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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Given the Cold Shoulder

This week I received two wonderful gifts, both of them being meat. It’s hunting season here in Abruzzo and as I said in an article I wrote for Italy magazine back in 2014, here in Italy hunting is seen more as a way of life than a pastime. You can read the article here. The cacciatori (hunters) that gather together dressed in their hi-vis waistcoats are hunting solely for food not sport and mostly their intended quarry is cinghiale (wild boar). Most of the year the boar are hidden away but this time of the year the boar move closer to towns as their food supplies start to dwindle. They can be a nuisance as not only are they dangerous they have a liking for anything sweet and two-years ago a large male decided to feast upon the pomegranates in our garden. Needless to say we let him take his fill.

The sound of shots ricochet on the morning air as the sound of excited dogs yelp in search of this highly prized meat: so highly prized few hunter’s will share their quarry. That’s why this week I was so pleased with my gifts. My friend Massimo gave me 2 kilos of diced boar and another friend Nino told me he’d left some down at the local bar for me. My surprise when I went to collect what I expected to be another couple of kilo’s of meat was evident when I was handed a whole frozen shoulder and shank.

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So what to do with it?

I Googled lots of recipes and took away some ideas and decided to roast it for a lunch with friends at the weekend. So after it had defrosted the only container large enough to accommodate the meat was our laundry basket, once inside I made a marinade which consisted of rosemary, sage, cloves and  black peppercorns, some star anise, garlic, honey and English mustard powder. Then I added 1 litre of white wine and 3 litres of red wine and left it to infuse with the flavours for 24 hours.

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The next step was to remove the meat and pat it dry before adding it to a roasting tin and placing an orange, some garlic and rosemary in with it before sealing with aluminium foil. I’d read that it’s best to start it off for 30 minutes at around 200 degrees then reduce to 180 and give it 40 minutes per kilo and for shoulder an extra 40. So the beast went into the oven.

It roasted slowly and when it was finally served with roast potatoes and veg everyone gave appreciative nods and smiles as they tucked into it. There’s was so much that what was left was divided up ready to be turned into a tasty roast boar ragú.

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Free Food

Living in rural Italy is great for anyone who likes getting food for free. The lanes are filled goodies that after a little foraging end up on the dinner plate.

There is no need to buy herbs as rosemary and sage grows in abundance and Italian mint grows around the base of the stake holding our mailbox while a large bay tree shades our neighbours rear garden. At a friends house (that for now we’ll call Felsham Manor), in spring wild garlic permeates the air with it’s pungent aroma, the leaves make a great alternative to basil flavoured pesto and this year I’ve brought some bulbs home in the hope of getting a patch established near our property.

The wild asparagus season has been and gone (technically) but today I saw a man collecting the last of it from the edges of olive groves. I’ve blogged about this previously under the title, the foraging foreigner.

At the moment the fields around us are filled with broad beans, or fave as they’re called here. These beans are not for harvesting and are ploughed back into the land to add nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil for the production of good grass for animal feed. The beans self seed each year so the pods are quite small and the crop wouldn’t be commercially viable, however it’s worth just picking a few of these that only have 2 or 3 beans inside them for dinner: No farmer would begrudge you these. I came away from Atessa with a bag full of pods and yesterday shelled them. The inner green discs are delicious with mackerel and horseradish sauce, but this bowl of beans are going to be the contorno (side dish) to a loin of pork.

IMG_3337 There’s always plenty of fruit and nuts in abundance in the lanes. Outside our front door is large green fig tree and just up the lane a black fig tree. We have walnut, almond and hazelnut trees and wild peaches and pomegranates within walking distance of our house. Last year we discovered two nespole (loquat) bushes in the overgrown part of our land, these produce small apricot coloured fruits that are quite tart in flavour with large brown seeds in the centre, if you let them start to turn and become over-ripe the flesh becomes sweeter; a mix of citrus and peach is the only way to describe it.

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This month the local population will be out planting out their tomatoes; as will I and there’s many patches of land that have been used in the past where they’ve self seeded. Three years ago on a spare piece of land I grew some of the Gardener’s Delight variety; a favourite with English growers. Now every year I get several plants appearing that crawl across the land and tumble up tree stumps and these provide me with small tasty red tomatoes with no attention from myself, leaving me to tend to my sauce making plants.

There’s more out there for the experienced forager, and last week my neighbour Antonio came over with a basket of fresh porcini mushrooms and told me he’d dug up 3 truffles. I asked him where and he tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger, indicating he’ll share his mushrooms but not the truffle location.

I don’t hunt, not because I’m squeamish but because I don’t have a licence or the experience. But there’s plenty of people around me that do (in season) and occasionally I’ll get given a pigeon or two or a saddle of rabbit or hare and sometimes if I’m very lucky a hunk of cinghiale (wild boar) which is always welcome in my kitchen.

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Then there’s the fruits of the sea, if you go early it’s possible to collect mussels from the rocks along the Costa dei Trabocchi and if you’re an angler there’s the free fish that at the end of the day make for a tasty dinner.

All in all there’s an abundance of free food out there, all you need to do is go out and collect it.

An Apple in the Lane

Over the past week the Britain has been battered by Storm Desmond, in the news I’ve seen images of flooding in Cumbria and Lancashire. There’s been videos posted of pensioners being rescued from upstairs windows by the fire service and seemingly stable roads crumbling away. And it reminds me of the storms we had here earlier in the year, where mountain roads overnight ceased to exist and the roads on the coast became flooded with sea water, silt and all other manner of debris.

Thankfully the weather here is better, the December days are bright and sunny and can be quite warm; although the locals don’t think so. I often get reproached for not wearing a coat, with warnings of being struck down with a dreadful influenza that’ll certainly kill me. The temperature drops in the evening and we then have the joy that is a wood burner. Yes, they need cleaning out every day, you have to contend with the smell of smoke and the dust they create would give many a clean freak apoplexy, but there’s that sense of satisfaction when it’s first lit and it starts to warm the room. Also there something joyous on an crisp evening of the sight of stone houses with trails of white wood smoke rising up from their chimneys.

Living in rural Italy can often be challenging, but is mostly for me rewarding. The fact that there’s only 10 properties in our hamlet, 3 are holiday homes, 3 are empty and with only 4 having permanent residents I understand that living here wouldn’t suit many people. But on a day like this it’s wonderful. A short walk along the lane can be breathtaking: The autumnal colours of the trees work so well with the traditional tiles and stone buildings that are dotted around the countryside. These abandoned properties blend well with the landscape and rather than give the area a depressed look they do their bit for the environment, they are perfect habitats for many of the critters that live here and last year one in our lane became the hibernation haven for two hedgehogs.

DSCF5116.JPGA walk along the lane this morning with the dogs more than makes up for the cold evening yesterday. The sun is warm and the sky is as blue without a single cloud to spoil it. Nature’s rich palette of colours are spread out before us as we stroll slowly with no sense of urgency; Alf sniffs every bush and leaves his calling card and Olive scans the ground for fallen walnuts which she cracks open and gobbles with gusto. Ahead of me she stops and investigates something in the middle of the road. I reach her and see that there’s a solitary apple sitting in the middle of the lane. Alf sniffs it and Olive looks up at me as if to say, “who left this apple here?”

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A quick look to the right and I have solved the mystery. There’s evidence of chinghiale (wild boar), the vegetation is trampled and the pomegranate bush has been stripped of its over-ripe fruits and the apple tree has been pulled over. Alf gets wind of the night time interlopers and his nose goes into overdrive and he’s pulling me towards the undergrowth, Olive barks as she gets the scent of the boar and for a few minutes there’s two excited canines, one bewildered human and an apple in the lane.

Burning Bales

We’ve had a few problems these past few nights with cinghiale (wild boar) coming down from the hills to forage for the local produce due to be harvested, part of this is possibly because they know it’s harvest time and pomegranates and sweet corn are ripe and in part to it being hunting season, so many become displaced by hunters; for hunters please read, nutters in high-vis jackets taking pot shots at anything that moves, including each other. So far this year, the tally of hunters accidentally shot in Italy by fellow hunters is 29.

Last night I was talking to Loui, he told me that they’ll leave a straw bale burning outside the farm entrance and at the rear to deter the marauding hogs, he also warned me to keep an eye on the dogs. “Would you like a bale of straw to burn?” he asked me, I declined his offer, worried that knowing my luck I’d set fire to the car and eventually blow up the top of the lane, leading to a major fire that will wipe out the olive groves surrounding us. “Well, you’d best mark the road.” I gave him a puzzled look and he thought for a while, then acted out, peeing in a straight line. I smiled, nodded my head and responded, “Ho capito.”

So today as gunshots crack the early autumn air, every time I’ve felt the need to pee I’ve been up at the top of the lane, keeping a keen eye out for passing traffic as I pee in a straight line, creating an invisible barrier across the land that leads down to our house.

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  Did it work? I’m not entirely sure, but we didn’t get a visit from the boar last night, and had a barking dog free night.

  Or maybe word has got out in the wild pig population, that there’s a strange man making a fence out of pee, so they’ve decided that running the  gauntlet with the nutters with guns is a saner option.

Picture via, free-picture.net

Nocturnal Barking

For several nights the dogs have been odd, Alf has been sniffing the air and grumbling, while Olive has been nervous. At first we put it down to the thunderstorm we had a few nights previous. I’ve heard dogs can sense the electricity in the air and it can make some feel uncomfortable: If your dog suffers during storms, a trick is to rub them down with a tumble dryer sheet, it stops the static making them feel bad and they smell nicer too. Believe me it really works.

Last night, Alf ran up and down outside and it was difficult to get him to come in. He was obviously onto something. The night was filled with barking dogs, the four at the farm were having it large, Antonio’s dogs at the bottom of the lane joined in and our two also had burst of shouting out. As ours stay indoors at night, when bedtime came they soon calmed down and the Italian dogs continued until after a couple of glasses of wine I fell asleep and heard them no more.

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At six o’clock this morning Alf wanted to go out for his early morning run, I opened the front door and he dashed up to the lane, he started barking and I thought he was doing his usual barking at ghosts, nothing there to merit his actions. He went out of sight and I heard him crashing about in the undergrowth on our land. Olive was desperate to join him, and as we usually send her to fetch him back home, so she ran off to join him. The early hour was dominated by the barking of dogs, the farm dogs, our neighbour’s dogs and our two. I tolerated it for about twenty minutes and decided to investigate what was causing the noise. Alf and Olive were really going at it, the noise was indescribable, I went into the back garden and saw they had cornered a chinghiale, (pronounced chin-gee-yare-lay).

Chinghiale are wild boar and the one they had trapped was still striped, so was young, it stood as tall as Alf and snorted in annoyance as the dogs took turns to approach it and bark loudly. Concerned in case an adult was near by; as they have been known to disembowel dogs in an instant,  I stepped forward and called the dogs away. Olive must have sensed it was folly to get involved with a boar and came away, this gave the animal room to manoeuvre, and it ran straight towards me, I side-stepped as it passed and grabbed Alf who was up for a game of chase. Tonight I think we’ll be keeping a close eye out for chinghiale, and maybe restrict the dogs’ playtime to just outside the house.

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