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No one ever says «I went to the Fiera del Bue Grasso (Fat Ox Fair) in Carrù»: this is no gourmet event one attends but more like something you manage to survive. To live to tell the tale requires a certain amount of stoic heroism and recklessness. Otherwise what would induce any human being in his right mind to get up in the middle of the night, with temperatures close to zero, and go to a cattle fair? Because this is the Fat Ox Fair: a display of the Piedmontese cattle breed which is held on the second Thursday before Christmas in Carrù (Cuneo province in Piedmont, Italy) at the cattle market in Piazza Mercato.
How does a simple cattle market get to become the most famous folklore events in Langhe? There's no point seeking answers to that question on the Internet: online you will only find the skeletal website of the Commune, with phone numbers and a list of future dates (revealing by the way that the 115th edition will take place in 2025). Founded in 1910, the Fair was interrupted only once in December 1944 because of the war. There is only one way to find out why this fair (starring a celebrity bovine) attracts thousands of visitors from all over Italy, go and see it for yourself.
The alarm goes off in the middle of the night which, in this Piedmont December, is bitingly cold. The Langhe are nothing but a vast stretch of darkness and silence, at least until you arrive in Carrù, where the streets are starting to come to life. Or, more precisely, they are already busy with cars looking for a parking spot, vans loading and unloading and market stalls being set up. The fair opens at 6 am on the dot and the cattle farmers are already getting their prize specimens ready for the show. About 150 heads of cattle of the Piedmont breed subdivided into sixteen categories comprising steers, calves, bull calves and oxen: a panel of judges assess their muscles, physical stance and conformity to regulations, followed up by a prize-giving ceremony in which ornamental drapes (gualdrappe) are awarded.
Elderly locals dressed in overcoats go around looking serious as they watch the judges making their comments, comparisons and evaluations. Anyone feeling weary from cold and lack of sleep who is finding it hard to get turned on by such beefy activities may take refuge in one of the restaurants offering hot broth, wine and tripe soup. Don’t think that these establishments are out to tap the tourist trade or to attract visitors otherwise unlikely to make it through to dawn: they derive from the ancient tradition of providing early morning nourishment to farmers (who used to arrive on foot, even after covering considerable distances). Nowadays the restaurants offer menus with local specialities and dishes made especially for the occasion but most of the tourists have another objective in mind: the market square of Piazza Dante.
It is here that the Non Stop Bollito (the big boil-up of mixed meats) commences at 9 am. Under the big tent of the village Pro Loco association an impromptu restaurant is set up, fruit of the collaboration between restaurant owners, producers and various different associations of Carrù. Bollito is one of the most celebrated dishes of Piedmont cuisine, made from seven different cuts of meat (comprising short ribs, two different cuts of brisket, breast and rump) and seven other ingredients (boiling fowl, head, trotter, tongue, pork loin, oxtail, cotechino sausage) accompanied by seven sauces or condiments. In Carrù, a platter is served containing only three: head, tongue and “lean” meat, as well as cotechino sausage, red sauce and bagnet vert (green sauce), polenta, tuma langarola (a soft fat cheese made in Langhe), a sweet tart and Dolcetto Dogliani D.O.C.G. The price? Seventeen Euros. It is not surprising therefore that people queue up from the early hours of the morning until evening and as many as 4000 helpings were sold last year.
Once outside again and (pleasingly) overwhelmed by food and wine, why not wander round the market stalls, browsing among agricultural tools and stocking up on local specialities and typical products. A folkloristic event, a trade fair or local market: the Fiera del Bue Grasso can be defined in many ways but none of these really manage to capture the atmosphere still to be experienced in Carrù, the «gate to the Langhe» of Piedmont. An authentic tradition that is as strong as ever, despite statistics or trends. There must be something magical about bollito.