You wouldn't expect to find a festival for Britain's most famous dish on a hilltop in Tuscany but, every July, pretty Barga celebrates fish and chips.
Barga prides itself on being "the most Scottish place in Italy". Throughout the year in Tuscany
there are numerous festivals
. Those in the winter months tend to involve crossbow competitions, jousting, barrel rolling, horse races, medieval costumes and acts of religious devotion. Those held during the summer typically celebrate the local harvest, with most towns and villages staging some sort of event. In Gassano, for example, they have the festival of the eel, in Treschietto they celebrate the onion, and in Marradi they have a knees-up for the sweet chestnut. Later in the year there are numerous olive oil festivals and plenty of events to mark the grape harvest in October.
What you don't expect is for a Tuscan town of 10,000 people to dedicate two or three weeks of every year to fish and chips. And yet it really does happen – in Barga, northern Tuscany. Beginning around the end of July, the Sagra del Pesce e Patate is billed as a celebration of "traditional Scottish fish'n'chips".
Each day around 500 people sit down to a deep-fried dinner at trestle tables on the sports field. During the festival they munch their way through about a tonne of chips – and even more fish. There's a huge vat of tomato salad if you feel the need to cut through the grease, and of course, gallons of chianti with which to wash it all down.
Barga prides itself on being "the most Scottish place in Italy
", and although I keep calling it a town, it is officially a city – the smallest in the country. It is twinned with East Lothian and you really do hear Italians speaking English with a Scottish accent.
The story I've been told is that the Duke of Argyll was holidaying in Tuscany in the 1890s, and, at some point during his trip, engaged the services of a group of local forestry workers to labour on his estates back home. The forestry workers took their families with them, and more families followed. By the end of the first world war there were around 4,000 Italians living in Scotland
. Many were employed in traditional industries, but others established ice-cream parlours, cafes and restaurants, often serving the local favourite: fish and chips. Estimates of the number of Italian descendants in Scotland today range from 30,000 to 100,000. Barga's current most famous "son" is the singer-songwriter Paolo Nutini
, whose family, naturally, owns a fish and chip shop in Paisley, just outside Glasgow, which was opened by his Barghese great-grandfather.
Over the years, there has been a great deal of coming and going between Barga and Scotland, with those still in Scotland homesick for the vineyards and olive groves, and those who've returned to Tuscany apparently homesick for deep-fried food. And so they hold a fish and chip festival.
The food is served on paper plates with plastic knives and forks and, of course, sachets of tomato ketchup. We enjoyed our fish and chips to the inimitable sound of bagpipes, and I was told that, on certain days, one or two of the fryers may be older gentlemen in kilts. All that was missing was the malt vinegar – we had to make do with a wedge of lemon.
The event is run by the enigmatic sounding Lake Angels, a group of local ramblers who fund projects in Rwanda via another expatriate connection. So although you may regret stuffing yourself with hot, greasy food in 30C heat, you can undo the top button of your trousers and console yourself with the knowledge that it is all in a good cause. Not least, it is an excuse to visit a wonderful city in a breathtaking landscape.
Barga's walled, medieval citadel was founded in the 10th century. Its streets are so narrow and winding, they're mostly inaccessible to all but the tiniest of vehicles. We learned to keep an ear out for buzzing Vespas and the ubiquitous high-revving, three-wheeled Piaggio Ape. Barga is a lively place, with a marvellous theatre, frequent concerts, beautiful buildings with colourful window boxes, and much laughter in the cafes and bars. It has a celebrated opera festival, an internationally renowned jazz festival and an annual gathering of Fiat 500s from all over Europe. It is also home to the finest ice-cream I have ever tasted, served at a cafe in tranquil, atmospheric Piazza Santa Annunciata. I recommend the pine nut; my girlfriend preferred the coconut or the stracciatella with chocolate shavings. On evenings when we weren't guzzling fish and chips there were plenty of restaurants to choose from, and it was difficult to avoid sampling local delicacies such as castagnaccio,
a flat, squidgy cake made from chestnut flour, pine nuts and rosemary, which has a distinctive smoky flavour.
I can think of few more relaxing ways to spend an afternoon than that first stroll we took through Barga's streets, browsing in the boutiques and galleries, sneaking a look into the gardens and houses, and watching the Barghesi go about their business. After a couple of hours' wandering, we reached the summit of the town, where we found a remarkable cathedral and a piazza with a terrific view over the mountains and chestnut forests. You could bring stout boots and join the hunters, hillwalkers and mushroom pickers who take delight in the spectacular Apuan Alps. But you may be too busy: I'm reliably informed that it is possible, in the towns and villages around Barga, to take part in a festival here almost every night from the start of July to the end of September.
Barga's fish and chip festival runs from 23 July–16 August 2010.