24 September 2013

The Sagra

A friend asked me recently what a sagra is. Now, I know what it is to me and I’m pretty sure that this varies greatly from what it is to an Italian, but here goes....

To me, a sagra is kind of like a New York street fair.  But different. Like a street fair, it takes place in a neighborhood, but in Italy, this neighborhood is sometimes an entire town and there are usually some interesting things to see that you might not otherwise, be it ancient graffiti on a church wall, a natural thermal pool, or locals doing line dances.

It is often organized by the town’s Pro Loco, which as far as I can tell is a group of people who live in the town and try to make it better for its residents, who organize events to try to raise money. Towards that end, they organize things to get folks to come spend money in the town, a population which is increasingly often non-townfolk. A good way to do this is to gather a bunch of vendors to sell stuff to the folks who come to check out a particular food the area is known for.

Some sagre feature an ingredient like polenta, porcini mushrooms, truffles, mussels (cozze), wild boar (chingiale), a specific pasta. You get the idea. Typically, the people of the town will cook various plates, typical of their area, using the featured ingredient and sell them from stalls. Sometimes, they’ll hire professionals to do it.

Other sagre may feature a particular dish. Spaghetti all’amatriciana, lasagne, arrosticini.

The idea is always the same. Go to a town, eat a bunch of food, drink some wine or beer and listen to the (often) live music provided.

Most sagre have one area where you look at the list of food available, make your selection, hand over your euros and get a ticket or tickets. You then stand in line in another area, hand over your tickets and get your plates of food.

These events take place yearly, around the same time each year. For instance, the Sagra della Porchetta Italica of Campli in Abruzzo is always around the 2nd or 3rd week end in August. Some sagre are tied to religious events and these are governed by that calendar.

Some of them have live bands, some DJs, some folk music with dancers. Some, all three.  There might be carnival rides and cotton candy.

There are also Feste. These are much like sagre. Sometimes, exactly the same, but sometimes, there is a theme versus an ingredient.

Roasting chestnuts, Acquasanta Terme (AP)
In Acquasanta Terme in the province of Ascoli Piceno, there is the Festa d’Autunno. This is typically held the third weekend in October. There are vendors roasting chestnuts and selling vino caldo. Other folks sell sausage sandwiches and fried pizza dough (known, variously, as fritelle, crispelle and I’m sure several other names). Street performers roam around, market vendors sell everything from truffles to skeins of wool. The local group of Alpini, retirees from the army’s mountain division, open their lodge as a restaurant. The restaurants in town offer special menus featuring fall recipes of tagliatelle with chestnuts, roast pork with apples, etc.

Win a prosciutto. Castignano
Castignano, also in Ascoli, is a walled medieval town that capitalizes on its connection to the Knights Templar with their yearly Templaria Festival in the middle of August. Legend has it that some Knights lived there and each year, the town is transformed into a medieval village, with minstrels and Templars roaming about, market areas with vendors selling handmade leather goods, wooden items, jewelry and more. There are stages throughout the town featuring jesters and dancers. Churches and museums are open, showcasing various items from times gone by. Palm and tarot card readers tell the future. Themed restaurants open, showcasing soups and stews of rabbit, deer and wild boar. While you’re eating, performers might come by talking of their poverty and the wife might complain of the scrawniness of her husband and her daughter could take a look at your husband, commenting on the size of his belly at which point the wife might ask if she can take your husband home, promising him to return him shortly. You might consider it.

Some of these events, like the porchetta sagra/contest in Campli and the autumn fest in Acquasanta have been happening annually for more than forty years. Others are in their second or third edition.

The strangest thing to me about these sagre and feste is how hard it can be to find information. As you drive around, you’ll signs posted announcing a sagra. Usually, the town, the dates and the theme or food is announced. Sometimes, the name of the sagra gives no clue to the non-local about what food’s being served or the signs featuring the local dialect mean nothing to you. This can be a drag if you’ve, say, driven an hour to find that the annual fried frog sagra in Atri has been canceled this year and as you’re driving home, you’re passing sagra after sagra but don’t know if it’s worth it to you to stop. The signs rarely say specifically where in the town the sagra is or the starting time. Internet information is often just as limited. I guess it has to do with these parties originally being for the locals and the locals all just know, inherently, the details just as they know that you can pay your water bill at the newsagent or where it is you go to buy cheesecloth (for the record, I think it might be the hardware shop). Thankfully, this is starting to change, but I think I’ve cracked the code.

In summer, most sagre start at around 7pm. As the sun starts to set, it’s actually cool enough to contemplate eating food. As this is also the time that your house, which was almost cool during the day is starting to heat up, it’s the perfect time to go for a drive or take a walk into town, get a drink, find something to eat and be entertained.

Many feste towards the end of August and into fall, may start in the morning or early afternoon, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. The Festa d’Autunno and the Sagra delle Patate in Leonessa do this. Sometimes, they’ll say they start at noon or at 3p but if you’re thinking of going the first day, you might not want to believe them. They may still be setting up at 5p. Like many things in italy, it depends. Like most things in Italy, on what, I don’t know. But if you’re driving around and see a sign for a sagra, you should probably stop to check it out.

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