Posted on February 8, 2011 - by

Cantè J’euv: Singing for Eggs

Quel fazzoletto rosso, che ti porti al collo, e ben che ti voglio, e ben che ti voglio!” With an enthusiasm and energy  fueled by inner youth, Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini lay on the floor and bicycle-pedaled with his feet, then leaped up, bouncing into the air. He was surrounded on all sides by animated students, who joined his lively dance. The room sparkled with smiles, song and the shine of wine glasses. Welcome to Cantè J’euv, or singing for eggs.

This annual vernal rite hails from the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy, a land of rolling hills and acclaimed wines. In the past, groups of young men gathered at night and made their way to neighboring farmhouses. After summoning the owner and his family, the group sang and serenaded their captive audience. Often, if there was a young lady of marriageable age present, a verse of compliments would be dedicated to her. Otherwise, the group sang verses targeting the mistress of the house (and the one responsible for dispensing food). Finally, the merry band asked for eggs and wine. The eggs were collected in the basket of the fratucìn, a member of the party dressed up as a friar, whose role was to give protection to the group. If the landlord refused to provide eggs, the verse of maledizioni, or curses, was delivered. In essence, this was like Halloween, but with more wine and eggs, and less candy.

Once common amongst the countryside communities, Cantè J’euv was a dying tradition that had nearly gone extinct with the ravages of time and urban migration. In recent years though, the tradition has gotten a new lease on life through efforts to revive it by Slow Food. Once again, people from Langhe and Roero gather in April to celebrate the arrival of spring with eggs, an ancient symbol of fertility and revival. The Cantè J’euv celebration has been modified somewhat to include notification to the hosts, so that they know to expect a massive band of singing, thirsty revelers.

On a chilly January night, I stood in the middle of a parking lot, milling about with dozens of other students from the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We were about to embark on the first Cantè J’euv rehearsal of the year. Tonight’s destination: Brezza winery, in the town of Barolo.

In a fast-moving snake of twenty-odd cars, we sped through the dark hills of the Langhe region, twinkling lights from rural hamlets visible in the distance. Under the soft moonlight, we tumbled out at the doorsteps of the winery and were ushered inside. Oak aging barrels lined the walls, and a collection of Barolo bottles stood on the mantle, some over 50 years old. Petrini was already present, chatting with winery owner Giacomo Brezza. “Do not start drinking,” he ordered students whose hands were beginning to stray, “or else I’ll toss you out the window!”

With operatic gestures, Petrini began to conduct the assembled group of students. An accordionist and guitarist were present to provide accompaniment and sorely needed vocal guidance. “Tempo, pay attention to the tempo!” Petrini exhorted. “And don’t sing too loudly, if you sing too loudly, you are a testa di cazza!” The rowdy boys who had been belting at the top of their lungs looked at each other sheepishly and tried again.

For the most part though, there were enough third-year students present to lead the way, and voices rang out with confidence and strength. Sitting inside the cantina, surrounded by weathered stone walls and winemaking equipment, I could not help but embrace a sense of conviviality, place and belonging in Italy. Even if I was only a transient expat student.

The songbook for Cantè J’euv was at once traditional and contemporary, featuring an amalgamation of Italian folk songs, a couple pieces in Spanish, and the Beatles’ classic “Yellow Submarine.” Some of the songs were in the Piemontese dialect, which has harsher consonants and more varied diphthongs than standard Italian. I struggled to keep up with the umlauts.

For added adventure, occasionally Petrini chose students to sing a verse solo. One by one, they tottered unsteadily to their feet, apprehension clouding their faces, searching for inner courage. The Swiss student, the Kenyan, the Australian, all were able to resolutely raise their chins, and rise to the challenge of singing in public. Then, Petrini turned to me and motioned. “You, the American!” he said. My voice sounded oddly distant as I stumbled through a verse of “Marina.” At the end, the room erupted with roaring applause. I sat down with relief.

It was time to break for sustenance. We had each brought a dish to contribute to the potluck, along with our own wine glasses and holders. A stream of hungry students crowded around the table, noshing on bread sticks and prosciutto, and washing everything down with red wine.

After the food and drink were demolished, we returned to the main room for the second half of rehearsal. The singing was a bit more well-lubricated, as wine and fatigue took their toll. As the evening waned to an end, we sang “Cantè J’euv,” and formally asked for eggs. To cheers and applause, Brezza graciously handed over a wicker basket filled with brown eggs. There would be no maledizioni that night.

It was now 1 am. With many exclamations of gratitude and farewell, we headed out into the darkness, back up the hills toward home. Random bits of choruses niggled in my head. They were enduring notes from a long-held family tradition.

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