Snails, chestnuts, sausages, polenta, asparagus, nougat, pasta, anchovies, chocolate, mushrooms, cheese, salt cod. No, not a Heston Blumenthal tasting menu, but just a tiny selection of individual products, each of which is accorded its own dedicated local festival, or sagra as they call it in Italy.
Sagra is one of those annoying words that is so particular to the culture that it defies accurate translation. Even the lexicographers who compiled my breeze-block-sized Italian dictionary admit defeat: realising that translating it as ‘festival, feast’ doesn’t do the term full justice, they helpfully add the following description “A sagra is a rural festival held in the open air with folk music, dancing and games. Many are based around one or more culinary specialities, which can usually be sampled in the various booths. These festivals normally take place during the summer months.” (Collins) Which is true enough as far as it goes – except for the fact that this description sucks every last drop of joie de vivre out of the thing. For these sagre (and there are more than 5000 of them up and down the country) are not worthy-but-dull events run by local do-gooders in a vain attempt to cling to a bygone golden age. Nor are they a cynical ploy to attract gullible tourists and hoodwink them into spending lots of money on ‘traditional’ wares. They are, rather, a celebration of the produce that supports the local economy, and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, and also of civic pride and solidarity. Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to curly-haired toddler. And enjoy them they do – in vast numbers, too.
Take the one held in our village this weekend: the 57th annual Sagra del Carciofo (pronounced ‘car-choffoh’), which involves a full weekend of solid partying – all in celebration of the artichoke. Many of the fields hereabouts are covered with neat rows of the prickly deep green mounds from which the thistle-like edible blossoms appear in spring, so it is easy to understand why this particular delicacy is the focus of the celebrations that take over the entire historical centre.
It is just as well Mr Blue-Shirt and I decided to walk the 4km into the village, as the place was absolutely heaving with life with every last parking space long since bagged. The narrow, cobbled streets were crammed with stands selling piles of freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, and with stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and with stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino, offering tastings of all the different vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced artisan foods from hams to honey – all of them doing a brisk trade. It was the stands selling hot food where the real action was, though, with a permanent queue of people waiting to take their pick from whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork with artichoke, artichoke salad, artichoke frittata (omelette), deep-fried artichoke hearts, and olives stuffed with artichokes. Not to be outdone by these pop-up stalls, the pizzeria in the main square was churning out artichoke pizzas at a furious pace, and the other two restaurants in the village had also made the artichoke the star of their menus for the weekend. To be honest, though, some of the dishes on offer were downright odd. Mr Blue-Shirt had managed to secure one of the last tables in the long-established family-run restaurant on the main street, and to round off each of their specially created four-course artichoke-based menus, the dessert was artichoke strudel, and we later found that the gelateria was even serving homemade artichoke ice cream. Which I have to say did rather sound like last-ditch contributions to a late-night culinary brainstorming session.
Having eaten our fill of artichoke dishes (minus the strudel and ice cream) we made our way through the crowded streets up to the even more crowded main square where a five-piece band was filling the warm night air with popular Italian rock ballads. The huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show looked slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall, but it was heartening to see the ancient square so buzzing with life and energy and fun.
The following afternoon offered yet more artichoke-themed celebrations, the most extravagant of which was the procession of specially made floats that each formed a different mini stage set. One after the other, each was towed by a flag-bedecked tractor onto the main square where homage was paid to the precious artichoke in the form of a brief playlet performed in front of the jam-packed square. If I’m honest, it was all slightly bizarre, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless. More eating and drinking soon followed, and late in the evening proceedings were finally brought to a close by another live band who twanged their way through a programme of country and western favourites that were carried in through our bedroom window on the soft night air as we drifted off to sleep.
Despite the whole thing being somewhat baffling for a pair of newbie incomers like us, we shall definitely be going to the 58th Sagra del Carciofo. But I suspect we’ll still give the artichoke ice cream a miss.