A version of this article originally appeared on MUNCHIES Italy.
My friend Donatella and I have been traveling Italy in search of the best (and lesser-known) summer food festivals. We gave ourselves only a few rules: make it to one festival a day, preferably where there would be dishes with unpronounceable names (or at least ones we’d never heard of before), and show the region some love when we covered it later.
When we first heard about the Pezzata di Capracotta—the summer food festival in Capracotta, a town in Italy’s mountainous Molise region—we decided it would be the first stop on our trip. La Pezzata is in its 54th year and it occurs the first Sunday in August in the Pianoro di Prato Gentile, a large pasture located in the Apennines mountain range in Molise’s Isernia province. The origins of the festival go back to the ritual of transhumance, when local shepherds would move their flock from the southern region Puglia to Molise. During the migration, the hungry shepherds would often have to butcher and eat members of the flock who were unable to complete the trip.
Today, though, in a cordoned-off area totaling close to 100 square meters, festival organizers had set up nearly 20 different barbecue vendors, all of whom were cooking different types of meat simultaneously.
We arrived at Capracotta at 10 AM. The mountain air was fresh and there were already plenty of people setting up picnic spots on the grass. Clouds of smoke wafted from the cooking tents, making for a photogenic backdrop against the mountain vistas.
The festival went smoothly. There were different workers keeping the embers aglow using a single heap of burning coals, others who turned the grills, looked after the meat, and mixed ingredients in large pots, and still others who who put the meat on the grill and and took it off when it was done.
We were completely surrounded by the white smoke that came curling off the grills towards the sky and the billowing steam which rose from the large pots. The sun itself was almost completely obscured.
We spoke with the master cook, who was easy to spot due to the fact that he was usually walking around giving orders to everyone else. He talked with us about cooking times, shared some techniques of a true Italian pitmaster, and explained that younger workers typically take on the jobs with the most physical labor—moving pots and grills, for example—while the older people generally give instructions and control the cooking of the meat.
It’s no surprise that getting 30 dudes to agree on the proper way to cook meat is no easy task, but everyone was happy and respectful and seemed to know when to intervene and when to back off.
We moved from the fire pits to the kitchen, a much calmer area lodged in a shady part of the forest where the personnel butchered and prepared the meat to be cooked. Once cooked, they’d take it out of large vats and off the red hot grills and cut it into small portions that were then laid out on a big table where attendees were expected to serve themselves.
We ran from one side of the meadow to the other, often interfering with festival operations and almost burning ourselves on a hot grill at one point, but everyone was incredibly polite and the atmosphere was calm and relaxed. Shortly thereafter, we found ourselves with a hot tray of food and a glasses of red wine. The menu of the festival was limited but unforgettable: you could eat whatever you wanted (as long as it was sheep or lamb).
The best dish at the festival was by far la pezzata, or boiled sheep, which was cooked on low heat for a minimum of four hours in huge copper pots blackened by the fire. The cotture, or large iron pots, were hung on three tree trunks that were stacked on the fire in a pyramid-like structure, making the whole thing seem like an ancestral ritual of sorts. But this way of cooking the meat is unparalleled. The cotture are so heavy that you need six people just to move one of them.
Every so often during the boiling process, a worker skimmed white foam off the top of the water, which they then poured into plastic buckets placed nearby.
In addition to the meat they added to the pot water, various herbs, salt, potatoes (which absorbed the fat), and one or two tomatoes (which added color to the broth). The result was similar to that of a boiled meat broth in which the meat was extremely tender and the flavor was strong, due to the animals having grazed on mountain grass their entire lives.
The alternative: grilled lamb
The lamb meat was poised in between two grills about one meter apart. These grill racks are so large and heavy you need two handles to flip the meat and a helping hand from multiple people.
For this dish, the meat is salted when it’s still cold and then cooked quickly—only about 22 minutes, according to the head chef. As the meat cooks, workers flip the grills frequently and apply a generous mixture of extra virgin olive oil, vinegar, and lemon juice.
Boccone del pastore
The lamb’s organs, including the liver and heart, are cooked for around two or three hours in a small bin on top of the coals, along with white wine, onion, laurel, celery, carrot and bell pepper. The dish is called boccone del pastore, or "the shepherd's bite."
Not only did festival-goers eat the three dishes that were offered, but they also brought their own food from home. Many of them set up their own independent grilling stations.
As we walked through the meadow, we heard music and enjoyed the different aromas that rose from the various forested areas encircling the food stalls.
You don’t need anything in particular to participate in the Pezzata di Capracotta, but if we had to share one piece of advice, it would be to bring a big beach towel or picnic blanket so that you can lie down and digest in peace after lunch.