PANICALE, Umbria, Italy–At Easter, I often like to ponder which came first: the Bunny or the Egg. I was almost starting to make headway on that abstract chocolate-based concept, when from out of the clear blue day-after-Easter-sky comes: Cheese Rolling. What could the seasonal tie-in be? Panicalesi are known to eat cheese; but, as far as I know, they don’t make any of it. Wine, yes. Olive oil, yes. The sport itself seems to be the slightly demented offspring of the marriage of bowling and golf. Not a very wide spread sport, it may be only practiced in the Umbrian hilltown of Panicale, for all I know. What I do know is that it takes place every year on the Monday after Easter, Pasquetta (little Easter), and is called by the locals “Ruzzolone” or The Big Wheel.
There is a course (of course, of course) laid out in the streets around the village walls. Whoever “bowls” their Big Wheel O’ Cheese around the course in the fewest “strokes” wins. The gioccatori (sounds like jokers, but means players) wrap leather straps with wood handles around the cheese and send a perfectly good nine pounds of round cheese lurching wildly down the curving street with somewhat of a yo-yo and string effect. The cheese rolls, the crowd runs along side of it and someone marks where it wobbles to a stop with bit of chalk on the street. That is, when it stops on the street. Being cheese, it is a bit hard to control and the pecorino often wheels off the course and starts bouncing off down the hillside, through the olives, local officials in hot pursuit like kids chasing after the Gingerbread Man. Or, the unwieldly wheel of pecorino will stay on the road, whew, but get wedged, rats, under the one Fiat Uno that didn’t get the No Parking message. The winner takes the wheel of Pecorino home our friend Francesco tells us. Not that I know what someone would want with a cheese that has really “been around” like these have. As Francesco says “maybe they should give it to the losers”! If the cheese hits one of the village’s stout stone walls wrong, then the game and the cheese are all over, anyway. Si Mangia! Pecorino is local cheese made from sheep’s milk. Milking a sheep. Can you picture that?
Regardless, long before our first outdoor cheese race had concluded, the crowd had heard the band “music” off in the piazza and had wandered that direction for the milling about, for the free wine and for the ever popular, post game hard boiled eggs, all being served by the apt sounding Pro Loco. I know it means Local Promotion Group, plus or minus, but doesn’t Pro Loco look like it could mean Pro Crazy? Curiously, as soon as the music started, no one seemed to know or care if the annual cheese rolling contest had a winner or not. And what a sight the band was! Reminiscent of the finest Fellini. The band we saw was named “Bandaccia” (Bad Band) and pots and pans and car horns and stuffed animals were involved, as you can see in the photo above. In spite of their name, they weren’t actually all that bad, but quite loud and festive – in a Spike Jones sort of way! Even though we’re going to miss the festivities this year by a few days, we’re happy to know that somewhere there is something this dizzy and whimsical signaling the happy start of spring. I know all our friends in Panicale are counting the days till this year’s Running of the Cheeses. Happy Pasquetta to all!
See you in Italy!