bid for an ox to include on their menu. The wealthy Turinese, the intellectual Romans, the elegant Milanese, everyone in fact who would normally mock provincial life and country folk now arrives in hopes of catching a glimpse of the fat ox.
The Germans think they know all about meat. They love their cold cuts, their steaks and schnitzels. Germans love a barbecue, but if they came to Carrù, they would be forced to admit how little any of that means. Carrù has just one supermarket, but six butcher’s shops.
One of these belongs to Federica Bovinlanga. She has well-hung shanks, bloody carcasses and monstrous haunches in her window, all piled high like a Babylonian tower of meat. Signora Bovinlanga stocks every other part of the ox, too, so you could actually piece the animal back together again Gunther von Hagen-style in her shop. “There’s the head,” she says, pointing to the counter. “There’s the liver. Here’s the heart! Everyone wants ox meat. They buy like crazy when the fair’s on,“ says Bovinlanga. For eleven months of the year, no one buys ox meat. It’s delicious, but it’s also rather heavy and takes a while to digest. But in December, she sells 1000 kilos of ox meat a day. An old man with a cane, who looks as though he couldn’t even manage a meatball, places his order. How much would you like, Carlo? Bovinlanga’s knife glides across the meat until he tells her to stop. 300 grams? 700 grams? Two kilos? The little man buys a whole 14-kilo chunk. On the tiled wall behind her, Bovinlanga has a card showing her sons in Santa hats, holding a huge slab of raw loin up to the camera. It says Buon Natale, Merry Christmas, on the card. That’s what postcards from Carrù look like. Scusi, Signora, one more question: How is the Piemontese ox bred? Ask the dottore, says Signora Bovinlanga.
We drive out of Carrù, along country roads, past green fields. Andrea Quaglino, the man they call “dottore” because he really does have a doctorate, paces around his office in a checkered jacket with elbow patches. He is the head of the Piemontese Cattle Breeders Association and responsible for ensuring that the breed remains pure, strong and beautiful. Quaglino clicks on a database containing the bull breeding records of past years. He decides which sperm to send to which breeder. “We take year of birth, size, and bloodline into account,” Quaglino explains. “When all goes well, the results are amazing. The Fiera proves this. It unites the local people with the animals.”
The oxen draw huge crowds to Carrù, hunger sets in – and madness too
Everyone has heard of Japanese Kobe beef. If it were a question of taste, argues Quaglino, and everyone in Piedmont agrees on this, then the whole world ought to know bue piemontese. That is their goal, that’s what they strive to achieve. Scusi, dottore, but who will be the winner at the Fiera tomorrow? Quaglino thinks long and hard. You should pay a visit to Guido Filippi, he says.
The Fiera del Bue Grasso dates from the year 1635. At that time, Carrù still belonged to the Duchy of Savoy. Duke Viktor Amadeus I granted the village the right to hold an annual fair. When the area was hit by a harsh winter in 1910 and the country was buried beneath a deep layer of snow, the village council decided to slaughter the fattest ox in order to save the inhabitants from starvation. The fair is dedicated to two sides of the same coin: celebration of life and fear of death and it arose from the need to identify which animals were the fattest.
Guido Filippi, the man we’ve been told to visit, has some truly fat specimens in his barn. He is a cattle farmer, his father was a cattle farmer, and his grandfather was a cattle farmer before him. The barn door creaks as Filippi opens it. There are cattle standing on both sides, some of them nearly two meters tall. At one year old, a Piemontese can weigh 600 kilos, fully grown and fattened up, double that. But one of Filippi’s stock is larger than the rest: He is Titan, the animal on which Filippi is pinning his hopes of winning and plans to bring before to the jury tomorrow. “Your chances are good, you gorgeous beast,” he croons in the bull’s ear. Filippi won once before, 20 years ago, with a different ox, but only in the maximum weight category, which at the Fiera means silver. Gold is awarded only to the animal with top results in every category: fatness, appearance, size, strength, elegance and pride.
Filippi’s wife says that this business with the oxen is an obsession. Her husband is constantly worrying about how the animals are faring in the barn – even at night. Sometimes he sleeps out there in the hay. Filippi’s response: “What can I do? It’s my life. I have no other. I want no other.” Scusi, Guido, when everything’s over tomorrow, where will you eat? “In the marquee,” says farmer Filippi, “with the regular people. That’s the way I like it.”
The head chef stirs the pot with a spoon that’s two meters long and looks like a paddle
The wind tugs at the marquee erected on the Piazza Divisione Alpina Cuneense in Carrù. It’s big enough to seat 700 greedy guests at a time; people eat in shifts. Right now, the marquee is still empty. The Fiera is not only about picking the winning oxen, it’s also about the meat, about getting enough to eat. In fact it’s a veritable meat orgy, where people gorge themselves for two whole days until there’s nothing left.
Domenico Garino, head chef in the marquee, is stirring his pot with a spoon. That spoon is two meters long and looks more like a paddle. The pot is one meter high and wide, more of a tub, really. What’s simmering in the pot is the gran bollito (big meat stew) everyone will be eating tomorrow – locals and visitors, breeders and buyers, rich and poor. Garino has 12 pots on the go, each one containing 20 liters. The heat drips from the ceiling, beads of sweat drip from Garino’s forehead. “The ox’s head is the biggest challenge,” he explains, stirring away until a horned head floats to the surface. “If it cooks for too long it falls apart – not long enough and the outer skin will not be tender enough.” Garino looks thoughtful, then adds: “As with everything in life, the head is the most important part.” Behind him, two assistants are sawing ox hearts in two. A young man in an apron is heading his way with a wheelbarrow full of shanks. Another is straining quartered livers into the pots. And so the day dawns, the day of the Fiera.
It’s still dark when the first cattle trucks begin to rumble up the hill. Old men silently wander through the alleys, leaning on their crooks, their breath forming clouds in the darkness. On Via Roma, people jeer at a hotdog truck parked there. Mamma mia! Who’d want a hotdog when the oxen come snorting and stamping into town? It’s six in the morning and people are piling into the restaurants, long lines everywhere and the longest at the bus depot.
The sound of restless animals can be heard from inside the cattle trucks. Perhaps they sense the perfidious course of the day ahead: first fame and honor, but ultimately always death. They may win today, but they will still lose their lives. Piedmont is hungry. Look, there’s Guido Filippi’s truck! Seven men are pulling Titan up the ramp. He rears up, drags the helpers along and flings himself against a gate. The breeders are supposed to drive the animals, but in reality, it’s the animals that are driving the breeders. Proud, mighty Titan, do you know what hour has struck for you? Today he’s a king. Even Iberian fighting bulls seem slight by comparison. And the crowd oohs and aahs, caught between fear and ecstasy. One judge has been injured, kicked in the knee, and is put on a stretcher and taken to hospital. “It’s nothing, a mere scratch, let me stay!” he shouts as the ambulance doors bang shut. There are accidents at the Fiera every year. The bue is an unpredictable beast. Right now, Carrù smells of sawdust, Barolo and sweat. Of straw, dung and ecstasy. Giovanni Cardoné takes a deep breath. “That’s how it has to smell,” he says. “That’s how it always smells.”
Cardoné is one of the competition judges. In flat cap, sweater vest and spattered jeans, he trots around the oxen, murmuring knowledgeable comments to the other judges. He measures the oxen’s necks, looks deep into their eyes. The jury’s wisecracks about the animals are coarse yet affectionate. Right up to the last minute, the breeders use every trick in the book, combing tails and dusting the oxen with flour to make their coats gleam just as the jury approaches. “You can see your animals all year. Leave us alone for five minutes. Surely you can manage that,” Cardoné snaps. Hours later, when the sun has broken through the clouds, the verdict stands. Two bulls are hauled into the middle of the arena, but Titan is not one of them. Fillipi comes away empty-handed.
“The heaviest ox this year,“ Cardoné yells into the microphone, “Attila! Five years! 1420 kilos!”
“And now we come to the fat bull, King of Bulls, winner in every category,” shouts Cardoné. Then he pauses dramatically; not a sound is heard in the piazza. “TANGO! Congratulations! Also to Signore Gaetano Colnaghi, who has purchased the animal.“
While the champion is loaded up, his owner grins and shakes lots of hands
Cheering, clapping and weary, the crowd disperses, heads for the restaurants to finally spear onto their forks what they have only been able to admire all these hours. Shouting out their reservations, they sound like they’re playing Happy Families: Osteria del Borgo, four people! Palazzo di Mezzo, 1 o’clock! Trattoria Vascello d’Oro, only at the counter, I’m afraid!“
Resplendent in his winner’s sash, Tango is loaded up, while his owner stands grinning and shaking hands.
Signore Colnaghi, please, how much did you pay for the ox? At that he puffs out his cheeks, rolls his eyes and holds up ten fingers. Ten thousand. At least. He will be transporting the ox to his slaughterhouse in Legnano near Milan and then waiting for chefs to come along with their offers. And they will come, for sure.
Helpers are sweeping up the straw. The Tricolore, the Italian flag, is flying outside the bus depot on Piazza Mercato. This is still the Italy of old that sees itself reaffirmed at the Fiera del Bue Grasso, the Italy of the common people, of traditions that never die.
Election posters have been hung all around the piazza – another referendum, another political change or government reshuffle. Nothing new to the Carruscesi, then; They are used to all of this. Ask them what they think and they will simply shake their heads. And Giovanni Cardoné, the judge, hurrying by on his way to a steaming dish of bollito in the marquee, calls out: “I don’t believe in politics. I believe in the fat ox!”