One of the things I loved the most about growing up in Italy was going to sagre with my family. My Florentine babbo would wake my brother and me up on a Sunday morning and tell us to get dressed quickly, because we were about to pile into the car and, for example, drive over an hour to eat chestnuts at the Sagra delle Castagne up in Marradi, Tuscany.
But what is a sagra? Also referred to as fiere or feste di paese, sagre are food fairs that happen about once a year in small towns all over Italy. They can last anywhere from a single day to a couple of weeks, and sometimes they also involve parades, competitions, historical re-enactments, or local politicians cutting ribbons. While they generally offer a wide selection of dishes, they often focus on a local specialty, be it drink or food: goose in Mirano (Veneto), or duck in Carassai (Marche), or more obscure and long-lost ingredients like snails in Graffignano (Lazio) or frog legs in Brozzi (Tuscany). Most of the time the sagre are named after said specialty, like the Sagra del Fungo Porcino in Cascia; while other times they might honor the local patron saint, like Sissa’s Sagra di San Giacomo; a harvest, like Licciana Nardi’s Festa del Raccolto; or the odd activity, like Pian di San Bartolo’s Festa dello Sport “with steak and grilled meats”.
Each sagra works in its own, chaotic way. You might place your order at the cash register and wait for your beer and roast pork shank to magically appear on your white plastic table; you might have to listen out for your number to be called and go grab a tray lined with a Tetris of paper plates; you might have to stand in line at the primi booth, waving a flimsy yellow ticket for pennette al sugo; or you might enjoy a simple set menu served in the street out the backdoor of an osteria. There’s no hard and fast rule: you show up, ask “come funziona?” (“how does it work?”) and follow instructions. A little Italian language knowledge goes a long way on these occasions because not everyone involved speaks English: the staff is usually a mix of locals (volunteers most of the time) and occasionally teens on the clock for the first time in their life.
Sagre are down to earth and rough around the edges. The food doesn’t look like it was “plated”– more like tossed onto plates from a distance with a shovel–but it’s delicious and tastes like your best Sunday lunch, or like Easter or Christmas, as it was made from the heart by the experienced hands of local home cooks–mamme (mothers) and nonne (grandmothers) wearing colorful aprons and wrap-around neck fans.
The purpose of a sagra surely isn’t to win a Michelin star (which many would rightfully deserve), but to keep traditions alive, to fuel a sense of community, or to raise money or awareness around a cause. The four feste hosted during the summer by each neighborhood in the town of Impruneta help fund the giant grape-themed floats that the locals build for the yearly Festa dell’Uva parade in September. The itinerant sagre hosted by Centro Storico Lebowski, a grassroots amateur sports cooperative society by the fans and for the fans, help support their soccer teams and offer its members an opportunity to dine and dance together.
While many and most of these events date back decades (Grumolo delle Abbadesse’s Festa del Riso is on its 32nd edition), there are a few new ones popping up across the peninsula. One of the youngest and most interesting feste, and the one I recommend you to visit next year for its 4th edition, is held in San Giovanni delle Contee, a dying village of 149 inhabitants, located in the beautiful, vineyard-lined hills along the margins of the Maremma area of Tuscany and less than a 10-minute drive from the border with Lazio. This is one of the least densely populated areas of Italy and is rapidly becoming more and more depopulated as health, education and communication infrastructures need lots of work.
To try to save their town from abandonment, three young men are tapping into its winemaking traditions based in simple wine cellars obtained from small, dark caves literally dug out of the rock under San Giovanni’s homes, with no electricity or running water. Tommaso Ciuffoletti, Tommaso Furzi and Olmo Fratini of the newly-born Cantina del Rospo winery have founded the Disfida delle Contee, a lively festa all about Italy’s sweetest nectar, held the very first Saturday after June 24th (the day of Saint Giovanni). A panel of professional wine producers, exporters, tasters and writers come from all over Italy to try San Giovanni’s wines, homemade by the Sangiovannesi for self-consumption as has been their tradition for decades.
The head of the Disfida’s jury is Gambero Rosso collaborator and famed food and wine journalist Leonardo Romanelli. This year there was a panel of 12 judges (plus one’s teenage son, perching over his father’s shoulder and listening closely to his comments) and about 100 other in-the-know visitors who, for €5 each, could taste as much wine as they wished. Almost just as many had to stay home because the festa and town were at full capacity. (I reached out just in time and ended up sleeping in a spare bunk bed in the church’s rectory.)
Tables were set in the village’s main road, closed to traffic for the occasion. The judges’ panel was set with a bouquet of wildflowers picked from a producer’s garden, water, three spittoons, 12 glasses, 12 pieces of paper torn out of a notebook and a bunch of colored pencils. I picked purple. A third of the judges were first timers, yours truly included.
We blind tasted 21 reds and eight whites. The bottles came wrapped in tinfoil with numbers written on them with a permanent marker. Each judge gave each wine a score of up to 100 points, which were then tallied up in an Excel spreadsheet to determine the winners: 3 best reds, 1 best overall and 1 Intravino.com special winner. Eighty points was a good wine, 90 a fabulous one, 70 a not-so-good–unfortunately, there were a number in this last sector. Strong words were jokingly spoken: “Don’t worry: vinegar disinfects.” “Salame” was whispered like a shiver through clenched teeth at bottle number 5 Red.
But most of the other wines were quite delicious, especially the reds. Giuliano’s rich, 100% Sangiovese won 3rd place: he’s been retired for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s rumored that he’s on his way to blind and has been learning to drive his battered red Vespa by “intuition”. He spent the whole evening with his chin and elbows on his balcony’s railing, staring down at the judges’ table. Second place went to Podere Spineto, a “foreign” wine sent in from Basilicata by a young wine-aficionado who learned about the Disfida on Instagram. And first place was won by a full-bodied blend by Giorgio Sebastiani–who must actually know what he’s doing, since he also won the first year of the Disfida–but he wasn’t around to celebrate because he was busy in the wine cellar, which some say to be partially flooded.
Giorgio is a gas station attendant, and now a celebrated wine maker, who produces house wine with his retired woodworker father. His cellar is just like most of the others in town: a candle-lit, humid cave dug out of the hill under his home. He also hangs his (vacuum packed) salame in there.
The evening carried on with a fabulous dinner al fresco of traditional Maremman dishes by Osteria Maccalè, headed by Tiziana Peruzzi. The local women who work with her dragged hot pots and pans into the street, piling dishes high with stracotto, a beef roast, and acquacotta, a simple soup of slow-cooked tomato, chopped celery and thinly-sliced onions, poured over day-old Tuscan bread slices and topped with a fried egg.
More bottles were opened by “real” producers, and the tinfoil was unwrapped from the remaining homemade wines to reveal a colorful variety of simply printed labels with pictures of local vineyards, or just people’s names handwritten on the dark glass, like “Giuliano 4 Disfida”. Dinner was followed by entertainment from celebrated Italian performer Giacomo Laser with karaoke and original pieces. A young local performed his own rap for the first time ever and was then overcome by emotion as he hugged his mother.
For me, this is what Italy is all about: good food and good wine, hard-working people set on keeping traditions alive, and an overflowing of raw emotion. Sagre and feste di paese include all of the above and play a fundamental role in the lives and traditions of the Italian community.
There are a few ways to find a sagra or festa near you while you’re in Italy: online on Instagram, Facebook Events or on specialized websites like sagretoscane.com or giraitalia.it/sagre; or, better yet, keep your eyes peeled for posters plastered in public spaces as they’re usually more reliable and up-to-date.