Cheese rolling or, to give its Italian name, Gara di Ruzzola, is not the first thing that comes to mind when one talks about Gessopalena. Its fame rests more on its chalk (gesso) that was used in primer on so many famous historical religious paintings, and the horrors that its population suffered during the 2nd World War.
However, one of the lighter events held there, as part of its annual Buon Gusto Cheese Fair at the beginning of September (2011- 3-4 September), is its pecorino cheese-rolling race. The goal is to projectile toss the cheese towards the goal, in Gessopalena’s case up the street, to end as near as possible to the church of Madonna dei Raccomandati; think of playing with a yo-yo when you ‘walk the dog’, letting go to see how far it travels, and you near enough have Gara di Ruzzola.
I must admit to having serious doubts about the entertainment value of a rolled pecorino despite its long looping history that stretches as far as back as the Etruscans & Romans. Rather like cheese making itself, the sport died a death during the 2nd World War, however, it was restored as a national pastime by the 1970s, a fact that isn’t widely publicised about Italy! Gara di Ruzzola’s growth in popularity pre- & post-war does seem to rely heavily upon spread betting (where’s the fun in that) with monies laid equally on either player or team, all being fair in the love of cheese!
What I found interesting about it all wasn’t so much who was in the lead, although it was incredible how far a pecorino could be made to travel, but rather looking at all the shapes and ages of men who were participating. Most would probably never wear a bracelet, yet here they were, wrists happily entwined with approx 2m of hemp to a wheel of cheese, happily playing the giggling crowd with a jovial meets let’s get serious psych up before they pitched. The little bit of fairy dust was how that simple wheel of pecorino cheese transported some of the older folk back to their nimble-footed athlete youth, magic…