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.
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.
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!
Carnival has very ancient origins. It is believed to have originated in Roman times when Saturnalia, the Saturn festival, and Lupercalia, the feast of the full moon, were celebrated.
Saturnalia for the Romans included long and complex rites dedicated to seeding. Banquets, exchanges of presents, and sweets characterized these celebrations, which included servants acting as their masters, and a slaves being crowned as kings. Lupercalia marked the end of the Roman year and was celebrated with dancing and singing in the streets. Historians believe that these celebrations influenced Carnival.
Traditional in Roman Catholic countries, Carnival is not celebrated or even known in many countries of other faiths. The Carnival Season is a holiday period during the two weeks before the traditional Christian Lent, when the rigors of 40 days of fasting and sacrifice begin. In fact, the origin of the word “Carnival” comes from the Latin “carne-levare,” literally “to remove the meat” or “stop eating meat.” The celebration of Carnival ends on Mardi Gras (French for “Fat Tuesday”).
For centuries, Rome was the headquarters of Carnival. Many Popes have been great supporters of the public celebrations, the horse rides, the exhibitions, and the parades. During the Renaissance, the festivities, sponsored by the Pope and the noble Roman families, acquired political prominence. Thousands of people would travel from all over Europe to attend. The Palio was a famous horse race without jockeys, taking place along the Via del Corso. The race became a competition for the best horses. The victory would culminate in a large public banquet and food distribution. The Palio was abolished in 1884 after an accident occurred in front of Queen Margherita.
The carnival of Venice was first recorded in 1268. It was unruly, with parades and Pamplona style bull chasing games. The use of masks to cover faces made it even more transgressive, and the Mascareri, the mask-makers had a special position in Venice. Everyone could wear a mask during the carnival without the barriers of gender and social status.
Venice was occupied by Napoleon in 1797, and this actually ended the Repubblica Serenissima, “The Most Serene Republic.” After Venice became part of the Austrian Empire, the celebration of Carnival was stopped and restarted only in the 1970s. Today, Venetians have reinvented the ancient masks and costumes in a style that melts together the dress styles from the Middle Ages through the 1700s. The result is splendid precious elegant dresses in silk, gold, silver, and lace, wigs, and since the masks cover people’s faces, everybody can feel free to dance and sing in public without being recognized.
What is Carnival after all, other than excess and the transgression before the sacrifice? And the practiced and desired transgression was of course related to the abundance of food. The gastronomy of Carnival rich in fats and sweets. Traditional dishes in most regions of Italy include gnocchi, lasagna and tortelli.
Nowadays, many traditions have vanished or changed, but fried pastries are still common in Fat Tuesday cookery. Spoonfuls of dough fried in oil take the shape of small balls in Frittelle or Castagnole.
However, the most famous carnival fritters are ribbons of sweet pasta fried and covered with sugar or honey. These fritters are familiar all over Italy, where they assume many different names—including Frappe, Frappole, Sfrappole, in central Italy, Cenci (“tatters”) or Donzelli (“young ladies”) in Tuscany, Crostoli (“crusts”) or Galani in Veneto, Lattughe (“lettuce”) in Romagna, Nastri delle Suore (“ribbons of the nuns”) in Emilia, Bugie (“lies”) in Piemonte, and Chiacchiere in Campania.
Bread is a fundamentals in Italians’ diet and this explains the variety of Italian breads.
You don’t need to ask for bread while eating out in Italy, because bread is served as standard in restaurants.
Despite not defining Italian cuisine as pasta does, bread is more rooted in Italy’s history and traditions. It has been the main food of poor people for centuries and its preparation is still connected to popular traditions.
Typical rustic Italian bread
In Italy breads vary by regions, sometimes even from city to city. They have different flavours, shape, ingredients.
However, all around Italy you can find rustic Italian bread made with just four ingredients: yeast, water, salt and flour. Not usually a “pretty” bread but deliciously tasty. The fermentation of the yeast is what gives this bread its tastiness.
Simplicity is the main characteristic of rustic bread, as is life in the countryside. Rustic, as Italy has been for decades, and as it can be even today sometimes.
For the true lovers of Italian bread, have a try with this homemade bread recipe.
Fascinating Italian breads from North to South
Italian breads, from the north to south of Italy, are an important staple at the family table.
Let’s take, for example, the Ur-Paarl. This is a typical bread from Trentino Alto-Adige (together with the Schüttelbrot, the traditional bread form Valle Isarco, and the Pusterer Breatl from Val Pusteria), a region on the border with Austria (hence the German name of this bread).
It consists of two round and flat breads attached to form a number eight shape. It is made with rye and spelt flours and yeast. Fennel’s seeds and herbs typical of the area can be added. It is perfect both with jam or cold cuts. The original recipe for this bread belongs to the Benedictine monks of Val Venosta and it has been rediscovered thanks to the last baker-monk, Fratel Alois Zöschg, who kept it. Since it is a long lasting bread, good even after a few weeks, Ur-Paarl was cooked just twice or three times a year in farmers’ wood stoves.
Two very singular types of bread are tigelle or crescentine from my city of Modena and piadina from Romagna. Tigelle are typical of the Apennines but today widely eaten all around Emilia. Chestnut-growing is very popular in this area and tigelle’s origins are strictly linked to it. Tigelle are named after the stone used to cook them. Originally, a tigella was made with clay loam from chestnut-growing and water and then shaped in a round wooden mould with low relief decorations, such as flowers.
They were then dried in the sun and cooked. Tigelle (the bread) were cooked in a fire place and the whole family took part in their preparation. A dough made with soft wheat, water, milk, brewer’s yeast and sometimes oil or lard was then put on a hot tigella (the stone), covered with a dried chestnut leaf. Several tigelle were piled up and put in the fire place. Long chats came along with the cooking. Once tigelle were ready, they were filled with cold cuts or cheeses. Today they are eaten more or less in the same way, with cold cuts, lard, jams or spreads, but are cooked in modern metallic moulds.
And then piadina, a round thin flat bread typical of Romagna. A famous Italian poet named Giovanni Pascoli wrote a poem dedicated to this bread.
Delicious piadina romagnola with Italian sausage and spinach
Piadina is made with wheat flour, lard (today, due to vegetarian life styles, oil is also used), salt and water. As simple as people from this region.
Piadina is usually eaten with cold cuts, cheese, meat, vegetables. The most popular filling is with Squacquerone (a local soft cheese) and rocket. One of my favourite is with grilled peppers, onions and sausage. Yet piadina with Nutella is the best experience life can offer.
Piadina has always been poor people’s bread and is still made at home. But all around Romagna small take-away places for piadina (called chioschi) are very popular. The peculiarity of these chioschi is in their colors, striped either white and red or white and green, depending on the locality.
One of the most peculiar Italian breads is undoubtedly Pane Carasau from Sardinia, a very thin, crispy bread also known as Carta Musica (Musical Paper), for the sound made during chewing. Ingredients are durum wheat flour, yeast, salt and water. It is usually dipped into water for a while, to make it softer and be rolled up with cold cuts and cheeses. If big crusty crumbles from left overs are often soaked in caffèlatte. Its origin seems to date back to the Bronze Age and has always been known as the ‘shepherds’ bread’. Until few decades ago, its preparation was a family or even neighborhood ritual. The women involved in the making were said to be paid with oil and ricotta cheese.
Pane di Altamura
There are endless types of traditional breads across Italy, I’ll list one more: Pane di Altamura typical of the Apulia region. It is baked with a very slow rising process inside a wood stove. The real recipe uses local ingredients including yeast, grain, sea salt and local water, which make it unique. This bread holds the D.O.P. mark from the EU (Protected designation of origin)