Seasonal food supplies lead to a tradition of “sagre”, mono-thematic food festivals where one type of food is celebrated and cooked in all ways possible. Sit down at the table with the locals and you will learn not only about the food, but also about the culture that produces it.
From the delicious to the ridiculous, these star ingredients range from sausage to truffles to nettles to chestnuts and on beyond. By June these festivals are in full swing and the go on long into the autumn harvest; not surprisingly the food featured varies with the season, with fruit, pasta or grilled meats and fish appearing in Summer and Winter and truffles, mushrooms or chestnuts on the menu in the Autumn.
How to Visit a Sagra
At the sagra local producers and village residents are usually the ones to prepare, sell and serve the food, normally with the scope of raising funds for a community project - a new sports field, a scholarship for a deserving student, furnishing the village hall. These food festivals are relaxed, family-style affairs offering good casalinga home cooking, with men at the grill, aproned women dealing with pasta and a swarm of teenagers waiting tables with eager efficiency.
Sagras are not restaurants and apart from the main staple, which is offered in several different ways, sagra menus are rather limited - and usually focused on the "theme" of the Sagra. There are usually a couple of pasta dishes, perhaps a soup, a couple of meat or fish dishes and some basic side dishes (usually chips, beans or fresh tomatoes). Desserts - handmade baked goods - are ordered later and separately. Wine and water are always on offer, but quite often the wine is 'sfuso', un-bottled, from a local cantina, though quite decent.
On arriving you will take your place in a social queue and work your way up to cassa or cashier's desk, where one person will take your order from the menu displayed, mark it on printed form and pass it to a second person who will take your cash. You then take your form and your appetite to a nearby table and wait for a someone to notice you and your slip of paper.
In lieu of private tables there are long bench picnic tables set up in the streets of the village or a space large enough to seat a crowd. On a first come, first served basis you find a spot and then greet the people who join your table, perhaps taking part in the conversation that quite often circles around the quality, source or preparation of the food itself. On these occasions it is the food that is important, not the décor or place setting - expect paper napkins and plastic plates, cutlery and glasses.
No need to jump up from the table when you have finished eating, for all festivals have some type of entertainment planned, be it a small band that gets the crowd onto the dance floor, games and shows, markets and even fireworks at the end of the evening. Don't hesitate to join in, the locals will appreciate your participation.
Finding a Sagra
How to find these events? Though they might be featured on-line, you're just as likely to spot a sign publicizing them along the road. Normally they run over a couple of weekends or a period of days. Here is just a sampling of yearly food festivals:
Cacciucco & Gamberone (seafood soup and king prawns) in Rufina, near Florence - April/May
Limoni (lemons) in Monterosso al Mare (Cinque Terre) in mid-May
Frittura di Pesce (grilled/fried fish) in Orbetello in August
Sagra della Miseria in Colle Val d'Elsa in June, featuring simple, typical Tuscan fare
Tartufo Bianco & Fungo Porcino (white truffles & porcini mushrooms) in San Miniato in late September
Salsiccia (sausage) in Pari in late September
Festa dell'Uva (grapes) in Impruneta at the end of September
Lepre & Cinghiale (hare and wild boar) in Terriciola (Pisa) in early October
Funghi Porcini (large Cep mushrooms) in Pievescola in first half of September
Castagna (chestnut) in Arcidosso and Cinigiano in mid to late October
Polenta in Arezzo and Gavorrano in early or late October
Fiera di Cacio (pecorino cheese) in Pienza in end of August - early September