How did this happen? A small town in the northern Italian province of Padua, in the low-lying plains of Emilia Romagna midway between Ferrara and Venice, that happens to have a week-long potato festival.
The place is clled Anguillara Veneta (seemingly named for Venetian eels). And for the past 23 years, they've held a festival to celebrate American sweet potatoes. This weekend and next.
On September 13th, there's even an 8-course dinner of sweet potato delicacies, prepared by a couple of local chefs, served at the local pizza parlor, and costing all of 25 euros (about $35). Here's the menu:
- To start, the kitchen will send out an appetizer of pink grapefruit with potato chips, polenta and purée of salt cod
- Next come a pair of antipasti, served on the same plate: a baked sweet potato and squash tart with three-year-old Reggiano cheese, and an involtini of beef rolled around figs, bean sprouts and creamed potatoes.
- After which another double, the so-ccalled "first course" of risotto with potatoes, alongside agnolotto pasta filled with sweet potatoes and goat cheese accompanied by a licorice stick and a few slivers of house-smoked duck breast.
- When you're ready, they'll bring on the main course, a breast of pheasant with a hot potato "foam"
- Finally, for dessert, something they're calling "Americalandia" with the texture and consistency of an American sweet potato. And coffee.
Now, why are they growing American potatoes in Romagna in the first place? After all, this is the delta of the mighty Po River, home of the Port of Ferrara, where the world's great ships would put in to have their sails renewed with the virtually indestructable local fabric: canvas. Right, right, I hear you say. Canvas. Big whoop. But remember the old Greek word for canvas is cannabis.
Yes, that cannabis: hemp.
Hemp was long regarded as the world's best fiber for tough jobs. Sadly, several things happened. The Po delta silted up, and the town of Ferrara is now landlocked, 40 miles from the Mediterranean. Hemp, as we know, was demonized by the Feds after Prohibition (so that its 30,000 revenue agents would remain on the government payroll). And the new lowlands of Romagna were converted to other agricultural uses, such as potatoes.
But how bad is it that there's a sweet potato festival, after all? Washington State grows nearly a billion dollars worth of spuds a year; we're the second largest producer in the US. They should invite an American rep to help with the cooking of the 8-course banquet, don't you think? At least, that's what I wrote to the organizers. Stand by.