Experience the Italian ‘Sagra’
A waft of an amazing aroma of garlic, ‘basilico,’ freshly chopped tomatoes, cooking meat, melting cheese, and baking bread envelopes you, leaving your taste buds swooning. The long tables, covered in traditional red and white checkered table clothes, are filled with plates, glasses, napkins, and moving hands holding bottles of wine, forks wrapped in pasta, and pieces of ‘pane’ dripping in olive oil. It feels like you are entering a magical kingdom where time is eternal and joy is eminent.
People are relaxed and are in no rush to finish or leave the haven of their seats. They are here with friends, neighbors, parents, grandparents, and children, but you don’t know who is with who because each group is sitting next to each other. It looks like everyone is here together to share the experience. And they are, everyone is here to enjoy one thing and that is, the food.
A ‘sagra’ is a festival that celebrates one type of food, drink, or product from a town or region. This could be any local product from mushrooms to wine to hazelnuts. They are held in small towns in every region throughout Italy, usually in the late summer and early autumn.
If not for the food, people come to ‘sagre’ (the plural form of ‘sagra’) to spend time in communities they enjoy or to discover new ones. They come to celebrate what their beloved communities produce and cook. Everyone comes to relax and experience the simplicities of life including food, wine, music, fresh air, and the company of others.
At the ‘sagra,’ it is as if our modern lives with their modern complexities are forgotten. They are pushed aside for one evening of simplistic and absolutely authentic enjoyment. Forget work, emails, and phone calls, at ‘sagra’ focus on what and who is in front of you. Then dive in.
When you taste the pasta with wild boar, allow your senses to sink into the experience. When you sit down, talk to your neighbor and when your new Italian friend offers you some of the wine that he or she is sharing with his or her group, take it. Wait for your next course without anxiety or frustration. Don’t worry, it is coming. All in due time. This gives you a chance to enjoy your wine, talk more to your friends, and savor the setting sun over the trees on the other side of the hilltop.
When the next course comes, repeat. Focus, inhale, savor, and enjoy. Keep speaking with your new Italian friends. Offer them some of your wine. Don’t get up from the table until everything has been experienced. Get up when your plates have been cleared, wine glasses are empty, and the candles have burnt out. Do you hear the band gearing up to play? Dance now, savor and enjoy that too. This is the true experience of the Italian ‘sagra.’
The word ‘sagra’ comes from the Latin word ‘sacrum’ which means holy or sacred. To me, this makes perfect sense; don’t all Italians uphold food as divine? However, the roots of these festivals actually go far deeper than an attachment to cuisine.
‘Sagre’ actually started hundreds of years ago as religious celebrations to pay tribute to the bounties of harvest. A town’s ‘sagra’ served as a reason for the people to get together to feast after working tirelessly year round. At these festivals, people also often enjoyed popular sports of the time such as jousting, archery, or horse racing.
Today ‘sagre’ are less focused on religion, but still hold the same emphasis on cooking and feasting. The food is cooked outside by local people making ‘sagra’ dining feel like stepping into an Italian family’s kitchen. A special menu is created for the ‘sagra’ and the celebrated product is used in many of the dishes. The product is even incorporated into traditional dishes, ones that usually don’t call for this ingredient.
For those of you who are familiar with Italians’ dedication to authenticity and tradition when it comes to cooking, this is an anomaly. Eating at a ‘sagra’ could be your chance to experience a slight twist to Italian cooking, but one that is still bursting with Italian mastery and flavor. Maybe you have already tasted ‘la bistecca alla Florentina’ on your trip to Florence, but would you like to try the Florentine steak served with truffles at the ‘La Sagra del Tartufo’ or the Truffle Festival? Yes, please!
If you want an unforgettable, absolutely Italian sensory experience, ‘sagre’ will not disappoint. Italy has perfected the art of simple, pure cooking, entertaining, and enjoying. They are proud of their cuisine and should be. Their ingredients are some of the finest in the world. Hundreds of years of family recipe secrets have been handed down from generation to generation. This lethal combination makes for an unsurpassable cuisine.
For people visiting Italy, experiencing the food is usually one of the top priorities and it absolutely should be. People from all over the world flock to Italy to taste the pizza in Naples, fish in Sicily, steak in Florence, pasta carbonara in Rome, and gelato in every city. Italians visit each others regions to try these things. They debate about it. Do you like Roman pizza or pizza from Napoli better?
Italians know where to look for the best of the best, but visitors do not have this advantage. Visitors certainly don’t think to look outside the big cities and main areas, to the countryside, for some of Italy’s best food. Here is your advantage; you now know that some of Italy’s best food is found at ‘sagre.’ All you have to do now is go! Below are some tips on how to go and what to do at your first ‘sagra.’
Look for the signs:
Plan getting to and from the ‘sagra’:
After choosing a ‘sagra,’ research how to get there before leaving for the festival. I recommend, especially if you are staying in a city or bigger town, renting a car. Otherwise, if it’s not too far from where you are staying, take a taxi or look up local transportation. Buses often run to the center of every town. If using a taxi or bus, make sure you can get back home at the end of the night. Arrive early so you can fully enjoy the experience and get your food order in.
Find the main ‘piazza’ and follow:
Don’t worry about finding the exact location of the festival, especially if taking a taxi or bus. Find the main ‘piazza’ in the town that your ‘sagra’ is in. Then follow the steady throng of people and the ‘sagra’ signs to the festival. Maybe even simply detecting the delightful smell of freshly cooking food will lead you there.
The food and drink at these festivals are cheap, so don’t despair, but definitely bring cash. You may not be able to pay any other way. Also, there are often merchants selling local, fresh produce, fruit, nuts, cheeses, and more, that are too tasty to pass up. These may be slightly more expensive than what you can find in the supermarket, but level of quality and freshness make them absolutely worth it.
Be communal, sit with strangers:
Upon arrival, sit at any table. Don’t be shy and don’t worry if you are sitting across from your friend or loved one, but are elbow to elbow with strangers. After relaxing into the communal situation and when appropriate, talk to these strangers! Enjoy the meal together.
There will be both beer and wine at ‘sagre.’ If you drink alcohol, go for some wine. You are in Italy after all. If you have done your research order the wine typical of the region. If you are not sure, ask.
Order lots of food and share:
When deciding what food to order, definitely choose the items that contain the celebrated ingredient. Also, order more than you think and share it with whoever you are with. Don’t worry if it’s too much. You don’t have to eat everything. Plus, if you eat too much you can always skip dessert. You will probably find that in the end, your food will be so fresh and tantalizing that not much will go wasted anyway.
Do bring a jacket, don’t bring too much:
Bring a jacket for when the air cools and the sun goes down. If you are a writer, bring a pad to jot down some memories. Bring a camera if you want, but most of all focus on the experience. Other than that, don’t bring anything too heavy. You might have to hike up a hill or want to get up and dance to the music after your feast. Wear comfortable shoes. If you miss the last bus back to your hotel, you might have to walk! But that’s ok, because you will be happy, content, and full of the Italian experience.
Be hungry and enjoy:
Definitely bring big eyes and your hunger. You are in for the feast of a lifetime. Most people have never experience this side of Italy before. Below are some of my favorite ‘sagre’ from 2016. We’ll have a list of some upcoming 2017 ‘sagre’ closer to the summer.
My Top Three ‘Sagre’ from 2016
For those visiting Florence and Tuscany:
What? La Sagra del Tartufo – The Truffle Festival
When? 25 September to 2 October 2016
Where? Piazza Pertini in Fiesole
Why? Only a short drive from Florence, this quaint festival in the picturesque countryside just above Florence is for the ultimate truffle fan. Eat bruschetta with truffles, crostini with truffles, pizza with truffles, pasta with truffles, and truffles for dessert. This is for people who want a quieter, completely authentic ‘sagra’ experience.
For those in Lazio including Rome:
What? La Sagra della Castagna – The Chestnutt Festival When? 29 September to 2 October, 6-9 October 2016 Where? Piazza Umberto in Soriano nel Cimino
Why? Not only can you find the best roast chestnuts of the year here, but you can step back in time and attend a glorious banquet complete with locals dressed in medieval attire as well as jousting and archery.
What? La Sagra dell’Uva – The Grape Festival
When? 30 September to 3 October 2016
Where? Piazza San Barnaba in Marino
Why? Full of wine, this is one of the most exuberant and fun festivals. It’s also easy for people in Rome to get to as it is only about fifteen miles away. There is a medieval costume parade through the town center where the fountain flows with wine instead of water specially for the festival.
Written by: Becky Heeley
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