What do pilgrims eat while they are walking the Via Francigena? Pilgrimages definitely have a spiritual component to them. They’re PILGRIMAGES, after all.
However, even the most devout pilgrim needs sustenance to make it through hundreds of miles of strenuous walking. Their bodies need a lot of nutrients to power over hills and through forests. Food is definitely on everyone’s mind as they hike this famous pilgrim route.
The Via Francigena recreates the path Bishop Sigeric followed as he traveled from Canterbury to Rome in 990 A.D. However, there’s absolutely no need to recreate the ancient pilgrim diet of dried bread and cheeses every day.
So, what DO (modern day) pilgrims eat on their way to Rome?
What Do Via Francigena Pilgrims Eat?
Breakfasts: Breakfasts normally consist of a piece of fruit, yoghurt, bread with butter and/or jam, and a cup of coffee or tea. Since most pilgrimages take place during the hot summer months, most pilgrims want to be on the road before the sun gets too hot. Therefore, they choose not to eat a breakfast that takes a lot of time to prepare.
Lunch: For the same reason, pilgrims don’t eat a big lunch. It’s hard to digest a heavy meal while walking, and no one wants to feel sluggish going up a steep hill. There’s also a very practical reason for not stopping longer than necessary: during the summer months the mosquitoes can be absolutely vicious. When they stop, pilgrims typically have a bread roll, chocolate, dried fruit, olives, dried meat, hard cheese, or a can of tuna with crackers.
Mid-morning snacks: On those happy occasions when a town has a bar that is actually open, you’re likely to find pilgrims taking a rest break with a cappuccino and brioche. If it’s a hot day on the Via Francigena, they’ll have a cold popsicle.
Free Snacks Courtesy of Mother Nature (And Generous Farmers)
There’s a surprising amount of FREE snacks along the Via Francigena. Some of the tastiest foods are provided by Mother Nature herself. Switzerland and northern Italy have what might be the world’s best-tasting water. With the exception of the summit up the Col du Grand San Bernard, there is not much of a need to carry extra bottles with you during this section of the trail. Plenty of public fountains gush out ice-cold water. Outside of Switzerland and Northern Italy, you ABSOLUTELY want to ensure you are carrying extra water with you.
You will also pass through woods that are literally covered with blackberries (Switzerland and Italy) and raspberries (Switzerland). You are likely to find tomatoes, rosemary, and hazelnuts (Italy) growing alongside the road.
Although you’ll also pass through innumerable vineyards – out of respect for the farmers – DO NOT EAT THE GRAPES!!! (Unless, of course, the farmer leaves a box out with a sign telling pilgrims to help themselves.)
Some ospedales (church-sponsored pilgrim lodges) include breakfast or dinner with the price of the €20 pilgrim lodging “donation”. Other places will let you know in advance if there’s a separate fee for meals. However, many ospedales have kitchens for those on a budget or who want to cook for themselves. They’ll have basic kitchen supplies, and often have leftover ingredients for free that have been left behind by pilgrims who didn’t want to carry them further. You are likely to find olive oil, dry pasta, and condiments like salt and pepper.
The closer you get to Rome, the more likely you are to see restaurants offering “Pilgrim Menus”. The pilgrim menu usually costs between €15-20, and includes an appetizer; pasta; salad or French fries; protein (usually pork); wine, water or Coke; and a small dessert or after-dinner coffee. Every time I had a Pilgrim Menu dinner, the portions were enormous. You’re burning all kinds of calories, and they want to make sure they fill you up.
Hey, your pilgrim body needs nourishment!
Do You Have A Special Diet?
Bluntly, if you have strict dietary requirements, you are likely to have a very hard time on the Via Francigena. There are often several miles in between grocery stores and restaurants. Even if there is a grocery store, it does you no good unless it is actually OPEN. During your time on the Via Francigena, there will be many occasions in which you pass through a small village or town, only to find that every shop is closed. Bear in mind that the more rural stores have a limited selection of products to choose from.
Finally, unless you are in a touristy part of the city, most grocery shops and restaurants will be closed on Sunday.
Let’s say you luck out and score a coveted night at a donativo that includes dinner with your €20 lodging. The question you are most likely to get from the host or hostess is:
“Sei vegetariano, o mangi tutto?”
Are you a vegetarian, or do you eat everything?
On the Via Francigena, you are either a vegetarian or a carnivore.
What Foods Should You Try?
There’s nothing like breaking bread with a fellow pilgrim and sharing a meal together. And it’s even more fun when you get to experiment with some of the regional specialities. You’re passing through areas that take a lot of pride in their cuisine…why not enjoy it?
Swiss fondue is made from Gruyère and Vacherin Fribourgeois cheeses that are melted together with wine and garlic and served in a communal pot. The fondue is accompanied by slices of bread for dipping.
Why You’ll Remember It: If you are starting your travels in Switzerland, it is a fun and traditional way to kick off your journey. Get it in Lausanne. Since the dish is meant to be shared, come with a friend!
The butter in Switzerland is the finest butter I’ve ever had ANYWHERE.
Why You’ll Remember It: You’ll pass Swiss cows frequently as you head toward the Col du Grand San Bernard. They’ve got bells adorned around their thick necks, which make a festive and very musical sound every time they move. Because they’re grazing on emerald green pastures and quenching their thirst on clear Alpine streams, the dairy these cows produce is out-of-this-world good.
Wine is such an important part of the Italian culture. It’s incredibly easy to find €3 bottle of wine at the supermarkets. That’s less than a Coke or fruit juice! If you’re ordering it at a restaurant, asking for a local wine in a glass or carafe will also be cheaper than almost every other beverage on the menu.
Why You’ll Remember It: As a pilgrim, you will spend several hours passing alongside and through vineyards bursting with succulent grapes. Savoring a sip of the delicious fruit will instantly evoke memories of where you’ve traveled, and the paths you’ve taken.
The first risotto recipe dates from 1809. The Lombardy portion of the Via Francigena is famous for producing the grains used in creating this tasty dish.
Why You’ll Remember It: Italy happens to be the European Union’s top rice producer. After miles of following paths through the rice fields under a scorching sun, surrounded by hordes of mosquitos, you will have a very special appreciation for the hard labor involved with growing the crop.
God bless the farmers!
Sheep’s Cheese (pecorino)
Pecorino cheese comes from the Tuscany and Lazio regions. It is a hard, salty cheese that can either be consumed in small chunks, or grated atop a dish for extra flavor.
Why You’ll Remember It: If you walked in Tuscany or Lazio, I’m willing to bet you came across a sheep herd or two. The rich and flavorful cheese these sheep produce is perfect for outdoor picnics and hikes.
Testaroli is the earliest known form of Italian pasta, and is prepared from a batter that is cooked on a hot flat surface.
Why You’ll Remember It: Chances are that if you’re having testaroli, you are IN a rustic, ancient town built several centuries ago. What could be more appropriate or scenic? Enjoy it in the Lombardi region after a long hike.
Mushroom soup often evokes thoughts of beige and gray. Surprise! The mushroom soup the medieval town of Radicofani is known for is NOT cream-based. Rather, it is a thick, hearty, stew-like concoction. Dip the crusty bread slices they give you in it for a super-satisfying meal.
Why You’ll Remember It: Radicofani is a gem of a town, set high atop a hill and immortalized by Dante in the Inferno. You’ll remember every meal you have here.
For the adventurous gourmand, San Giumignano has a very unique specialty: wild boar with fava beans and rosemary.
Why You’ll Remember It: After all the hiking you’ve done through the woods, past dozens of signs warning you about the presence of wild boar, you’ll find that the savory meat in your mouth tastes AMAZING.
Biscotti with Vin Santo
In Tuscany, a very popular dessert is biscotti dipped in sweet wine. The wine is called “Vin Santo” or “Vino Santo” (holy wine).
Why You’ll Remember It: Forget dipping your biscotti in coffee! This sweet wine is absolutely delicious. It’s a light way to finish off your meal.
Cacio e Pepe
Cacio e Pepe is a pasta that consists of grated pecorino Romano cheese and black pepper. You’ll start to see it on menus near Sienna.
Why You’ll Remember It: This tasty Roman dish with only four ingredients was originally consumed by shepards of old. The ingredients did not spoil quickly, and the dish could be prepared fairly quickly. Although cacio e pepe is a simple dish, it takes skill to make it well.