Autumn in Italy is one of my favourite times of year, the clothes, the colours, the wood-fire smoked air and of course the food. The markets in Rome are full of pumpkins, apples, porcini mushrooms and chestnuts. Harvest to me always feels festive and here in Italy they celebrate in style with an abundance of food festivals known as a sagra. What could be more Italian than a street party that revolves around food? These festivals often involve the whole town, cooking and serving the throngs of people who crowd the narrow streets waiting expectantly to be fed something hearty and delicious. It’s usually a chaotic, lively mix of bubbling pots, queues and music. With their previous more holy connotations and traditions, these sagre certainly seem to be revered with almost as much fervour as their religious counterparts.
Many of these festivals celebrate a specific dish or a product. Whatever you’re served at a sagra it will always be piatti tipici, food that is typical and local to the area. And of course traditional. As the Dolce Vita Diaries notes you’ll see lots of posters days before the event and “the boast is always of the ‘antichi sapori’ ancient, traditional flavours and never, ever of a new flavour or experimental flavour to sample‘. I rather like this conservatism. Italians take their food and their traditions very seriously and when they’re so good wouldn’t you? The Lazio region has many delicious sagre to choose from, so take your pick. Leonessa has its potato sagra, Rocca di Papa its chestnut festival, there’s a Sagra delle Fragole (strawberries) in Nemi. There’s a sagra for almost anything you can think of. But Zagarolo has wine.
In truth, Zagarolo has had bread, beer and tordo matto (more on that later) sagre in the few months that I’ve been visiting the town, but then Zagarolo seems to have it all.
I’m a bit reluctant to tell people about Zagarolo. Firstly because I don’t want to encourage too many tourists to go there, but also because once I start talking about it I might not be able to stop. Zagarolo is a medieval town which appears quieter and smaller than in actually is. 17,000 people live on this elevated, narrow tufaceous hill in a beautiful green valley. Pretty, clean, quiet, with great bakeries, a wonderful Sunday farmers market and Palazzo Rospigliosi, a beautiful frescoed, newly renovated palace home to a Toy Museum and regular cultural events; it’s a real Lazio gem just 30 minutes outside Rome. It should remain a secret, but Zagarolo’s Sagra dell’Uva, their wine festival, is one that really shouldn’t go unmentioned.
Even for my favourite Lazio town, Zagarolo truly outdid itself. The main streets were transformed with wooden stalls, vines with real live grapes hanging for free tastings and bales of hay to rest your weary feet. No longer a peaceful retreat from the chaos of the city, this was three days of drinking, eating, music and dancing. They never stopped.
A sagra is all about a sense of community, shared history and experiences, a sense of tradition and yet continuation – a celebration that the town survives and can still command such devotion and pride. In The New Italians, Charles Richards describes, ‘The sense of capanillismo – sense of loyalty to your capanile (bell tower)’ and nowhere does this seem stronger than in Zagarolo.
Maybe it’s down to the tordo matto? (a horsemeat speciality that you really do have to try) If only to enjoy the full sagra experience.