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In Italy, the sagra is a proud celebration of local food, traditions and community. It's often run by a local association over a short period, a weekend or two, sometimes more, and putting it on is a whole family—from nonna to grandchild—and neighborhood effort. The whole town seems to get involved. If you're heading to Italy for vacation and happen to be off the beaten track, heading out of the cities toward the sea or countryside, check out the local posters that you will inevitably see around for the town's upcoming sagre—the regional, seasonal festivals celebrating whatever the local specialty is.
Food is the main theme of sagre, be it a local ingredient or product or a particular dish. They celebrate pistachios in Sicily's Bronte, Tomino cheese in Turin, fish all along the Tyrrhenian coast, and bresaola (air-cured beef) in Sondrio near Lake Como (where they broke the record for the longest carpaccio ever made, at over 50 yards long). In Lari, near Pisa, it's cherries—at that sagra, there's a stall with a group of old women that make the most divine cherry fritters in huge outdoor vats of bubbling oil. People start lining up for them well before they even open!
The traditions and recipes of special local dishes—such as Sardinian torrone (or nougat), focaccia in Liguria's Recco, and tortelli maremmani in southern Tuscany—are cause enough to celebrate in sagra form.
At times, a specific sagra is the keeper of a tradition—meaning attending the festival is the only way you can actually try a certain specialty. Porto Ercole's sagra della ficamaschia, dedicated to blue whiting, is one of those. Blue whiting, while regularly caught in the old fishing village, isn't available in stores or supermarkets, and restaurants don't promote Porto Ercole's age-old traditions of fishing and eating it (namely, frying it or stewing it with tomato), preferring instead more modern and popular seafood dishes. The only way to try it is the town's sagra, which comes just once a year.
Sometimes the sagra is as no-frills as you can get: a place to eat elbow-to-elbow with others at long communal tables, sometimes under a marquee in a too-brightly-lit open space like a football field, sometimes in the historic center of town on cobbled stones. There are often market stalls of fresh or prepared food, along with knickknacks and souvenirs, and there's usually live music, dancing, historical reenactments, or other entertainment, like face-painters or bouncy castles for the kids.
A common scene, like that at the Sagra del buglione (a hearty lamb stew) in Maremma's Capalbio (in the southernmost part of Tuscany), is that of a smoky, outdoor grill armed by a group of men in white aprons with hot, glistening faces and a kitchen full of just as many women guarding enormous simmering pots.
Sagre such as the white truffle festival in San Miniato are so popular that every street in the historical center is filled with offerings of truffle in one form or other. A marquee is set up exclusively for truffle hunters to show off their wares and the whole town simply emanates the delicious, earthy perfume of the prized local ingredient.
In the summer, when many Italians like to flee from cities to the seaside or the countryside for the weekend or holidays, a visit to a sagra is practically an obligatory outing. In fact, summer is when most of them take place. 80% of Italy's sagre (which number between 20,000 to 30,000 a year) happen between the months of June and September, when outdoor eating is a favorite activity.
It may not always be perfect food, and there may be plastic plates, fluorescent lights, and an army of hungry mosquitoes, but it's a symbol of summer holidays. There's that festive atmosphere, and you can cool off by eating outdoors and meet up with a large group of friends or family—and try local home cooking (often, quite cheaply!).
Have you ever been to a sagra? Does the city where you live have an equivalent? Tell us about it in the comments below.