Forget chocolate eggs and bunnies. For the citizens of Panicale, Italy, Easter Monday is synonymous with cheese rolling, or Ruzzolone. It’s a surreal competition in which a wheel of pecorino cheese is yoked to a stick with a handle attached, and wheeled around the city. The person who completes the tour of the city with the fewest strokes wins.
The roots of this tradition can supposedly be traced back to the Etruscans. But the only evidence I’ve seen of that is a reference to the grave of the Olympic Games of a Roman family of Etruscan origin, Tarquinius. A so-called discus thrower is pictured whose posture resembles that of someone throwing a wheel of cheese.
Examples of wooden wheels used for this sport have been found, like this one:
Supposedly, this became over time a hard, extra-aged wheel of pecorino, which was wheeled around the sheep paths of various Etruscan villages. Despite the somewhat murky origins of this wackadoo tradition, some of the earliest references are local ordinances in the 1500s in S. Elpidio a Mare referring to fines if citizens wheeled their cheese on roads that led to churches. It seems clear that even if it is not an Etruscan tradition, its roots do go back centuries. There are traces of the “sport” in Umbria, Tuscany and Calabria, although Panicale seems to be the town where the tradition has the most longevity.
Other bizarre cheese rolling traditions: wheels of Gloucestershire cheese are still rolled by teams at Cooper’s Hill in Gloucestershire to the bottom of the hill, without a leash, and competitors follow, falling down the hill to catch the cheese.
The English tradition looks a good deal more painful!