La Sagra: Something Sacred?There certainly is something sacred about the sagra: a local village festival offering the best in local cuisine at minimal prices, top (and free!) dance band music outdoors til the wee hours and entertainment for all from pre-schoolers to the elderly. At some sagras, there are mini-soccer tournaments, others offer a performance of a local dancing school on one night, and others fill the food tent walls with artwork of the village school children.
The term “sagra” derives from “sacra festa,” and at one time, the village sagra celebrated the feast day of the local patron saint. About thirty years ago, though, most of the sagre evolved into secular events, and today the focal point of most sagre is a culinary specialty: Sagra degli Asparagi, Sagra dei Porcini, Sagra del Castagno (chestnut), Sagra della Ciliegia (cherries in everything…and the risotto alle ciliege is a winner!), Sagra della Cipolla (onions in every dish, from focaccia to the dessert!), Sagra dell’Oca Arrosto (roast goose), Sagra dell’Anguilla (eel – a favorite of my husband, Pino!), Sagra della Porchetta (roasted suckling pig), Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar), and what more perfect way to wind up the sagra season in late November than with the Sagra del Tartufo (truffles)?!
Not every sagra centers on a single food specialty and the recent Festa della Primavera, the “spring festa” sagra of Cipresso (Bastia), near Assisi offered a varied menu of Umbria rural specialties for each of the eleven nights of their sagra, as well as a menu del giorno, featuring Umbrian culinary highlights.. Fettuccine with porcini and black truffle starred one night and polenta con salsicce won the crowds on another.
As at almost any sagra, volunteer older women and men cooked in a fully-equipped mobile kitchen and the middle-aged and younger people served the family groups at picnic tables under the huge tent – and took over clean.-up. As retired police captain Antonio served me grilled lamb and cooked greens, I asked him why he would be running tables from 7 pm to 1 a.m for eleven straight nights at this sagra. With a smile, he answered matter-of-factly, “Because this is my village”. Yet another example of Italian passione….
After putting in our food order selected from a tempting menu, our group had headed to the drinks stand to order beverages. Only at a sagra can you savor a generous plate of grilled local lamb chops (at 7 Euro!) with a litre of a great Umbrian grechetto (our best white wine) at 5 Euro! For dessert, huge luscious strawberries mounded with whipped cream at 2. 5 Euro?!
We had arrived at the sagra at just after 7 pm hoping to beat the food lines. By 9 pm, when the dance band started playing, the food tents were full with happily- feasting, chattering families backdropped by posters made by the local schoolchildren emulating their nonni (grandparents). The play area for the little ones stocked with inflatable play equipment was in full swing. Stands selling bijoux, candies, sunflower seeds and other semenze (edible “seeds”) attracted a few browsers but most everyone was heading to the open-air dance floor. As at all sagras, elderly couples had come early to find places in the plastic armchairs surrounding the cement dance space. Though some are there just to enjoy the scene, most will dance – and many, non-stop for hours!
Waltz, fox trot, tango, mazurka, polka and later in the evening, group dancing. You’ll often see little children paired together right in the midst, learning to ballroom dance by shadowing their parents. Smaller children catch the rhythms at an early age in the arms of mothers, fathers or grandparents who waltz them around the dance floor. The best dance bands attract larger crowds – and ballroom-dancing couples know all the best bands. There is a sagra somewhere in Umbria from early spring to fall, and many rural people and working class people attend them every weekend just for the dancing – free social activities for all for months!
Yes, the sagra certainly still has something of the “sacred”: a sacred tradition of the sharing of the best in good healthy food with family and friends followed by open-air excercise, uniting those of all ages.
Is there anything more “sacred”?
Read more May, June sagras in Umbria.
Read about a favorite sagra celebrating asparagus.
Read about other examples of Italian passione.