We recently visted the small Abruzzo mountain village of Villa Santa Maria in the Val di Sangro, province of Chieti. Just past Lago di Bomba as the valley starts to really climb, the amazing location is world famous for being the 'Home of Italian Chefs'. In fact, the very first professional culinary school was founded here as long ago as the 16th century by Prince Ferrante Caracciolo of the Kingdom of Naples. The Caracciolos came here to govern the territory and they wanted the kitchens of their palace to become a laboratory for local young people.And it still is after almost 500 years with the Istituto Alberghiero Villa Santa Maria still going strong.
The Home of Cooks, Villa Santa Maria
Banquets were a big deal in those days and many nobles were so impressed they asked some of Caracciolo cooks to transfer to their own estates. So began the reputation of the skills picked up by the cooks of Villa Santa Maria. We sought out the Museum of Cooks in town, but despite the signposting we were told it had temporally closed, but the nearby Church of Madonna in Basilica and adjacent Palazzo Caracciolo can still be seen.
Villa Santa Maria is also the hometown of Saint Francesco Caracciolo who was the son of Ferrante. He was born on 13th October 1563. Francesco could have inherited everything from his father and taken the title of Lord, but a serious illness persuaded him to renounce his wealth and he subsequently dedicated his life to serving God.
The cooks from Santa Maria have always had a special devotion for Saint Francis Caracciolo, but only in 1996 did Francesco officially become the Patron Saint Italian Chefs. Every 13th of October Villa Santa Maria celebrates the festival of the Italian Cooks.
4th June is the Day of Saint Francis Caracciolo, patron of Italian Chefs
Dan Hostetler adds:
The Sagra dei Cuochi (Festival of the Cooks) is a two day feast in honor of the town's culinary tradition in mid October. The village is located in a land of vertical cliffs with huge eruptions of rock that interrupt normal building techniques forcing the ancient residents to build their little stone houses and domed medieval church into and around the jagged obstacles. Steep hairpin switchbacks challenge traction ability as cars seem to drive vertically up the narrow passageways to enter the town.
The patron saint of the town, San Francesco Caracciolo, was a cook from Naples who settled here in the sixteenth century as he was trying to escape the heat of summer. He brought with him a love of the kitchen and the novelty of a cooking competition (a custom of Neapolitan nobility). Nowadays, four centuries later, virtually a quarter of the citizens of this town are professional cooks (every family has one or two). It has become the town's biggest export as these cooks find positions at the head of some of the most famous restaurants of the world...and they all return for these two days to outdo one another!
Thousands of people descend on the main piazza of this town for an outdoor dinner set to music on Saturday night. Then on Sunday, after a church service in honor of San Francesco Caracciolo, the festa moves into high gear. The chefs tranform the rocky main street of the town into a massive outdoor buffet almost a half of a mile long. Guest wander the street filling and cleaning their plates while they enjoy live music, the delicious local wines and discuss which dishes will win the competition. Coveted prizes are awarded at the end of the day as a jury deliberates which cooks are the best of the best.