The rolling cheese of Sicily

Aside from the tourist-luring tournament culminating in the final on Carnival Sunday, Novara di Sicilia’s iconic game provides an old-time social glue for a community of extraordinarily amicable people, something ever-harder to find.

The rolling cheese of Sicily

Aside from the tourist-luring tournament culminating in the final on Carnival Sunday, Novara di Sicilia’s iconic game provides an old-time social glue for a community of extraordinarily amicable people, something ever-harder to find.

STORY AND VIDEO BY TOMMASO RAGONESE

PHOTOGRAPHS BY MARCO CRUPI

Megghiu to matri mu ti cianci cu suli i Marzu mu ti tinci”. There may be truth in this old saying about the dangers of exposing your skin to direct sunlight in March, but the pristine, early-spring air makes walking down the streets of Novara di Sicilia almost a cathartic experience. Braving the treacherous suli i Marzu rays, I make for the corner between Via Duomo and Largo Bertolami. There is hardly another spot in town with a more intriguing history than this corner of the chiazza.

Some say it was in the 1600s that the cobblestones in front of the Circolo Olimpio first marked the starting line of what was to become Novara’s most popular game: the giuoco della maiurchéa. Today, this cheese-rolling competition has turned into a full-fledged tournament, taking place every weekend for the three months leading to Carnival Sunday.

There you are, welcome back!” A small crowd of smiling novaresi approaches to shake my hand and pat me on the shoulders. Among them, some of the most iconic maiurchéa players, their names written multiple times in the hall of fame hanging on the glass door of the Circolo Olimpio. Yesterday, during this year’s tournament final, I timidly asked them if they’d play a private game today so that I could film them. They accepted on one condition: that I take part in it.

Three-times tournament winner and frequent final referee Maurizio ‘Coca Cola’ Catanese, portrayed in front of the Circolo Olimpio.

Both excited and amused, I look down at the massive Maiorchino cheese chosen for today’s game. The wheel is resting on a black plastic bag laid on the street just like it had been bought from the cheesemaker. Cured with olive oil and salt, the outer rind would be too slippery to secure any kind of string to the wheel. With the aid of a sharp pocket knife and movements refined by a decades-long experience, 2018 tournament champion Nunzio Di Dio is preparing it for the game.

After tearing the outer, dark yellow part of the rind with the sharp end of the blade, he disappears into a narrow, semi-dark alley looking for a ruvid section on the wall. First, he scrapes the cheese against the rough plaster for a while; having done that, he collects dust and debris on the ground and rubs it on the wheel until the surface is coarse and dry. “There. That feels good now” he mutters with a smile, rolling the cheese back into the bright morning light.

A maiurchéa, with its lazzada, ready to roll.

If it wasn’t for a handful of people including myself, this game wouldn’t have been what it is today”, explains three-times winner and frequent final referee Maurizio ‘Coca Cola’ Catanese. He’s letting out generous puffs of smoke from one of the cigarettes responsible for making his teeth look like a maiurchéa hit him at full speed. “People were losing interest in this game, so in the late 80s we begun to organise a yearly tournament. We thought it would be a good way of keeping it alive. Today, the final on Carnival Sunday attracts hundreds of people every year”.

The crowd gathering around the Circolo Olimpio for the first throw of the tournament.

That’s right!” echoes Nino Sofia, the oldest player in the group, “there was no such thing as a tournament when I was a child. It was teams of two at the time who challenged one another year-round.The winning team took the cheese home, the side who’d lost paid for it. That was the deal. The course hasn’t changed: the start is here, a cantuéa da Chiazza, by the Piazza’s corner, then down the stairs leaving the Duomo to your left, and then all the way down past Piazza Pirandello till o chièu Don Micheri.

The maiurchéa rolling down the chiéu Don Micheri.

Mr Sofia’s name has become synonymous with the tournament for his very special behind-the-scenes role. Beside winning the 1998, 2000 and 2002 finals, for the last twenty-odd years, Mr Sofia has volunteered to collect the scratched, battered or broken wheels, ill-suited for further recreational use, turning them into edible for-pennies portions that people can enjoy during the Sagra on Carnival Sunday. If it wasn’t for him, the yearly slaughter of maiurchéa wheels would seem like a huge waste of cheese.

Mr Nino Sofia, portrayed in his basement, where he collects the cheese wheels damaged during the qualifying rounds of the tournament. 

I did it this year too, but I won’t last forever. I’ll be 79 on Wednesday” he tells me, his blue Norman eyes smiling, standing by the door of the humbly furnished Circolo. “It’s up to the younger generations now. Our parents always had the carpenter make a wooden replica of a cheese wheel so we could go out and practice. This still happens today. Over the last twenty years the most impassioned of these children have come to my basement to see the wheels and get advice on their first throws with a real maiurchéa”.

Eight-years-old Andrea with his little wooden maiurchéa replica.

The rules? Sometimes it has to be me who makes the rules!” says Maurizio, half in earnest, half in jest. “I’ll tell you what I mean in a second”. Aided by Nunzio di Dio, he’s choosing the right lazzada from a bagful of shoemaker-type strings. “Only this type of string is allowed to wrap the cheese for the throw, you see? That’s in the rules. There are three people in each team with one captain per team, and they must take turns at throwing. Each game begins with u toccu, a draw, to decide who gets to throw first”.

U toccu, the initial draw to decide which of the teams will throw first.

Each player must throw standing with pedi fermu, with one foot where the wheel has stopped after their team’s previous throw. That’s why during the matches I run after the cheese with chalk and draw a mark on the ground where it stops. The team who gets the furthest past the finish line with the same number of throws wins. Simple, isn’t it?

Maurizio marks with chalks the exact spot where the cheese stopped after each throw.

However, there can be situations where something occurs that is not specified in the rules, like when two teams end up with the wheel exactly in the same spot, or when the wheel tumbles into someone’s house. In those cases we always refer to the elders, or the most experienced players, and ask for advice. Being one of them, I ended up making decisions which, for that specific game, became the rule.

A trasiri e nesciri, look!”, Carmelo ‘Biscia’ Calabrese is showing me how to twist and override the string as he wraps it around the cheese. “Accussì un si pò smugliari!”, that way the string won’t become loose during the throw. An engineer by training, Carmelo is weaving a piece of paper in his right hand with accurate calculations of the ideal string length based on the cheese’s size and weight.

The subtle art (and science) of wrapping the wheel with the lazzada.

I can make all the calculations I want, but luck is what counts the most in this game: I’d say in 70% of the cases the outcome is determined by sheer luck”. As I look down via Duomo I pray that luck be on my side today or I’m in for a figuraccia if I don’t get this throw right. “Don’t listen to him! He’s the worst player in the history of the game!” Maurizio grabs my arm interrupting his cousin, Biscia. “Experience is what counts the most, without a doubt!”.

After winning the 2018 final by a ‘botta di culo‘ (a very lucky throw), Pippo ‘Bariottu’ Catalfamo makes it clear with his gesture that the role played by luck is far from negligible.

There comes the real maiorchino theorist!” says Biscia, his eyes rolling, “he’ll tell you all about how you should have thrown your cheese, and how you should throw your next one. Most importantly, he can tell you how to cheat!”. “Once again, for God’s sake, we didn’t cheat!”. “Is that so? Why don’t you tell the young man why I abstained from playing for thirty years?”.

Another veteran maiurchéa player during the 2018 tournament.

All right, all right, what we did wasn’t exactly fair” concedes Maurizio “It was 1986 and I was the defending champion at the time. My cousin here challenged me and my team. What a terrible start that was! Four throws into the game, we hadn’t managed to get to the end of via Duomo while these guys were already far down the Vallone Falanga, almost by the finish. We couldn’t lose! We would have been the laughing stock of the town. So we threw the cheese against the wall as hard as we could until we broke it. That way the game ended in a draw”.

I was so mad I swore I wouldn’t have played for thirty years” Biscia rejoined, looking dead serious “And I didn’t. Until 2016, when another cousin of mine begged me to step in in lieu of his injured teammate. Can you guess what happened? Not only we got to the final but we won the tournament. Can you believe it? The first time I played after thirty years I won the tournament! As I said, it’s all about luck.

The endless debate about both specific and theoretical aspects of the game sparks up every year. 

Come on! Give it a go!”. These guys are getting impatient to see me throw my first maiurchéa. I squat on the cobblestones of via Duomo and, with the aid of last year’s tournament winner Pippo ‘Bariottu’ Catalfamo, I begin to examine the whopping 16kg wheel of maiorchino cheese. The smell is so intense and flavourful, it’s hard to resist the temptation to ask if we can’t just eat it. For a second, I feel bad at the thought of seeing the cheese getting thrashed against the steps and corners of the Matrice staircase.

A damaged maiurchèa wheel.

Listen, look at the cheese: one of the two sides has a smaller diameter: we call it ‘u strittu’” Bariottu lets me in on the knowledge he’s honed during more than 30 years of playing this game. “That’s important because, once it gets rolling, the cheese will tend to veer towards that side. From here it’s always best to keep the strittu on the left side and throw the wheel exactly on that line of stones in the middle of the street, ‘a striscia’. This is usually the best way to approach the first throw”.

Pippo ‘Bariottu’ studying the cheese to figure out its narrower side on the ‘striscia’.

From what I’ve seen in the tournament, the first could be the most important throw of the game”, I say, ‘mogliando’ the wheel in the lazzada. Everyone nods in agreement. “What is more, young man” says Bariottu “is that the day of the final, when you raise the cheese in your hands, with a thousand people lined up in via Duomo forming a corridor and staring at you, well… you get emotional”.

There was a young man from Fantina, a town nearby, who was extraordinarily talented”, adds Maurizio, making what’s left of his cigarette dance on his lips as he speaks “but in his town they play in the Madridi riverbed: it’s only the two teams and the cheese. When he got to the final here in Novara, he turned to his father and said ‘Dad, I can’t do it. There’s too many people’’’.

Leave the young man alone will you?” Bariottu tries to keep the people around me from offering each a different kind of advice. “Not only do we consult our teammates as to how to approach the next throw, but you’ll see that everyone feels compelled to tell you how you should go about it! You often end up surrounded by a dozen people telling you whether you should throw with or without string, how much power to put into the throw, and so on and so forth.

Though the tournament ends on Carnival Sunday, we talk about it all year!” says Biscia, “Especially Maurizio: he’s the theorist, remember? Each throw deserves at least four months of philosophising” Everyone bursts into laughter. “Let’s face it Maurizio, you’re hands down the worst player in the history of the tournament!”. “Whatever, that time I was unlucky, that’s all!” “Cheater!” “I told you that lazzada was no good!” “Nonsense, you just missed the striscia, and that’s because you put too much energy in the throw”.

I’m staring at this group of people thinking I hadn’t had so much mindless fun since primary school. They are constantly teasing one another and they love it. It’s in the very essence of the game: it just wouldn’t be the same otherwise. “In the past, before we created the tournament, this game was a little more like guerrilla, you understand? People put bets on the teams and disagreements could degenerate into fights. But nowadays it’s about having a good laugh and a couple of drinks afterwards.

“Enough! Will you throw or what?” I lift the hefty wheel, my right hand wrapped in the lazzada and placed underneath it, my left one above it, keeping the cheese in a precarious balance from rolling away. Standing with the maiurchéa in my hands, a pedi fermu, just as anxious as those around me to see whether I can be up to the task. This is fun already: when was the last time you tried to roll a cheese down a public road using a shoemaker’s string to propel it?

I swing the cheese back and forth a couple of times to make sure I can land it straight on the striscia: I then launch it ahead of me, pulling the lazzada as hard as I can without waiting for it to land. “A maiurchéa A maiurchéa!!” Suddenly everyone’s running behind the wheel spinning happily down via Duomo towards the Matrice staircase. “Bravo!” “Excellent throw!” “You’re in my team next year!”. I did it. I threw my first cheese.

From the outside, this cheese-rolling business may seem like a somewhat silly pastime for cantankerous paesani , or one of those idiosyncratic customs useful only as a tourist attraction. It took me less than a couple of hours in the company of these veteran players to see the game under a very different light. While traditions like the giuoco are important as a means for isolated mountain communities like Novara di Sicilia’s to attract much-needed tourism, they yield a value apparent only when one takes the time to pierce through the veil of appearances like a cheesemaker does to turn a chunk of curdled milk into a maiurchéa .

Playing is like grabbing a coffee at the bar or going out for dinner. It’s something perfectly normal for me” Bariottu told me. “It’s one of the things that makes living here so special” He turns to look at his mates, smiling “In 30 years of playing, we’ve collected memories that will stay with us forever”. “Everything that is important in my life is here in Novara. This is where me and my family belong.” says Biscia. I’ve been told people in small towns value the small things in life. “But do you really think our small-town things are petty? Think what you will, If you take them away it’d be the equivalent of cutting our throats”.

Bariottu loves his campagna, his little corner of countryside where he keeps chickens and grows vegetables. Biscia loves the mid-August Festa dell’Assunta, the Holy Mary he, like many novaresi, is fervently devoted to. They love their Carnival parties at the Teatro, keeping everyone awake until the early morning hours. And they all love getting together to throw a maiurchéa, cracking an endless repertoire of jokes in a comic display of unrestrained tomfoolery. This ancient game provides an old-time social glue for a community of extraordinarily amicable people, something ever-harder to find. They wouldn’t let me leave without reassuring them: “Promise you’ll be coming back next year?”.

SEE IT YOURSELF

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