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June 2011
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September 2011

Sagra-landia

Here's a copy of the guest post I did for Silvia Ceriegi of Trippando!

It’s that time of year again, when small towns in Umbria (and the rest of Italy) literally explode with festivals. Some are music festivals, some are art festivals, some are religious festivals, but my favorites are the food festivals, le sagre.

 So how do you find a sagra?

While you are taking a stroll through town, look around! Posters are usually plastered all over the walls of piazzas boasting the lastest party.

How do you know which ones are good?

I judge a sagra based on organizzation, activities, and general atmosphere, but the golden rule is this: I go “dove si mangia bene,” in other words, where you eat well. Now, there are hundreds of sagras around – some are obviously for kids, like the Sagra della Nutella, some have nothing to do with anything – like the Sagra della Tequila (I’m not making that up!) and some are just plain out of season – like the Sagra della Ciliegia (cherry) which tends to go on a month before cherries are in season (where are they getting their cherries, I wonder???).

So how do you choose? Let common sense be your guide: are you in Norcia in the fall/winter season? Then you can bet that if there is a mushroom or truffle sagra a) you’re in the right place, in the right season, and b) its a local product, so c) it must be good! Still not sure? Grab an older citizen of the town you are in, point to a poster and ask “si mangia bene?” If they nod yes, you are good to go… if they nod no, no worries, people here tend to be full of opinions about food, so they will surely point you in the right direction!

How do they work?

Every sagra is different, and sometimes it can be confusing even to Italians…but most work like this:

1. Bring a pen – you will need it

 2. Look for a long line in front of a booth with a sign Cassa – this is usually where you order and pay.

3. Get a menu – usually there is a table somewhere in front of the cassa with menus scattered around on it. Here is where your pen comes in – check the boxes next to each item that you want to order – its usually 1 menu per table so if you want more than one of something, just fill in the box with a number.

4. Find a table – after you’ve waited in line and ordered and paid, the real challenge awaits – finding a table! We usually split up, so while one person is ordering the food, the other goes hunting for a good spot.

Here’s a little tip: if you see a sweet little old lady sitting by herself at a long empty table, don’t even bother to ask if there is space available as she has been sent on a mission by the younger members of her family to guard their places (usually about 2 tables worth). If you even look twice at those empty seats, that sweet little old lady will practically jump on the table and shoot flames out of her eyes at you to defend her spot!… just keep looking…

5. Once you have a seat, look for a server. The servers are always local volunteers and tend to range in age from 5-15, and then 80+. They will then take your reciept and disappear until the food is ready. Don’t be surprised if dessert comes out with your antipasti, or they just bring everything all together – that’s just the way it is!

And then???

Just when you feel like you are about to explode from eating and drinking, the band starts up and everyone hits the dancefloor! This will explain some of the “outfits” you may have seen as the dress code tends to go from summer casual shorts and t-shirts to clubbing-all-night gear to elegant gala ensembles. Those better dressed individuals will be strutting there stuff all night long, dancing to everything from old italian folk tunes to YMCA – don’t be afraid to join in!

My personal favorites….

Here’s my shortlist of what I consider to be the best sagras in the central Umbrian Valley:

1. Sagra della Porchetta in Costano: this is a whole hog sagra – you can eat everything: roasted ear and foot, braised tripe, liver, salumi, the list goes on… 

2. Sagra della Lumaca in Cantalupo: this little snail sagra stays near and dear to my heart as it was the first sagra I ever went to in Italy and still continues to be my favorite – my husband and I even had them cook their famous roasted snails at our wedding!

3. Festa della Cipolla in Cannara: this is the big daddy of sagras, and all to celebrate the humble onion! This sagra has everthing: a market which winds through the town, art shows, multiple concerts every night, the onion disco pub, and 6 different stands where you can eat – my favorite is La Taverna del Castello – they make the best onion parmigiana around… and don’t forget the onion cream-filled doughnuts for dessert!


Corn, Corn everywhere, but not a Kernel to Eat!

It cracks me up when my neighbors pull me over to tell me something “top secret.”  This time it was about corn….well not just corn, which is called mais, but Granturco… a whole other world. 

Anyway, I had asked my neighbor if he had any zucchini (as he works a small vegetable garden daily).  He said he didn’t, but then pulled me over so that no one else would hear…and he said in a hushed voice… “oh – I’ve got some Gran Turco – do you eat gran turco?”  Apparently he had planted a few rows for his son (because he likes to eat it) - but the whole operation seemed pretty covert... I don't know why no one can know about the corn, since no one here eats it... I'll just chalk it up to another of Cannara's many mysteries....

So of course I responded yes, because I’ve learned that if you ever turn anything down that’s free, you don’t get offered anything else in these parts.  Then my neighbor explained to me that its not like the corn that I’m used to eating, (ie sweet, tender, and delicious), but its better…  I know what that means – the usual corn that you find around here – corn for polenta (not really for eating).  As I’ve previously written, people around here don’t eat fresh corn.  You can just forget about finding something like Jersey Silver Queen – its either a variety for animal feed or for polenta making (or unfortunately for biomass  - but that’s another topic…). 

As my neighbor’s wife had been listening (purely for gossip puposes) to our conversation, a bag of corn was immediately tossed down to us from the window above.  So I went home to make dinner.  I would call this “late-harvest corn” as the husks were already pretty dried out – not a good sign… So my first plan of attack was to boil it.  Italians love to boil (the crap out of) everything so I figured this was the best way to go.  After about 20 minutes, the Granturco was unbelieveably still a little “al dente,” so I decided to puree it – but it woudn’t puree – it was still too chunky… So I mixed in a leftover boiled potato, an egg and some bread crumbs and tried to make a corn cake out of it.  Boiled, pureed, and fried – I finally got something edible – but it was actually better the next day, as the time spent in the refrigerator softened the corn considerably - that must be the trick.... 

Result:  another corn on the cobless summer….