Valerie Schneider – Panorama Italy
As Cheryl pointed out in her recent post, summer is starting, bringing with it the pretty poppies and sweet-faced sunflowers all over Italy. It also brings heightened activity. Summer means sagras and festivals, making it the ideal time to travel and experience life like a local.
A sagra in Italy is akin to a county fair in Midwest America … but better. Deriving from the term sacra festa, they are frequently held in conjunction with a religious festival or a patron saint’s feast day and feature some type of religious observation or procession as part of the activity line-up. But for the most part, as with everything in Italy, it boils down to the food. While it may proclaim a saint’s day, the bigger headline is the type of delicacy they will be cooking up. Make that delicious, delectable delicacies.
If there is a food item in Italy, there is a sagra dedicated to it. In our area of Ascoli Piceno we are especially drawn to any festa that will be grilling up arrosticini, an Abruzzo and Marche specialty, which are skewers containing flavorful little nuggets of lamb meat. The wafting smell of the grilling meat is unbelievably enticing and even if I’m not very hungry, I cave in and order a skewer once my nostrils get a whiff of the barbecuing meat.
There are sagre to celebrate the local wines, and polenta fests with a variety of toppings (sausage, fish, clams, or snails, take your pick). Truffles and porcini mushrooms are perennially popular in these parts as are all things pig. I lost count of the number of festivals dedicated to pork, either roasted in its entirety, served as a grilled chop, or in one of its processed forms such as sausage and prosciutto.
Many sagre have fund-raising efforts for the church or organization hosting the party, which usually takes the form of the Pesca di Beneficenza, a kind of raffle lottery. You pay a few euros and receive prizes based on the corresponding numbers you draw. The most prized award is frequently a whole prosciutto.
Music is obligatory at sagre, normally local groups churning out a combination of folk songs and rock tunes before a wildly appreciative audience. The crowd loves it and dancing always ensues at each of these events. It’s all a lot of home-spun fun with good food at low prices, and a pleasant way to pass a summer evening in the company of fun-loving locals.
Which is the other reason we love a good sagra…the company. Most festivals offer long, rectangular communal tables for dining. We purposely pick seats with others already occupying a portion of the table so we can interact. In our sagra experience, we’ve found that people are generally congenial and, at nearly every festival we’ve attended, we’ve had someone chat with us and offer us wine from their pitcher. “È troppo,” they tell us. We have too much wine for just the two of us, take some. Since Italians don’t feel a meal is complete without wine, they always buy a liter. Since most of them drink only a glass or two, they know they’ll not consume it all, so it’s customary to offer some to whoever happens to be sitting nearby. We have been likewise plied with homemade liqueurs and desserts our table-mates have toted along with them. We have made some lasting friendships at these festivals.
So how do you find a sagra or festa? Most towns have a wall dedicated to posters to inform the citizens of upcoming events. Look them over to see what foods and festivals are highlighted. Ask your hosts, the barista of your favorite caffe, or the tourist information office.
This summer if you find yourself in Italy, try out a festival or two. You’re guaranteed a good time and a good meal, and you just might make yourself a friend or two along the way.
To find sagras and festivals in Italy, check these helpful websites:
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Valerie Schneider is a travel professional turned freelance writer and tour guide who moved to Ascoli Piceno in the beautiful region of Le Marche in 2006. She and her husband Bryan operate Panorama Italy, planning personalized journeys so travelers can experience the colors and flavors of a little known corner of Italy. Walking tours, winery visits, and genealogy trips are just a few of their offerings. Visit Panorama Italy for more information on this beautiful place and how Valerie and Bryan can help you experience it personally.