Attending an authentic sagra: a good enough reason to visit Italy!

Throughout spring and summer, posters adorn Italian walls with the word ‘sagra’ clearly taking prominent position in the advertising, so what does this word mean?

The literal translation is festival, but the definition of sagra is a local fair and celebration connected with food and local produce; for example, the town of Baone, in Veneto, hosts an annual Sagra dei Bisi (festival of the green pea). During the event, the streets are filled with people dressed in medieval costume and local residents prepare different dishes that must include the peas within the recipe. Among a number of traditional recipes, the most famous is definitely Risi e Bisi (a delicious risotto with peas). After all the tastings, every evening culminates in a music show with Italian live bands.

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Actually, almost every town in Italy at some point during the year will host a food festival. This year for example is the 80th Fish Festival at Chioggia, Venice. The sagra lasts for ten days and attracts over 100,000 people each year; music and theatre act as a backdrop as visitors sample fish dishes, fresh from the Adriatic sea, such as stuffed clams and mussels, griddled sole, pickled cockles and mixed fried fish. Attending a sagra is the perfect way to immerse yourself in Italian life. Add to this the opportunity to sample local cuisine as you sit at long communal tables to eat with the local population and you get a real feel for how Italians come together to celebrate.

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Fish Festival, Venice

Finding out about a sagra is very straightforward as most of the posters follow a similar format: the main heading will tell you where the festival is held and the date; these are mostly in bold typeface and large enough to read from a passing vehicle. Once you’ve found one that interests you, the poster will give you the start time, destination and other events that will be staged. You don’t have to be a local to attend and most towns welcome outsiders and tourists to their celebrations. The lines of parked cars stretching out of the town will indicate that you have arrived at the right place, and those who arrive early are usually the last to leave due to the sheer volume of traffic attending! In fact, some sagre (the plural of sagra) are so popular that the towns have a coach service to ferry people in and out of town to keep the streets clear for dancing.

Sagre take place throughout the year, with many taking place in the summer, so during your holiday to Italy this year, keep a keen eye on the local posters and find a local sagra, and for one evening become an honorary Italian and enjoy all the hospitality the town has to offer!

 

“At Christmas with your parents, at Easter with whomever you want!”

Easter or Pasqua is the second most important Italian holiday after Christmas. This holiday covers a long weekend in Italy, with the additional Italian tradition of Pasquetta (little Easter, also called Easter Monday) which, according to tradition, you are free to celebrate as you wish. In fact, young people during this holiday tend to stay with friends having pic-nic in the countryside or spend a long weekend in another city with no parents at all. A famous Italian saying for this time of year is:

“Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi”

(At Christmas with your parents, at Easter with whomever you want).

Visitors to Italy who are not spending time with friends may be interested to find that every city has their own traditions and, while you may not have friends and family to celebrate with, there are several ways to enjoy uniquely Italian traditions for Easter.

Chocolate and painted eggs

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credits to lacucinaitaliana.it

As chocolate became more and more popular in the early 20th Century, the skills of knowing how to color Easter eggs started to fade, and chocolate eggs began to take the place of painted hens’ eggs. Chocolate Easter eggs have now overtaken decorated eggs in Italy as the most popular gift at Easter.
Italians take everything chocolate very seriously – and Easter eggs are no exception. Chocolate eggs have become increasingly elaborate as manufacturers tempt people to buy their eggs. In every city in Italy, every supermarket, shop window and market stall will have a huge variety of chocolate eggs in the days leading up to Easter Sunday. They range from the tiny, solid milk chocolate to the massive, showy hollowed out eggs containing sometimes quite elaborate gifts. All of them will be wrapped in foil or cellophane with decorative ribbons.

Tradition in Florence

This tradition started in 1096, following the return of a Florentine knight, Pazzino di Ranieri de’ Pazzi, who raised the Holy Cross banner in Jerusalem during the Crusades. For his bravery, he received pieces of flint from the Holy Sepulcher of Christ. Upon his return to Florence, these stones were used to light the Easter Vigil sacred fire and then ported around the streets of Florence. Today Florentines commemorate this event with a Sunday procession during which an antique cart is pulled by a team of white oxen during a parade of 150 soldiers, musicians and other people dressed in 15th-century attire. The procession starts at Porta al Prato and ends in Piazza del Duomo in front of Santa Maria del Fiore. Once arrived, a dove-shaped rocket (La Colombina) holding an olive branch is shot towards a cart loaded with fireworks, setting off the scoppio (the boom). This yearly event is meant to bring a bountiful harvest, stable civic life, and growing business.

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“scoppio del carro” in Florence

Easter in Rome

Rome is the city where the Vatican state resides, and who at this time a year is a sort of Mecca for Catholic pilgrims (do note that the Sistine Chapel does have exceptional closures during this long weekend celebration). Lucky for Roman visitors, however, all the other museums will stay open. On Good Friday many people gather in Saint Peter’s Basilica to listen to the Pope’s mass at 5 pm, and immediately following, the Pope starts his walk to remember the Christ’s Via Crucis with a candlelit procession starting at the Palatine Hill. After making 14 stops along the way to remember the walk of Christ and pray, the holy pontiff ends at the Colosseum. The beauty of this procession also lies in the gathering of many pilgrims with torches who follow: even for those who are do not consider themselves religious, this event is magic.

Traditional Easter food is the second most important celebration during Pasqua. If you want to eat at a restaurant, you’ll definitely want to first check if the place is open and second, make a reservation, noting that several restaurants do close from Good Friday till Pasquetta. While dining in Rome, you won’t want to miss the Roman traditional foods of Pizza Sbattuta, a sponge cake, hard boiled eggs, ham and corallina, a typical salami for Easter, as well as different varieties of salty cakes. You will also want to try the traditional lunch, consisting of oven-baked lamb, carciofi alla romana (Roman-style artichokes) and colomba (dove-shaped cake).

Food Italian traditions for Easter 

In Lombardia (and not only), the Colomba is the most famous dessert, a dove-shaped bread made with almonds, sugar and egg whites. Today this cake is known worldwide, but originates in the region that boasts Milan. Another northern tradition is the Pinza Pasquale from Trieste, a sweet bread with a three-point cross carved on top. A Southern Easter tradition is the Casatiello from Naples, a salty cake containing cheese, sausage, salami, and even hard-boiled eggs. Catania, Sicily has a special kind of Easter cookies, aceddu cu’ l’ova. These cookies are simple and have different shapes (the most famous one being a dove), and once made they are given to family members and friends as a gesture of affection and good luck.

Panettone is on the table!

Christmas is just around the corner and, where Italians are concerned, food is one of the main components in the festivities.
There are many traditional products eaten by Italians during the Christmas season, and two of the most famous are the Pandoro and the Panettone.

PANDORO

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Pandoro, credits to perbellini.com

Pandoro is a traditional Christmas cake made with flour, butter and eggs, which was originally produced in Verona. Verona is not only the town where the first Pandoro was made, but remains the place most associated with this delicious creation.

It is important to note, however, that the origins of the pandoro are often linked to the skills of Austrian pastry chefs, inventors of the bread of Vienna, from which inspiration was sought to produce the first pandoro.
Pandoro is also associated to a famous cake typically linked to wealthy families of the Venice Republic during the Renaissance. This cake, the “pan de oro”, or “bread of gold,” was covered in thin, gold leaves.

Pandoro as we know it today was also most certainly inspired by a star-shaped cake known as the “nadalin,” which was prepared by some families in Verona in the 1800s. In fact, pandoro even keeps the star shape of the “nadalin” alive.
The name Pandoro, meaning golden bread, perfectly describes its colour, which is provided by the eggs in its batter and its sugary coating. The shape, as previously explained, resembles a star.
The Pandoro is often warmed and served with cream, hot chocolate or Nutella poured on horizontally cut slices, thus enhancing the similiraties with an eight-pointed star.
Since the 19th century, pandoro has been produced on an industrial scale and it has now acquired national fame, being sold in all Italian supermarkets. Next to industrial production, there is also a parallel handmade production, which in the last few years has increased its sales by 20%.

PANETTONE

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Panettone, credits to perbellini.com

Pandoro, credits to perbellini.com

If Pandoro is traditionally linked to Verona, Panettone belongs to the history of Lombardia, in particular to that of the city of Milan.

In the 13th century, an ancestor of Panettone already existed: it was made of bread, yeast, honey, raisins and pumpkin. Starting from the 1800s, it acquired the shape of today’s Panettone. It is a cake made from flour, butter, eggs and sugar with candied citron and sultanas.
Several legends exists about the birth of Panettone. Some people mention the story of Ughetto degli Atellani, a boy who fell in love with a girl, Adalgisa. In order to be near Adalgisa, Ughetto pretended to be a pastry chef, so that he could work in Adalgisa’s family bakery. While there, the lovestruck young man tried to invent a new cake by mixing flour, eggs, butter, sugar and sultanas. Ughetto’s creation was a smash hit, earning him favor with Adalgisa’s father and paving the way for the two to be married.
Another widespread legend is based on the story of a cook working for Ludovico il Moro, who had to prepare Christmas lunch. After baking the cake, the cook forgot it in the oven and it burned; a boy named Toni, a kitchen porter working with the cook, suggested a solution: cooking another cake with the leftover ingredients, which were flour, butter, eggs, citron peel and raisins.
When the cake was served, everybody liked it and the duke wanted to know the name of the cake, which was called “pan del Toni”, Toni’s bread, which then evolved into the name Panettone.
Panettone has a less romantic shape than pandoro because it has a cylindrical base, and ends with the shape of a dome. Even if its shape may not be as evocative of Christmas festivities, Italians adore it, and comsume huge quantities of panettone during the Christmas period.

Both Pandoro and Panettone sell like, well, hotcakes during Christmas time. At the same time, Italians take their choice of panettone or pandoro very seriously. Some love Pandoro, but dislike Panettone, while some others are the complete opposite. Usually children prefer Pandoro and those who don’t like raisins and sultanas will never choose Panettone.
One thing is for sure, those who like both of them will get the better of it, because they’ll get to taste a slice of both!

If you ever come to Italy during the Christmas period you can’t refuse to try them…so choose whichever is the best for you and try it in the pursuit of the perfect Italian Christmas!
In the UAE you can find Pandoro and Panettone in all the Italian grocery or at just about any supermarket.

Ferragosto: history and Italians habits

Many visitors coming to Italy hear some version of the story that “August is not the time to visit Italy” because everyone is on holiday, off to the seaside or to the mountains, leaving cities full of empty or closed restaurants and closed shops.

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There is definitely an element of truth in this, but rest assured that Italy continues to function during August and that Italians on holiday are also tourists and they are well catered for. Nevertheless, at the middle of the month of August, there really is a date when almost everyone really does take the day off. This is Ferragosto, a day on which, in many areas, you can experience Italy with few cars on the roads. It’s almost like stepping back into the 19th Century.

What is Ferragosto?

In the simplest terms, Ferragosto is a holiday that takes place on 15th August every year in Italy. The day coincides with Assumption Day, the principal feast of the Virgin Mary, commemorating the day of the assumption of her body into Heaven. Not coincidently, Ferragosto is also the modern derivative of the ancient harvest festivals that were formalised by the emperor Augustus in 18 bC under the name Feriae Augusti (Festivals of Augustus), from which its name Ferragosto is derived. During these celebrations, horse races were organised across the Roman Empire and this tradition remains alive today with the Palio di Siena, taking place on the 16th of August. Indeed the name “Palio” comes from the pallium, a piece of cloth that was the prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

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Cities are almost empties 

The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under Mussolini. In the second half of the 1920s, in August, the government organised popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organisations of various corporations, and some trains ticket were discounted. For many families, it was during these trips that they saw the sea, mountains and Italy’s many artistic places for the first time.

Nowadays, Ferragosto means going to the family home or to the beach for a watermelon party or even better to the mountains for a walk and a pic-nic. Both in the cities and in many tourist destinations you can enjoy midnight fireworks. Traffic is heavy before and after Ferragosto and trains are usually booked out well in advance for those dates.

If you are visiting Italy during Ferragosto, make a restaurant reservation – you will see the real Italian life like in La Dolce Vita (I hope so)!

                                                                                                                                   by Martina Bettella