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Welcome To The World Of Soup
Food-focused experiences have increased exponentially in the 21st century. With traditional events like Oktoberfest, the eccentric Giant Omelette Festival, massive food fights like the Battle of the Oranges or La Tomatina, and the more dignified Salon du Chocolat, food festivals are held in every corner of the planet, any time of year and for any kind of appetite. To get a taste of a more modern version of this food experience, we went to Gran Festival Internazionale della Zuppa in Bologna, a.k.a., the Grand International Soup Festival.
Gran Festival Internazionale della Zuppa is first and foremost a competition among homemade soups that festival-goers can taste for free. Anyone can compete by filling out an online form with the name and ingredients of their soup. Competitors are invited to bring at least ten liters of their stew, veloute, or minestrone to the festival to serve soup tasters and the panel of judges. Two prizes are awarded, one from the Quality Jury and the other from the People’s Jury. All tasters are invited to vote for their favorite zuppa for the People’s Jury Prize at a soup voting booth.
There is more to it than the contest. Zuppa is peppered with theater and circus performances, parades, workshops for children, sports demonstrations, and live music. If you need to sink your teeth into something more solid than soup, a handful of food and beverage stands could satiate your appetite with pasta, sandwiches, and crescentine. Wash it all down with wine or beer. And hey, the water from the public water fountain is free.
Into The Melting Pot
What started as a copycat festival in Bologna in 2006 has grown into this annual event. The original soup-sharing food festival was held in France and dates back to 2001, when the world music association Attacafa had the idea of putting on a humorous food-based event in the multicultural neighborhood of Warzemmes in Lille. La Louche D’Or, literally the golden ladle, has become extremely popular, attracting up to 40,000 spectators and sparking other soup parties around the world in Barcelona, Berlin, Bologna, Rome, and Montreal.
In Bologna, it was the cultural organization Associazione Oltre… that brought the food festival south of the Alps, and in 2019 held its twelfth Festival della Zuppa. Around since 1997, Oltre’s mission is to create inclusive urban events that are eco-sustainable, intercultural, and intergenerational. No small order for present-day Italy with its growing aging and immigrant demographics. The association has cultivated serious social capital over 20 years, inspiring businesses, cultural organizations, local government, and volunteers to get involved with Oltre projects. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that extra buses were required to ferry soup tasters from the city center to the festival’s off-center venue in Pilastro.
Festivals are waste-generating occasions, even food festivals. To reduce their environmental impact, more evolved organizers aim to recycle the refuse produced. If all goes well, an eco-friendly event will achieve a 50% recycling rate. Zuppa 2019 hit 70%. What was the magic? They worked with the waste management company HERA to set up bins for collecting and recycling organics, plastic, and paper. Dishes and cups were made of a compostable material. The festival also actively reduced trash by not selling bottled water and encouraging festival-goers to bring their own plates and spoons from home. The local bakery Forno Brisa offered bread support for sopping up soup (an excellent edible dish-cleaner).
It’s not to say that there haven’t been some bumps along the way. Like so many public events that are free and depend on volunteers, the lack of resources and abundance of bureaucracy can easily prevent them from happening, which is why Zuppa 2018 fell off the calendar. But where there’s a will, there is a crowdfunding platform, and this year 1380 EUR was raised via Produzioni dal Basso to offset some of the costs. Climate and location, too, can be a game-changer for outdoor festivals, and Zuppa has dealt with both challenges over the years — changing dates, praying for sun, and finding new venues like Parco Pasolini.
On bus number 20, everyone wanted to know where Parco Pasolini was. Named after an ill-fated 20th century Italian poet and filmmaker, Pier Paolo Pasolini, the public garden was clearly not a common destination for inhabitants of the city center. No one, not even the driver, was really sure what the right stop was for getting to the Festival Internazionale della Zuppa.
That’s Pilastro for you.
Pilastro has been the venue for the last two festivals venue. This Bologna neighborhood is in the northeastern sector of the city, sandwiched between the beltway and the Meraville shopping center. It’s home to a famous public housing development called the Virgolone, some scattered houses and businesses, a community garden, and two parks. Developed after the Second World War, it is not a charming historic tourist attraction. Which is precisely the point. One of the festival’s driving forces is turning an outlying area of the city into a focal point, connecting it to the city center and beyond. It is an international festival, after all, encouraging multicultural participation from in town and abroad.
And The Winner Is
What’s the secret to winning the Golden Ladle? A delicious soup, of course, but also, as the organizers themselves say, a certain je ne sais quoi of getting noticed. It’s certainly about eating a wholesome minestrone, but it’s about theater too. You get the idea with names like Bicissoise, La Zupperstiziosa, and Zuppa Free L’Ove (this last one being a play on the dialect word for egg ove). Even better if costumes are involved.
From over 50 competing soups, the Quality Jury awarded Menu de Chef Memue “Louche d’Or de Lille” first place, whereas the popular vote went to ProPORRIcelo. We didn’t get to taste either because the cauldrons were empty by the time we got to them. We still cast our vote though: Zuppa Ronza, a soup made with ingredients from every continent. Hail to the spirit of the Soup Festival!
Juggling nuance between Italian and English, Tatiana lights up her five-burner kitchen top with nostalgia for American food, Bologna-inspired fare and cross-cultural inventions. She and her husband endlessly debate on cooking with or without a recipe. Their son just hopes that dinner will either be plain or have chocolate in it.