Villa a Sesta: Food & Community in Tuscany
Food is often quick, convenient and consumed on separate, appropriated tables - it’s essentially a personal experience. In Villa a Sesta, however, food is as much about community interaction as the consumption
TEXT AND PICTURES BY SIÔN MARSHALL-WATERS
The pictures here in part chronicle the week following Dit’Unto, a food festival in the tiny Tuscan village of Villa a Sesta. Although usually exclusively Italian, this year a pizza trader, Phil Lewis, from South Wales was invited as a wildcard, taking me along with him to document the trip and life in the village and nearby towns.
Villa a Sesta is quite typically Tuscan. The village is roughly three or four narrow streets that stem from a usually silent square shaded by a small church tower. Vineyards and olive groves encircle stone hilltop houses which overlook the gentle Chianti landscape with protruding cypress trees lined on its ridges. At the centre of the village is the ‘Bar Del Circolo’, an unassuming community hall with a small bar and kitchen.
Once a year this bar is flooded when the village, with a population of less than 150, draws crowds of over 8,000 during Dit’Unto, a food festival that includes eight Michelin starred stalls. Nearly all the food and drink at the festival is locally produced; natural wines from nearby vineyards spill from wandering glasses and queues meander around street corners for lampredotto sandwiches and fresh ravioli. Moreover, it is entirely run by volunteers with all profits reinvested in the village. Whilst food is fundamentally a physiological necessity for most people, in Villa a Sesta it also represents a focal point for the community and an important space for social relations to develop.
The photographs here attempt to reflect a sense of this by focusing on the social ordinariness surrounding all stages of cooking and eating processes. For example, whilst the setting up of tables anticipates the occasion, empty wine bottles, left over paper plates and deserted chairs are in some ways more telling of what had been.
The approach to these pictures also partly represents an extension of a piece I developed about the decline of greasy spoon cafes in British culture. Whilst the food in this context is less romanticised, it's function in bringing people together is still of great importance. The cheap traditional cafe, (along with local pubs, libraries and so on) essentially form an important third sphere of social interaction in society, with home and the workplace representing the other two. In Villa a Sesta, the community hall and annual festival clearly form a part of the villages social fabric and infrastructure. Following Dit’Unto, the village organised a series of events for Phil to cook with, and for the community.
This sense of occasion surrounding food is something that is being lost in many cultures, in part perhaps to globalisation. Chained restaurants and fast food are changing the way we eat, drink and consume more generally. Food is often quick, convenient and consumed on separate, appropriated tables - it’s essentially a personal experience. In Villa a Sesta, food is as much about community interaction as the consumption; people speak openly and exuberantly across tables, know their waiter and sit for hours affectionately greeting whoever walks in. The community hall and festival represent hubs for this, and the quality and care of the food is at it’s centre.