Italy, a land of pasta, Parmesan, pizza, mozzarella, risotto and... fish and chips? Oliver Bennett visits the Tuscan town of Barga to find out why 'pesce e patate' are given their own festival

The road crawls along by the stony river Serchio, then soars up through the pines and crags of the Apuan Alps. In a lay-by, a poster advertises the legend: La Sagra del Pesce e Patate - Fish and Chip Festival.

The road crawls along by the stony river Serchio, then soars up through the pines and crags of the Apuan Alps. In a lay-by, a poster advertises the legend: La Sagra del Pesce e Patate - Fish and Chip Festival.

Hang on... a fish and chip festival, in the remote Garfagnana region of northern Tuscany? Some joke, surely? Not at all. The clue comes in the next sign: Barga. The most Scottish place in Italy.

It was from this town, population 11,000, that harsh economic conditions caused an exodus to the industrial centres of Scotland at the end of the 19th century. In such places as Ayr, Largs, Glasgow and Greenock, to hungry dockers and shipbuilders Italian immigrants sold fish and chips in the winter and ice-cream in the summer and so created a culinary culture that continues to this day. The names of Nardini, Conti and Marchetti became high street fixtures as the Italians grafted unremittingly. Some of the settlers returned upon retirement and, by way of homage, started the Pesce e Patate festival 22 years ago as a greasy-lipped celebration of emigration and homecoming.

No one knows exactly who started the festival, except that it is a fundraiser for the Sporting Association of Barga and is held at the town's football club. It's a success: about 500 people a day pay about £4.60 each to sample the delights of cucina Scozzesi. Barga FC must be delighted.

As I walk into Barga, the tower of its 11th century duomo crowning a terracotta triangle of roofs, the streets are lined with bunting that alternates the Saltire with the Italian Tricolore. Impoverished indeed must the Barghigiani have been to move to the rainy centres of industry - but that was then, and now this idyllic little town has regained some of the prosperity that it once enjoyed as part of the Florentine empire.

Just 100 yards further into Barga, I already start to hear Scottish accents, and am introduced to Michael Biagi, a local estate agent. In his broad Scottish dialect, he tells me how he "emigrated" back to Barga in 1989. "Lots of Italian descendants have returned or retired here," he said. "They want to die in the sun." Plenty of Italians remain in Scotland, but the lure of the terra has proved powerful.

Biagi and I hook up with Barga's dynamic mayor, history professor Umberto Sereni, whose late father Bruno Sereni returned in 1970 to became editor of the local paper and write the definitive Scottish-Italian chronicle, a fascinating book called, They Took the Low Road. Together we walk down to the Johnny Moscardini Stadium, named after the Falkirk-born Italian footballer, and every few hundred yards we receive a broad Scottish "Helloo", clearly honed in the playgrounds of Caledonia.

La Pania, the biggest mountain in the Apua range, is silhouetted against the full moon as we go in to find about 50 trestle tables laid out with flasks of wine. Guests at our table include scions of the Fontana family, who own Filippo Berio, the event's sponsors, which provided vats of its mild olive oil. Suddenly, huge plates of fish and chips arrive on plastic plates with plastic cutlery, with sachets of ketchup and slices of bread.

In the past haddock and whiting have been flown in from Scotland. But this year merluza (cod) has come from the Mediterranean. And * very good it is too: dusted like an Italian fritto misto rather than given the thick orange overcoat characteristic of the UK. "The thicker the batter the more difficult it is to fry and the more oil it takes in," said Biagi, who like every Scottish-Italian, is expert in the art of frying.

In the kitchens several old boys are working hard over the oil, demonstrating a perfect sense of timing and haste: this despite Barga being a Cittaslow, the honorific of the Slow Food Movement. "Here's a perfect example of the fryer's art," says Biagi. "There are no dials or thermostats, just as there weren't any in the cellar shops of old Glasgow. I remember people saying, 'He's a good fryer', meaning that he had control over the oil." The trick is to know when the sound changes: the "note", as Biagi puts it. And it was a vital skill. All the early Italian fryers had was a black iron pan in which to make batches of fish suppers each night.

Outside this inferno, a table groans with fish and chips, as well as barbecued sausages and pasta in case anyone fancies a change of flavour. Each fish and chip platter comes with a slice of lemon, and there is even the option of a tomato salad, made with great pungent, sun-ripened fruit which work with the young white wine to provide a touch of acid to cut through the oil; just as peas and beer do in Britain.

They have turned to frozen chips though. A ton and a half of fish and a ton of chips are consumed over the course of the two-week festival and sometimes they just can't keep up with demand. "We just couldn't peel that volume by hand any longer," says Biagi. Who cares? They are perfect.

I look around at a heartwarming scene that could have come straight out of a nostalgic art-house movie. Children play football on the pitch under floodlights while the old ones dance to a singer belting out 1950s-style Italian pop, helped by a lively accordion. Back at the table, I find Biagi trying to explain Irn Bru or bevanda ferro, to a friend. His companion's face a picture of incredulity, which contorts to disbelief when we tell him about the Scottish tradition of the deep-fried Mars Bar.

I table-hop, finding various Scots in evidence. Graham Stringer is in the process of moving to Barga. "I laughed when I heard about the festival," he said. "I had to come." Freda Carnieri, whose parents started various chippies in the 1950s, is a veteran, having moved here permanently from Scotland. "We found ourselves here every summer," she says and eventually the lure proved permanent. Biagi attests to a local taste for shortbread, smoked salmon and whisky. I end the evening with grappa at the Bar Alpino, surrounded by friendly Scots.

The next day I walk around town. Almost everyone I meet seems to have some UK café connection. Sonia Ercolini worked in nearby Lucca but grew up in Peter's fish and chip shops in Cardonald. Charles Waddington, from Cumbria, grew up in Tognarelli's in Kendal. ("Ask anybody over 40. They'll know.") There is Gino Benacchi, who started Sulfosso in Paisley, and Alfred Moscardini, whose grandfather's cousin was the famous footballer. Up on the panoramic deck of Mayor Sereni's office, I meet Roberto Conti, who runs Barga's Celtic Fan Club: not known to be related to actor Tom, but certainly connected to Archbishop Mario Joseph Conti of Glasgow. This is Italy, and family is king.

Biagi then takes me to meet Luca Galeotti, editor of Il Giornale di Barga, a large-format newspaper with typography (and an office) straight out of the 1890s, its card index shows that a fifth of the subscribers are Barga diaspora. Then it's off to visit Barga's permanent Scottish exhibition. On the walls are old photographs: the Ideal Café in Irvine, St George's Café, Paisley and Marchetti's in Glasgow... a roster of Italian achievements, show- ing young waiters with high-waisted aprons and Brylcreemed hair, with beautifully decorated glass fascias offering "Fish Suppers: Always Ready for 2d and 3d".

Sometimes the traders were competitive: war famously raged between the Nardinis and the Castelvecchis of Largs. Nor were relations with the Scots always ideal. "I heard all the jokes about Italian tanks having nine reverse gears," said Biagi. "But there was always an undercurrent of respect. The Scottish people identified with the working-class Italian values."

All those long hours led to a curious footnote in culinary history, one that may have had bittersweet moments but which is currently honoured in Barga. "We're proud of being a community of immigrants who have worked hard," says Mayor Sereni. "It's not easy, as people often forget - or wish to forget." And thus, in a corner of Tuscany, eating fish and chips has become a matter for festivity and remembrance.

Barga's Pesce e Patate festival runs until tomorrow and will take place again next year, for details visit www.barganews.com

Comments