Italian villages have always celebrated together in one gigantic feast.
Think Italy - think long tables, loud chatter, flowing wine and glorious food - it gets big and loud, but never bigger (or louder) than la sagra.
What's a sagra?
Since forever, Italian villages have fixed a date every year to get together and, well... eat. Not easy to find a translation for 'la sagra', this is probably the best: a feast.
Related to regional and seasonal foods, the entire village or town will gather to celebrate whichever food (or drink) is local to them. The sagra will no doubt fall on a Saints Day and the ingredients will depend on the season - this will be what the feast is planned around, but it's always more than just eating and drinking.
Throughout Italy, towns will host their sagra in an all-weather marquee, celebrating up to a week with daily gastronomic specialities, music and meetings because there's always a good reason for an event which showcases food, merriment and tradition, involving tables upon tables of happy people.
Sagra food is simple and typically served on plastic plates with plastic cutlery and paper table cloths. Nowadays, with an awareness of single-use pollution, it's all plant-based and recycled accordingly but a sagra is not a fancy affair (even if a few have introduced proper cutlery and crockery of late) - it's basic and buzzing and beautiful.
Some sagra fare we always expect as standard - grilled foods like sausages, spiedo (slow-roasted meat on a spit), ribs or Dobbiaco cheese, served with polenta or french fries. Sides could be bean salads or grated cabbage and primi usually gnocchi or pasta with ragù or tomato sauce. Of course, accompanied by quality grated Parmigiano and extra-virgin olive oil, but perhaps in a sachet!
Regional specialities will additionally feature - you may find 'la Sagra del Mus' on the Pianura Padana (the sagra of donkey meat on the flat plains of Padova) or 'la Sagra del Porcino' in the valleys of Alto Adige, Italy's Alpine province. Tuscan village feasts will feature cingiale (wild boar), Roman sagre will feature Porchetta and Friulano sagre will feature Frico (a traditional cheese and potato dish) and this is why we love Italy, because every area has a unique identity that their people are fiercely proud of, an identity that reflects in local dishes, dialects, music and festivities, with the culmination of it all in one loud and lively event - la sagra.
Sagra food is simple but as always in Italy, the quality is up there and the cooking to perfection. You'll be amazed at the rate plates fly out of the kitchen.although you might wait a while if you sit down when everyone else does - then again, there's no harm in striking up a conversation with your table-neighbour and purchasing another litre of wine to share, the bar queue always moves quicker than the food queue. And this is another reason we love a sagra - it's all volunteered help. These are village people, elderly and young, who rally together in perfect organisation as a well-oiled team of passionate cooks and waiters. They belong to an organisation which filters any profits back into their community, going full circle.
At a certain point, dessert trolleys are rolled round for a slice of crostata, meringata or perhaps ricotta cake, then of course, it's time for coffee and a digestivo - but only after il dolce.
La sagra has humble beginnings - one romantically pictures trestle tables placed on a tiny cobbled piazza, groups of folk singers and cooks around the coals... these days, most have evolved into something of a jam-packed event - line dancing, rock bands, gastronomic kiosks and bouncy castles, we naturally end up scouting out the older, more traditional sagre, choosing plant-based plates with less frills and flashing lights. The louder the chatter, the better the sagra and there are many around, you just need to look.
So, next time you're in Italy, keep an eye out for printed cardboard signs along country roads, because that's how they traditionally advertise. You can always check the giraitalia website but why not be brave and bring out your Italian? When you're paying for a caffè al banco ask a friendly local, they'll be happy to help. Try this:
"Mi scusi, dove posso trovare una sagra?" - Excuse me, where can I find a sagra?
Here's a list of regional sagre we think you'd love:
Veneto, Combai - Festa dei Marroni (The Sagra of Marron Chestnuts) - 13 October to 1 November
Umbria, Citta' della Pieve - Zafferiamo (Saffron) - 20 to 27 October
Liguria, Genova - Sagra del Pesto - 28/29 September
Sicily, Alia - Sagra della Ricotta - 24 December
Tuscany, Greve in Chianti - Rassegna del Chianti Classico - 6 to 9 September
Campania, Salerno - Sagra della Lasagna e Polpette (Costesi) (Sagra of Lasagna and Meatballs) - 31 August to 4 September
Campania, Caserta - Piazze della Lumaca (Snails on the square) -1/2 October
Veneto, Castello Roganzuolo - Sagra de San Piero (Giant Costata - T-bone steak) - 23 to 26 June - a family favourite
And the list goes on...
(Message us for more details on individual sagre and any more recommendations you'd love.)