Thursday 6 March 2008

Local Italian markets (Sagre)

Life in Italy somehow would not be complete without the odd visit to a local sagra, which translates as festival, feast or patron saint’s day. There are so many in every province, let alone every region or the country as a whole, that it is impossible to list them all. There are the obvious ones, which the majority of travellers to Italy will have heard of if not actually been to, such as the now world famous Siena Palio and the barrel rolling in Montepulciano. The latter is quite a spectacle, where teams of 2, dressed in medieval costume and each representing one part of the town, roll huge empty barrels of wine from the bottom of the town to the top square in front of the Duomo. I was not surprised to see a series of Croce Rossa ambulances waiting at the finish line; probably to cart off any young stud who thought himself macho enough complete the course without training and with a 20-a-day habit.

However, there are a myriad of local festivals practically unknown to anyone but the local communities where they have been conceived, brought up and removed from the closet to be brushed off to much applause and gaiety once a year. When I was young I once read that there were more than 15,000 islands in the Indonesian archipelago, which I dutifully agreed to visit all of. I imagined myself cruising from one to the other in hollowed out logs and living on coconut and papaya, oblivious to the logistics, the sharks and the general impossibility of the task in hand (I have only managed 6 of them to date). I now believe that this undertaking would still be more easily achievable in one man’s lifetime than to visit all of the sagre on the Italian mainland (I don’t even want to imagine how many they have on the islands).

As you can probably imagine, the majority of these events revolve around food, with each one having a specific delicacy as centre stage. Whether or not all these dishes are considered a speciality in their area is never quite certain, though one suspects that one Umbrian sagra dedicated to Spaghetti Carbonara may have come about because the next door village got the monopoly on the real local recipe. There are many events in Cortona throughout the year, but the main foodie event is undoubtedly the Sagra di Bistecca, which occurs each year at Ferragosto. A huge barbecue, the size of a snooker table, is constructed in the public gardens, tents are erected and steaks, wine and chefs are drafted in in obscene quantities. The aftermath of the festival is usually a large hangover and a place for dogs to lick the gravel under the barbecue for weeks ahead. I did not make it to the Sagra della Ranocchia (feast of the frog) this summer, but I am assured that it was tasty beyond my wildest dreams…

What Cortona lacks however, and what most of the smaller festivals have in common, is a serata danzante (evening of dancing), which follows the lengthy eating session during summer events. The exponents of the music itself usually fall into one of two categories: male, with shiny gold or leopard print shirt and shaggy hair reminiscent of early 80s footballers or female, with shiny gold or leopard print shirt and shaggy hair reminiscent of early 80s footballers, only prettier. The last one I went to had both varieties playing together as a duet. What I really admired was the degree to which the captive audience, from the teens to the octogenarians, appeared to know the songs, the lyrics and the moves to anything that is played. Aside from the waltz and the tango, there is an aptitude for line and formation dancing throughout the generations that I only ever witnessed in the UK during the heady days of Whigfield’s “Saturday Night” back in the early 90s. We attempted to join in at a couple of points, but rushed off the floor without raising a sweat, for fear of being arrested for ineptitude. You also have the plain medieval stuff; things that you still find in the far corners the UK as well. Racing disobedient donkeys around an oval circuit, bobbing for apples in water and then flour alternately, is one of my local favourites. At the same festa you can indulge in a bit of old fashioned animal tormenting; betting on which direction a rabbit will run after being placed under a metal bucket which is tapped repeatedly with a stick; heady stuff indeed. Overall the local sagra is a great excuse to get dressed up, eat and drink lots, dance if you feel up to it, gossip with friends and is generally a life-affirming event for any local community. Go to one if you have the chance.

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