A feast for the senses – Annual Food Festivals of Italy
Italy is one of my favourite places to visit in the world. But although I can enthuse for hours over its architecture and fascinating history, I have to secretly admit it’s really the food that keeps me coming back for more.
Italian food culture really is something special. It’s not just the simplicity of flavours and the pride in fresh ingredients that permeates the everyday eating experience here, but the relish with which these are served – food is not merely to feed the body, but the soul – and in particular the soul of the family and the community. Even in these fast food, global-busy days there is still a sense in Italy that real food is important to take time for.
Every Italian province and town has its own traditional delicacies and specialty produce. One of the best ways to experience this regional diversity is to time your visit to coincide with ‘sagre’ – festivals held by locals to celebrate the harvests of certain foodstuffs. Common celebrations around Italy include ones dedicated to mushrooms, local cheeses, pork, peaches or truffle – but whatever the taste, it is always embedded in tradition and folklore that binds food firmly to local identity.
Sagra del Pesce – Seafood Festival
The biggest sagre are flamboyant affairs. In Camogli on the coast between Genoa and Portofino in Liguria, locals show their enthusiasm for seafood at the Sagra del Pesce (second Sunday of May) by cooking it in the world’s largest frying pan. The festival itself dates back to just after the Second World War when the majority of the town’s fishermen went out to sea and were greeted on return by their wives and a huge feast of fresh fish. Today the pan is set up in the Piazza del Colombo, and the feast is a fry-up of three tons of seafood over the course of the festival for the appreciative crowds.
Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Biano d’Alba – White Truffle Festival
Other big productions include the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba – the white truffle sagra in Piedmont that runs on weekends from October to mid-November and draws an international crowd of foodies to cheer for the famous pungent ingredient. Alongside the truffle market and fair, there is plenty of entertainment, including parades, concert nights, food stands, white truffle walks for tourists, a donkey race and the truffle world auction.
Romanesco Artichoke Festival
One of my favourites of these bigger events is the Romanesco Artichoke Festival near Rome in Ladispoli, held in the second week of April. Originally set up in 1951 to popularise this bulbous (and apparently aphrodisiac) local vegetable, it’s now a huge event that draws the crowds. Visitors come for the food – including the succulent wedges of fried artichoke that are given out for free in the streets, the artichoke-themed menus in the local restaurants and artichoke cooking contests for chefs. All set to a carnival backdrop of music, jollity and an impressive artichoke sculpture competition in the town square.
Well-known sagre also include mildly Bacchanalian events celebrating the grape – especially in regions known for their D.O.C wines. Some of the most well-known include the Primavera del Prosecco across the regions of Veneto and Campania in spring and the Festa del vino a Montefiascone (Viterbo) in August, where visitors can visit local wine cellars and enjoy a parade to celebrate the creation of the most famous local wine Moscatello by a local abbott.
But if you want a more low-key experience, then it’s worth seeking out smaller, less well-known ones. You won’t often find these food festivals advertised on the internet – these are homegrown celebrations that have sprung up organically over the years, and information travels by word of mouth.
For the lucky visitor who knows where to go, though – or stumbles across an unexpected sagre, they are a real treat. Smaller sagre may only run for a day, but they will generally be merry and relaxed affairs, sometimes with street entertainment or music, but always with plenty of food on show, being prepared and of course eaten (special menus in local trattoria are popular at these kinds of events, and you’ll generally pay around 10-15 euros for a taste sensation worth boasting about when you get home – this will be your dine-out story for years to come…).
Whether it’s gnocchi in Caserta, apricots in Sant’anastasia (Naples), ham and figs in Castel San Girogio (Salemo), porcini mushrooms in Avellino or mozzarella at the Fiordilatte Fiordifesta in Agerola (Campania) there is an endless bounty of delicious food throughout Italy and no shortage of energy to enjoy it. When in Rome…or indeed any other part of Italy – it’s really best to do as the locals do and just join in…
About The Author: Norman Peires is a South African by birth and a global traveller by nature. The former owner of a luxury travel company, he now lives in the UK and France and spends his time exploring new destinations and revisiting old favourites, blogging about them as he travels. A keen surfer and skiier, he is always interested in finding the next mountain or wave to scale. You can read more of his work at www.normanpeires.com, or tweet him at @NormanPeires….