Sagra

Throughout the summer months, 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 on the 24th and 25th of August this year, the local town of Altino hosted its annual, ‘sagra del peperone dolce’, (festival of the sweet pepper). During the celebration the streets are filled with people dressed in medieval costume and Tables are set out to serve different dishes that must include peppers and chillies within the recipe. The dishes vary, so one stall may have a pot of pasta ribbons coated in a piquant sauce and the next one may have a chilli flavoured cheesecake. Once the eating of pepper infused dishes is over the evening culminates in a musical extravaganza.

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The village of Brecciaio, oddly calls their festa, Non é la sagra, (It’s not the festival) with the tag line, ‘but we eat, we drink and we dance’ and the longest local sagra must be the one hosted by the town of Pennapiedamonte, where their cinghiale (wild boar) festa goes on for 27 days.

Attending a sagra is the perfect way to immerse yourself in Italian country 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 Italian’s 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.

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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 most taking place during the summer months. So next time you’re holiday in Italy, 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 town’s hospitality has to offer.

Adapted from my article written for Italy Magazine, April 2014

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La Prima Comunione di Giulio

It’s Saturday 5 August 2018 and at 10:45 it’s already 32 degrees and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I’m in San Vito Chietino trying desperately to figure out how the new parking  machine works. Thankfully I’m not the only one as there’s about 30 people trying to work out how to use it. I look at my watch and see I have 15 minutes to get to the church before the first Holy Communion of my friend, Nicoletta’s son takes place. I make my way to another machine and a man explains that now you need to put in your number plate – brilliant, new car and I don’t know it yet. I decide to guess and follow the instructions and when I get back to the car alter the number on the ticket and write, ‘Mi dispiace, sono inglese’. (I’m sorry, I’m English) Having already been towed away previously, I hope this will placate any over enthusiastic parking attendant.

Church

The church is packed to the rafters with proud parents and so we stand outside and watch as the service takes place. The women in the congregation fan themselves, finding no respite from the heat within the cool walls, while the men step outside to shelter under trees.

The service concluded we head to a nearby agriturismo to begin celebrating with Giulio. The room is laid out with two long tables to accommodate us all and there’s water and wine already waiting for us. We all make our introductions, which take time as this is Italy and everyone wants to say hello, shake your hand and ask how you are; my response remains the same for everyone, ‘Sono bene ma fa caldo’ (I’m well, but it’s hot).

Food

Italian festivities are not known for being brief and at 13:15 we sit down to our first course, a traditional plate of anti pasti; cheeses and salumi. These are followed during the meal:

  • Fried spinach parcels
  • Ham roulade
  • fried mozzerella
  • stuffed courgettes (two ways)
  • Cacio e uova (cheese and egg balls)
  • Bean casserole
  • Wilted chicory
  • Courgette and ham lasagne
  • Chitarra pasta with meat ragu
  • Veal with potatoes
  • Grilled pork
  • Barbecued lamb with salad
  • Fresh fruit with ice cream

ents

During the dinner which lasted in total 7 hours with short breaks to aid digestion we were entertained by a superb band, who played a mix of traditional Italian songs and pop songs. During the afternoon, Nicoletta would join the band and with Albano and a few others would entertain us with renditions of Italian pop songs. The day was also Nicoletta and her husband’s 12th wedding anniversary, so we wished them well as they had a celebratory dance.

The party almost complete, we go outside for photographs and for Giulio to cut his cake. I don’t normally post photos of myself on my blog, but I will share this image of myself with my work colleagues. Thanks to Rocco Altobelli.

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We ended the day enjoying a slice of Giulio’s cake and a digestivo, my choice was limoncello as the traditional amaro isn’t to my taste.

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We had a superb day and were made to feel very welcome by everyone there; family and friends. It was a special day and we felt very honoured to be a part of it. Hospitality and great parties are something that the Italian’s do very well. Grazie a tutti voi.

38468038_2171981346177099_6311874038301982720_nThis handsome young gentleman is Giulio.

Thank you Giulio for sharing your special day with with us.

Beef and squash lasagne

Order a lasagne in the UK and it’s generally served as a main course consisting of two or three layers of pasta sandwiched between thick layers of tomato sauce and minced beef, however lasagne in Italy is very different. It’s made up of thin layers of sauce between several layers of pasta, as it’s served mostly as il primo (first course). In Italy lasagne is made with many variations, beef, pork, a mix of beef and pork mince and during autumn and winter you see lots of squash added to the dish. Several years ago when I tried my first squash lasagne it was made up of around 12 layers of pasta with the sauce. To be honest I find it a little bit bland and remarking upon this a friend told me, it is bland so that il secondo (second course) will shine.

Thinking about this I decided that after the luxury of Christmas and New Year food maybe I could do with something less rich, so I decided to make my own squash lasagne  So here’s the ingredients: 40g pumpkin or squash, 40 g walnuts, 400 g beef mince, 250 ml passata, 150 ml vegetable stock, salt, white pepper, cinnamon, garlic salt, 4 medium shallots.

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Roast the pumpkin and walnuts in the oven at 180° (fan) until soft and as the squash is roasting fry the mince in a dry pan and then sieve off any fat. Chop the shallots finely and sweat them down in a little olive oil. Add the squash, mince and shallots to a bowl and season with salt and pepper: As squash can be bland be generous with the seasoning. Add 2 teaspoons of garlic salt and 2 of cinnamon then mix together. Add the mixture to a saucepan with the passata and stock and bring to a simmer for around 15 minutes. Let the mixture cool then add to your serving dish. (I had an aluminium tray left over from Christmas so used that – see above).

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Now if you don’t make your own pasta; which very few Italian people actually do, I advise always buying a good quality brand and my brand of choice is always De Cecco. Sorry to ruin that romantic notion the TV chefs will have the UK public believe, but most Italians actually buy dried pasta for everyday meals.

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Layer the dish with sauce and pasta and repeat until the dish is almost full, leaving just enough room for the sauce. For the sauce make a standard white sauce and add to it a tablespoon of the pumpkin mix and a generous amount of grated cheese of your choice; I used grana padano as that was what was in the fridge at the time. Make your sauce so that it has a molten cheesy consistency and cover the lasagne and top with grated cheese and pop into a pre-heated oven 180° (fan) for 20 minutes. (Don’t let it stand uncooked as the pasta will curl up).

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Once golden on top remove from the oven and serve immediately or let it cool and reheat later for supper. This recipe makes enough for 4 portions served with salad or vegetables as a main course or 6 portions served as a primo.

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Courgette and Lemon Cake

Yesterday at the supermarket we ran into a friend who had been working in her orto and she kindly gave us some of her surplus round courgettes. So when I got home I looked at these lovely sunshine coloured globes and wondered what to do with them. Then the word, cake popped into my head and I thought: I know, I’ll make a carrot cake but without carrots I’ll use courgettes.

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So I adapted my carrot cake recipe and here’s the ingredients: I used:

350g grated courgettes. 200g soft brown sugar.  300g plain flour. 2 tsp baking powder.      3 eggs.125ml sunflower oil. 1 tsp butterscotch essence. Zest of a lemon. Juice of half a lemon.DSCF2250

First squeeze as much water out of the grated courgettes then add them to a bowl alongside the oil, eggs, sugar and lemon juice and zest. I added the butterscotch essence as I had no vanilla, but to be honest it didn’t add anything to final cake flavour. Mix together then fold in the flour and baking powder, but don’t over mix it.

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    Make sure you have the oven pre-heated to 180C (160C fan) gas mark 4. Grease and line the base of your chosen cake tin and fill with the cake mixture.

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Bake in the middle of the oven for 40-45 minutes until it’s golden coloured and the kitchen smells all nice and cakey. (that’s a correct technical term – Mary Berry told me)*

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Similar to carrot cake it’s a dense crumbed cake but unlike carrot cake I decided not to do a cheese frosting and opted for Mary Berry’s recipe for lemon drizzle, which is 50g of granulated sugar and juice of a lemon. Mix together and pour over the warm cake. Let it cool and then scoff at will.

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* blatant lie

Al Fresco Dining

One of the best things about living in a country with a temperate climate in early autumn, is the ability to still eat al fresco. In summer eating outside can be plagued with all manner of problems, flies, mosquitos and ants to name a few, but in autumn when the dreaded mozzies have faded away outdoor eating is a pleasure. A few weeks back when we finally had our cooker fitted we had friends around for a traditional (English) Sunday roast dinner. The weather was good, and as we sat tucking into roast potatoes and chicken it was hard to believe we were in the tenth month of 2013.

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A couple of weeks later I decided to invite a few people over for an afternoon of al fesco dining, and as my mate: partner in crime so may say, was over from the UK it seemed a good idea. I checked the weather forecast and it all seemed okay, until a week before the proposed date, when the forecast was for thunderstorms and torrential rain. “Oh well,” I said the the OH, “Looks like we’ll have al fresco, inside. If we have the door open we can call it in fresco.” My attempt at humour instigated just a reedy snigger from OH and a roll of the eyes.

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So al fresco day was upon us, I spent the previous afternoon prepping, and the morning; with my OCD in overdrive making canapes and antipasti. The mini porchetta were in the oven as was the Sicilian lemon chicken and the Abruzzi green torte was cooling. All this kitchen activity is of course accompanied by the shuffle of the iPod, and as I take the riccotta torte from the fridge the excellent new single, Loud Like Love by Placebo is replaced by Bauhaus’s, Kick in the Eye B-side, Satori. The rain has been continuous all morning and as the final dishes are finished people begin to arrive, then as the last of my guests park their car, the rain stops and the sun peeks out from behind a grey cloud. It’s still a little chilly but everyone gathers together, half of us are standing on the patio outside the front door while the rest are just inside the kitchen.

The weather may not have been perfect for out gathering, but as the last of the guests leave we give ourselves a self-congratulatory pat on the back, and vow next time to do any group gatherings in the summer, and to hell with the mosquitos.

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