Lots of countries have food and drink festivals — the beer of Oktoberfest just stopped flowing in Germany a few days ago — but Italians have a way of celebrating their regional culinary specialties in a way that is uniquely endearing. These celebrations are called sagre. From north to south, from seaside to mountain top, from the biggest metropolis to the smallest hamlet, sagre are a constant and joyous part of Italian culture.
You can find food festivals all year long all across Italy, but fall brings a series of sagre that is beyond compare in its variety and deliciousness (in this author’s opinion, anyway).
Before we get into the list of fabulous fall foods being saluted in Italy in the coming months, let’s take a look at the history of the sagra.
History of the Italian Sagra
The Italian sagra goes back to very ancient times and has its roots in agricultural and rural traditions. In Ancient Rome, before the advent of Christianity, Romans observed a number of festivals to honour their pagan deities. Banqueting was always a vital part of the proceedings.
Once Christianity took hold, sagre took on a more religious flavour. In fact, the word sagra comes from “sacra”, which means “sacred” in Latin. In modern Italian culture, the sagra is indeed a sacred thing, partly because some saint is usually being remembered, but primarily due to the fact that Italians regard being together and eating well as two of the most important things in life.
The seasonal cycles of farming have been a fixture in Italian sagre since the beginning, when communities would come together to give thanks for the bounty of the land and share it through harvest festivals. Today, paying homage to the gifts of the earth is still the predominant theme of sagre. Well, the recognition goes not only to what nature gives us but also to the marvelous dishes that Italians have turned these gifts of nature into.
Alongside cuisine, which of course changes with the seasons, sagre also showcase and promote the traditions of each region. A big part of this is how folks dressed in times gone by. Many sagre in Italy feature participants dressed in costumes specific to the region or theme. Besides being a fun opportunity for grown-ups to dress up in Medieval or folkloric attire, it also serves to preserve an important aspect of the region’s cultural heritage.
Completing the sagra scene is some combination of music, dancing, spectacles, races, games, parades, processions, street markets, craft fairs, and expos of artisan items.
While sagre typically revolve around a saint, martyr, or something you can eat, the poster child can also be an animal that has significance to the place. In Montalcino, a thrush is the central figure in the Sagra del Tordo, which celebrates the community’s hunting traditions that were historically marked by the fall migration of birds. In Sardegna, there are several sagre dedicated to horses, highlighting the island's deeply-rooted equestrian culture that goes back to basically the dawn of time. These festivals feature impressive equestrian processions, displays of horsemanship, and even thrilling races but above all, they reflect the inhabitants’ connection to and reverence for these native creatures.
Sagre in Italy: A Limited Look at the Endless Festivals
The quantity and diversity of sagre in Italy is frankly mind-boggling. There is pretty much a festival for every food item you can think of. From porcini (mushrooms) to polenta (Italian grits), from tartufi (truffles) to totani (squid), from fichi d'India (prickly pears) to fagioli (dried beans), Italy’s food festivals are an embarrassment of riches.
It goes without saying that wine, cheese, and olive oil are widely celebrated from one end of the country to the other, as are beautifully crafted meat products such as prosciutto (cured pork) and salami. Fall is a great time for sagre because we have both new wine and new oil. But fall also brings such other delights as chestnuts, mushrooms, apples, pears, pumpkins and other cool-weather squashes, all sorts of cabbages, and the prized white truffle.
The sagra del cinghiale is something you see quite frequently in the fall and winter months in Italy. A cinghiale is a wild boar, and the delectable fare made with its meat is quintessential Italian comfort food in cold weather.
Some sagre put a singular food item on its celebratory pedestal: asparagus, artichokes, apples, oranges, grapes, figs, pistachios, almonds, hazelnuts, gigantic pumpkins, potatoes, bread, honey, snails, fish, shellfish, calamari, you name it. Others spotlight local culinary specialties: Ribollita (thick, bread-based soup) in Florence, cannoli (deep-fried pastry shells stuffed with sweetened ricotta cheese) in Sicily, porchetta (a whole pig roasted with wild fennel and aromatic herbs) in the countryside south of Rome, tortellini in Emilia-Romagna, pizza in Naples, to name a very few.
It’s not unusual for sagre to feature unusual or whimsical events. In Marsala, famous for its fortified wine by the same name, there are concerts in the vineyard and yoga in the wine cellar. In Pienza, you can witness “cheese bowling” as gigantic rounds of cheese are launched down the cobbled streets. At the Carnival of Ivrea, a village set against the Alps in Piedmont, a historic battle from the 12th Century is reenacted using oranges as projectiles.
The most fragrant and astounding kind of sagra is perhaps the “Infiorata”, which takes place in a number of Italian towns. Infiorata means “decorated with flowers” — and we are talking about city streets here! For the Infiorata, the main avenue of the village is transformed into an elaborate flower carpet by skilled artisans and volunteers using flower petals, seeds, coloured sawdust, and other natural materials.
All summed up, a sagra is a glorious celebration of the inherent blessedness of Italy’s terrain and the rich cultural heritage of each town and region.
These days, sagre in Italy are a boon to tourism. Attracting visitors from across the nation and around the globe, they are helping to boost local economies. And in a world where electronic devices continue to diminish human interaction, sagre furnish communities with a special reason to gather together and a fun mechanism to keep traditions alive.
If Italy's sagre are calling to you, DriverInRome would be pleased to chauffeur you around with a private car and driver, or arrange a licensed guide just for your group. Please contact us regarding popular or custom itineraries.