Italian word of the day: ‘Ottobrata’

Now's the perfect time – literally – to learn this seasonal word.

Italian word of the day: 'Ottobrata'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

If you’re in Italy right now, you must have wondered: will summer ever end?

Not any time soon, if centuries of experience are anything to go by. So accustomed are Italians to these sunny October days that they even have a word for them: ottobrata.

The term refers to a period in October (ottobre) when a recurring patch of high pressure over the Atlantic creates hot, dry conditions in the central Mediterranean. In Italy that translates into several weeks of clear skies and temperatures so warm you can happily leave your arms bare (unless you’re afraid of a colpo d’aria, but that’s another story).

It’s what we’d call in English ‘an Indian summer’, if we were lucky enough to be able to expect one every year.

Che splendida ottobrata!
What a wonderful Indian summer!

While l’ottobrata nowadays describes this spell of fine weather, originally it referred to a custom of taking advantage of the October sunshine – and the ripening grapes – to make an excursion into the countryside, not unlike what’s now called a gita fuori porta.

The tradition is closely associated with Rome, where typical ottobrate romane (October Roman outings) included wine-fuelled picnics on Mount Testaccio or at the closest vineyards outside the city walls, and involved setting off by cart early on a Thursday or Sunday for a full day of eating, drinking and dancing.

Wilhelm Marstrand, ‘October Festival evening outside the walls of Rome’, 1839. Photo: Thorvaldsens Museum 

Some say the reason was that the townsfolk needed to empty their cellars before the year’s new wine arrived; we say you don’t need an excuse to head out into the Italian countryside when the weather’s warm and the harvest’s in.

The areas that Romans once trekked to for their ottobrate have long since been overtaken by the city, but you can find some ideas for modern-day excursions in this list of day trips from Rome.

Facciamo un’ottobrata questo fine settimana?
Shall we go on an outing this (October) weekend?

You might also see the term used to refer to events or festivals taking place in October, of which there’s never any shortage in Rome or elsewhere. Think of it as the Italian Oktoberfest.

The ‘Ottobrata Zafferanese’ runs throughout October in Sicily, near the slopes of Mount Etna. Photo: Facebook

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Italian expression of the day: ‘Conosco i miei polli’

We know what we're dealing with with this Italian phrase.

Italian expression of the day: 'Conosco i miei polli'

You don’t have to be a poultry farmer to go around telling people ‘conosco i miei polli’ – literally, ‘I know my chickens’ – in Italian.

There’s no perfect translation, but it means something along the lines of ‘I know who I’m dealing with/ what they can get up to/ what they’re like’; I know what to expect from them, for better or worse.

It usually implies slightly mischievously that the people or person being discussed could be troublemakers, and that the speaker has the necessary knowledge to deal with them effectively.

You might think of it as ‘I know what those little devils/rascals are like’ if referring to naughty children, or ‘I know how those jokers/b******s operate’ if discussing petty officials or difficult colleagues.

Saranno tornati entro la mattinata; fidati, conosco i miei polli.
They’ll be back by morning; trust me, I know what I’m talking about.

Conosco i miei polli; vedrete che arriveranno alla riunione con mezz’ora di ritardo e daranno la colpa al traffico.
I know them: you’ll see, they’ll get to the meeting half an hour late and blame it on the traffic.

Business Guy Nbc GIF by Sunnyside

According to at least one source, the full original phrase is ‘conosco i miei polli alla calzetta‘, or ‘I know my chickens by their stockings’.

It refers back to a time when chickens roamed the streets or shared courtyards freely.

So they didn’t get mixed up, each bird had a little scrap of coloured cloth tied around their foot that allowed each owner to quickly spot their chicken.

The next time you’re dealing with some tricky characters, you’ll know just what to say.

Do you have an Italian word you’d like us to feature? If so, please email us with your suggestion.