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

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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.

Agriturismo Abruzzo

Italian cuisine is rated highly throughout the world and living in Italy means I’m never far from an excellent restaurant. Last week a party of us went to a local agriturismo for dinner to celebrate a friends birthday.

The word agriturismo comes from the combination of agriculture and tourism. Agriturismi (plural) receive tax incentives and must therefore qualify for these. According to national law: Legge 20 February 2006, n.96, to qualify 51% of your income must come from farming with the remaining 49% made up from holiday letting, providing recreational or educational farm visits and of course catering.  If meals are offered, foods must include products produced by the farm or by local cooperative of which the farm is a member.

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In 2015 we visited Agriturismo Travaglini which is near Casoli and since then have tried many others in the local area. When we were talking about which one to go to, we all agreed that it was at the Traviglini family’s agriturismo where we had eaten the best food previously, so without hesitation we booked a table.

We arrived to a warm welcome from Claudia, who then introduced us to her parents Antonio and Maria and then explained to us how she’d be cooking the main course on the open fire. Which is a round dish placed under a cover and the charcoal and wood placed around it and on top.

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We settled at the table and after wine and water had been served the dishes started to arrive. Antipasti comprised of home made salami, cheese and cured meats, toasted cheese and other goodies also arrived. We were delighted with the polenta with sausage; most of our group don’t usually eat it as it can be grainy but this was as smooth as a perfect mashed potato. Cheese and egg balls with aubergine arrived and we chatted as we ate from this menu of many treasures, before the pasta with a broccoli sauce arrived.

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Our main course of potatoes and pork was served with crisp green beans and aubergine and as we ate the conversation stopped and the room fell silent. The potatoes were fluffy on the inside and roasted perfectly and the meat just fell away from the bone. It was perfection in a roasting tin.

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Fruit followed for dolce and then Claudia arrived with a birthday cake and a bottle of Prosecco. At the end of the evening we had enough space left to fit in a grappa and a coffee before we left feeling full and completely satisfied.

If you’re in the area and want to experience real Abruzzese cooking and hospitality then I can whole heartedly recommend Agriturismo Travaglini, you won’t be disappointed. But call to book a table first and make sure you’ve an empty stomach.

Agriturismo Travaglini. Via Piano delle Vigne 65, 66043 Casoli

The Last Festa

Our town’s last big festa took place last week, the celebrations in honour of Santa Reparata e San Gilberto take place from October 1st to 9th, with church services building up to three days of entertainment and community interaction. I’ve not been to the festa for a couple of years and this year decided to go to the last night as the posters around the area advertised that Arisa was the headline act.

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We arrived and walked up the main street beneath the tunnel of brilliant lights that are fixed to wooden poles that look so fragile you’d be forgiven for thinking this is a feat of engineering that defies logic. We stroll slowly taking in the array of stalls selling everything from arrosticini to hot chestnuts.The newly opened kebab outlet is filled with young people eager to try this new take-away that’s arrived in town, their parents opt for the more traditional porchetta panino. The obligatory porchetta vans have queues waiting for the fragrant roasted pork between bread, and three proprietors vie for the custom of the people here to enjoy this crisp, cold evening.

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It’s immature I know but as I walk past Signor Leonelli’s store selling hot shelled peanuts I snigger as I turn to my friend and say, “Mr Leonelli has hot nuts”. Children can be heard whooping with delight on the fairground rides and the man on the Nutella stall is calling out for people to try his chocolate and hazelnut slavered crepes.

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Walking back from the fairground we chance upon a friend working on a stall advertising artisan beers and we purchase two large glasses and enjoy them sat looking out over the newly refurbished belvedere, (a paved area looking over the countryside).

The crowds are starting to gather up at the piazza where the stage is and the most experienced festa-goers have come prepared bringing their own chairs. BB4

Every available space to sit is taken up, the cafe opposite is filled with people and its till is ringing with appreciation. Steps opposite the stage start to fill with people who’d rather sit, despite the cold that must numb their behinds than stand to watch the show, .

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We stand waiting in anticipation and eventually with the crowd so closely packed there’s no time to think about personal space, Arisa takes to the stage. In my opinion it’s a bit of an anti-climax; strolling on in ripped jeans and a leather jacket she waves to the crowd. A melancholy tune plays and she sings a slow ballad; in my opinion not the best way to start a show. This down-tempo song is followed by another ballad, then another and by the time we’ve witnessed five pedestrian tunes I’ve had enough. Maybe the name of her tour should have given me a clue to the style of the show, Ho Perso Il Mio Amore (I Lost My Love). Unhappy that we’d not heard any of her quirky upbeat tunes like Malamoreno or Sincerita coupled with the view being inhibited by phones recording the show we decide to leave.

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We struggle to extricate ourselves from the crowd and make our way through the now quieter streets, people are sat eating at small pop up eateries and the man selling pizza from his white van complete with wood burning oven has a large queue. I take one last look back at the castle illuminated against the blackened sky and drive home. At midnight we sit outside listening to the bangs and crashes of fireworks as the sky becomes illuminated with a pallet of fluorescent colours.

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Limoncello II

Back in 2014 I posted my (then) favourite recipe for making home made limoncello. As the years have passed I’ve been re-educated by an Italian lady who’s family know how to throw together a good lunch with them all cooking up a storm and providing fabulous food.

There’s a few subtle changes to the previous recipe but the most obvious difference is that this recipe takes just 7 days rather than the 40 days for the previous Teramo recipe I was given.

The ingredients are:

5 or 6 large Italian unwaxed lemons or 10 average sized supermarket ones

1 litre of alcohol 95% proof

750g granulated sugar

1.25 litres water

Limoncello 1

If you use the small supermarket lemons you’ll need around 10, but the large pale lemons that they sell here are the best as they have more oil in the peel.

You’ll need a large container with a lid in which to make the limoncello and a knife or potato peeler. Once you have everything to hand it’s time to put it all together.

Take off the outer skin of the lemon; I find  using a potato peeler is most effective as you don’t get too much pith, as this will make the liquor bitter.

Limoncella 2

 

 

You will only need the peel but there’s no need to waste the lemons, they’re still good for cooking or in a G&T or my top tip is juice them and freeze in trays for lemon ice cubes which are perfect on a hot day in your drink.

 

Limoncello 3

 

Once you have all your lemons peeled, add the skins to your container and add the alcohol. Give it swirl around to make sure all the peel is in contact with the spirit, then screw on the lid and put it to one side for 7 days.

You’ll notice after an hour that the spirit has become pale yellow, this is the oil from the lemon peel being absorbed.

 

There’s no need to shake it or stir, but you will notice as the days pass the peel will lose all of its colour until 7 days later when it will be white.

After 7 days it’s time to make the sugar syrup, add just over a litre of cold water into a pan (I use around 1.25 litres), then pour in 750g of white granulated sugar and put a medium heat under it dissolve the sugar. Don’t be tempted to stir it as it’ll make the syrup stringy and will look unattractive in the bottle. When it’s all dissolved allow it to cool down completely. Do something else to take your mind off it, I’m writing this as mine cools and as usual the iPod is on shuffle and Happy People the classic track by jazz/funk combo Brass Construction has started to play.

Limoncello 4

Once cooled drain the spirit, you notice that the lemon peel, now devoid of oil has turned white and is quite brittle.

Mix the sugar syrup and spirit and it’ll turn the more recognisable yellow colour that you’ll see in the shops. (I’ve only got coloured glass bottles so for the final image I’ve poured a little into a clear glass jar).

Decant into bottles and store in the fridge. I always keep a small bottle in the freezer to drink it completely chilled. Have fun making this and remember to drink responsibly. By responsibly I mean be sure to share it with friends.

Limoncello 5

Dancing in the Street

One of the great things about being in Italy is the coffee culture, I enjoy nipping to a local bar and handing over my Euro for a shot of strong black coffee. Here it’s simply coffee, not espresso. But if I fancy a more sedate experience rather than the traditional, quick mouthful followed by water whilst standing at the counter, I head up to Casoli. Situated in Piazza del Popolo is my favourite bar, Gran Caffe Del Borgo. Recently I sat outside enjoying a cappuccino with friends as life passed us by. Granted this taking time over a coffee is not really part of traditional Italian coffee culture, but as people who’ve chosen to adopt Italy as our home, we’re bringing a little of the non-Italian coffee shop culture with us. That said, when you’re sat in the perfect place to people watch, why would you want to rush.

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20.15 Outside on 09.10.2013

It was a particularly sunny October morning when after a stroll through town we converged upon the bar we fondly refer to as ‘the borgo’, sitting in the sunshine we give Simona our orders, and with a smile she caters to this handful of complicated tea and coffee drinking Brits. The bar is situated perfect for anyone wanting to absorb Italian life, as the piazza is on one of the main roads into the town. Opposite is the Post Office, and a morning sat watching the queues build and the local police try their best to keep the traffic moving is often entertaining. It’s festa time and the post office is closed today, so we sit watching the slow pace of life that passes by. A mother scolds a small boy for running ahead, two elderly gentlemen, meet, shake hands and pass the time of day and one of our friends calls out a cheery ‘”’giorno,” as he walks towards the tabacchi.

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We’ve tried all the other bars in Casoli, but it’s the service here that brings us back every time, here, there’s always a smile and whether you’ve dropped in for a ‘Pepsi Twist’ on a sunny morning or a beer on a busy evening service, you’re always made to feel like a friend. It’s a relatively young gathering in the evenings, and unlike the English bars, young and old mix together perfectly. Recently we dropped in during the start of the October festa. As a group we took up most of the corner of the outside space, our tables laden with drinks and the complimentary snacks we listened to the music from the band set up in the piazza. As the night drew on people began dancing in the piazza, it didn’t take long before Lisa was up and joining in. A few beers later and I was also tempted to join in. We tried our best to keep up with the dance steps, even after some assistance from a lady, we still couldn’t manage to get them right. But no one minds, it’s festa time and the most important thing is to enjoy yourself. Something we do every time we drop into the ‘the borgo’.

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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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Pasta Festa in Fara

August is festa time in Italy and every town celebrates something, Altino celebrates peppers, on the road down from Castle Frentano it’s fish and chips: Invented by the ancient Romans of course, and obviously in Fara San Martino it’s pasta. A few evenings ago it was the time for the pasta giant, De Cecco to host the celebrations and myself being a pasta snob, I had to go and see what all the fuss was about.

We arrived early and took a leisurely stroll up to the school where the evening’s festivities were going to take place. We paid our €10, received a yellow ticket and joined the queue waiting for the food that was ready to be dished up. Our ticket entitled us to a first course of pasta, a second course including side dish and bread and a drink. The first course pasta options were, tagliatelle three meat pasta of lamb, veal and pork, seafood linguine or chicken and asparagus penne. I opted for the former three meat option and had a second course of sausages with chopped fresh salad, bread and a glass of red wine.

The school playground had lots of benches set up at long tables and easily could accommodate 500 people, at the far end was a stage and there was a man on a keyboard accompanied by a lady singing. We took our seats and over good food we chatted as the air cooled to a pleasant short-sleeves and sandals temperature. As the venue filled up with diners the evening became full of shouts and waving as neighbours acknowledged each other and families welcomed friends old and new. The tables were attended by teenagers in de Cecco T-shirts and the transition from food to festivities flowed well.

I went to fetch a couple of bottles of wine for our table and my friend, Vivienne, introduced me to a man with no bottom teeth; he turned out to be the local dentist, we exchanged pleasantries and when the bill came for the two bottles of wine and one of water, the dentist nodded knowingly and we received a discount of €3.50. Other friends from the neighbouring town of Palombaro had joined us and as the wine flowed the urge to dance grew. We watched the locals doing some elaborate group dance and fuelled by bravado we decided to give it a go. Needless to say we failed miserably. I whirled Vivienne around the dance floor in a mish-mash of ballroom, tarantella/improvisation style of dancing. But we didn’t care as we were here to have fun, not be scored on our technique.

More wine was consumed, more jollity at the table was shared and the toothless dentist joined us at our table and handed me a De Cecco T-shirt, apparently Seppe had asked him if he could get one for me. That made my night, could it get any better? Yes, the music changed from traditional to pop and nothing could stop our tableful of Brits from rising from their seats and moving across the playground with haste to join the throng of Italians dancing to the Village People hit, YMCA. Well what did you expect it was a party after all, and a splendid one it was too.

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My De Cecco T-shirt.

Dog in a Frock

This morning, as we slumbered with little intention of rousing ourselves from the bed, a cannon sounded. The boom reverberated though the valley, followed by a volley of firecrackers. It’s festa (fiesta) down in Altino. Italy loves its feste (the plural), there’s feste to celebrate the humble olive, some to champion their porcini crop and even the completion of a road. I kid you not, in 2011 we celebrated the completion of the new road in Casoli. There was a band, the local bar moved it’s pumps and the local pizzeria also set up stall on the newly laid tarmac. A procession holding a religious effigy sang hymns, a priest blessed the road and children spun around on the merry-go-round. Meanwhile me and my good friend, Christine, drank Peroni.

Today the road to Altino is closed and it’s flanked either side by market stalls selling everything from toys to hats and saucepans to pan pipes. (There’s always someone playing music from the Andes, and cheap wooden pipes that give you splinters in your lips).  Everybody that lives in the area is there, meandering along browsing the stalls and calling out to each other. shouts of ciao, buon giorno and vediamo fill the air as does the aroma of porchetta being sold from vans. A man is selling enormous rounds of cheese and as each customer purchases some, his diminutive wife, picks up the heavy cheese and with a knife almost the length of her arm she cuts a slab for him to weigh.

Michele is there and calls across to me, he introduces me to another man, whose name I do not catch, and before I can ask again they’re off shouting hello to a couple across the street. I ‘m swept along by the crowd, unless you’re buying there’s no time to idly stand around, this human river is hell bent on making it from one end of the market to the other. Up ahead there’s the sound of amusements, that tinny sound you always get at arcades and fairs, and before long I’m watching children as they scream and laugh as rides toss them around or spin them in a centrifuge. A teenage couple wander along hand in hand, she has a dog on a lead. Nothing unusual about that, except this little black poodle is wearing a red gingham dress, making it look like its escaped from a circus. The girl spots a group of other girls and they begin talking in that animated way girls the world over do, no one seems to listen as they all chatter ten to the dozen, words spilling out and sweeping over other phrases, swooping under sentences. A decision seems to have been made and the girls climb aboard a machine designed to take you high into the air before plunging you downwards, free-falling until the brake is engaged and the contents of your stomach hurtle back upwards.

The dog lead is handed to her boyfriend, who self-consciously nudges his mirrored sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose: If he was attempting to disguise himself, he’s failed, as just then a group of teenage lads enter the makeshift fairground, spot him and the dog in a frock. Needless to say, taking the micky is universal no matter what language is used and like the lads I have a little chuckle before walking on.

As I don’t have a photo of a dog in a frock, and couldn’t find a royalty free one, here’s the rainbow outside my front door three days ago.

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Dog in a Frock

This morning, as we slumbered with little intention of rousing ourselves from the bed, a cannon sounded. The boom reverberated though the valley, followed by a volley of firecrackers. It’s festa (fiesta) down in Altino. Italy loves its feste (the plural), there’s feste to celebrate the humble olive, some to champion their porcini crop and even the completion of a road. I kid you not, in 2011 we celebrated the completion of the new road in Casoli. There was a band, the local bar moved it’s pumps and the local pizzeria also set up stall on the newly laid tarmac. A procession holding a religious effigy sang hymns, a priest blessed the road and children spun around on the merry-go-round. Meanwhile me and my good friend, Christine, drank Peroni.

Today the road to Altino is closed and it’s flanked either side by market stalls selling everything from toys to hats and saucepans to pan pipes. (There’s always someone playing music from the Andes, and cheap wooden pipes that give you splinters in your lips).  Everybody that lives in the area is there, meandering along browsing the stalls and calling out to each other. shouts of ciao, buon giorno and vediamo fill the air as does the aroma of porchetta being sold from vans. A man is selling enormous rounds of cheese and as each customer purchases some, his diminutive wife, picks up the heavy cheese and with a knife almost the length of her arm she cuts a slab for him to weigh.

Michele is there and calls across to me, he introduces me to another man, whose name I do not catch, and before I can ask again they’re off shouting hello to a couple across the street. I ‘m swept along by the crowd, unless you’re buying there’s no time to idly stand around, this human river is hell bent on making it from one end of the market to the other. Up ahead there’s the sound of amusements, that tinny sound you always get at arcades and fairs, and before long I’m watching children as they scream and laugh as rides toss them around or spin them in a centrifuge. A teenage couple wander along hand in hand, she has a dog on a lead. Nothing unusual about that, except this little black poodle is wearing a red gingham dress, making it look like its escaped from a circus. The girl spots a group of other girls and they begin talking in that animated way girls the world over do, no one seems to listen as they all chatter ten to the dozen, words spilling out and sweeping over other phrases, swooping under sentences. A decision seems to have been made and the girls climb aboard a machine designed to take you high into the air before plunging you downwards, free-falling until the brake is engaged and the contents of your stomach hurtle back upwards.

The dog lead is handed to her boyfriend, who self-consciously nudges his mirrored sunglasses onto the bridge of his nose: If he was attempting to disguise himself, he’s failed, as just then a group of teenage lads enter the makeshift fairground, spot him and the dog in a frock. Needless to say, taking the micky is universal no matter what language is used and like the lads I have a little chuckle before walking on.

As I don’t have a photo of a dog in a frock, and couldn’t find a royalty free one, here’s the rainbow outside my front door three days ago.

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