When Mark and I decided to start this blog we knew that we wanted it to be about more than what we were doing in the kitchen- we wanted to talk about food in Italy and explore our growing relationship to the place we chose to live. And really, once we start talking about food in Italy, we're talking about Italy itself.
This is no revelation of course: ask almost anyone, anywhere about Italy and surely one of the first things that they'll talk about is food. Italians themselves will often talk about food before all other things, and our first year here was a collection of questions about how an English chef could be cooking Italian food (more on that later). I've always known this I suppose: my Italian-American grandmother's standard greeting for arrivals at her house was 'have you eaten yet?' and I feel quite sure this was a habit she carried from the generations before her who had come to New York from Naples.
Living here for more than a year has made us really appreciate that it is also the products themselves, more than the physical act of cooking (and eating) which provide a more intimate window into Italian cuisine. Moreover, each region, town and village has a product which is theirs, and around which a kinship is formed. Nowhere is this clearer than when cruising the Sagra circuit.
Right so what is a Sagra? Put simply, these are the small town festivals that used to exist all over the world, where a town would have an annual celebration of its famous potatoes, zucchini, or pancakes and the whole town would gather in the main square for festivities surrounding the proud victual. For the most part (and if I am wrong I would be quite happy to know so), festivals of this type have largely disappeared from most towns and communities as agriculture diminishes and people move throughout the world at an ever increasing pace. But in Italy, the Sagra (also known as the Festa) still exists to pay tribute to the products that define a town.
As such we decided that one of our ongoing projects would be to try to visit as many of these Sagre that we could to get a sense of each place (and to eat a lot of food). For our first excursion, I went to the Sagra delle Ciligie (Cherry Festival) in Sant'Angelo di Viterbo with Nikki and Aurelia, two friends both living in Tuscania. We were intrepid, we were determined, and we wanted cherries.
Sant'Angelo is more precisely a borgo, a little hamlet that doesn't quite add up to a town and will perhaps have a bus stop in it, definitely a bar/cafe and probably a disproportionately large church. It is the kind of town that people imagine I am living in when I tell them I'm living in a small town in Italy, though Sant'Angelo's 256 inhabitants make Tuscania look like a rather large metropolis with its population of 8000. It is so picturesque that it seems impossible, hugging a cliff overlooking the Tevere valley in Northern Viterbo province, close to the Umbria/Lazio border. Nikki was in awe of the geraniums, which grew in a stunning array of colors and tumbled off of terraces all along the street (there's really only one street). Aurelia mentioned that her friend Andrea actually came from this town, and that he had not exaggerated about the size of it (because really, there's only one street).
We had read that the festivities started on Sunday morning with a display of the best cherries, with a trophy to be awarded to the basket which received the most votes. As it was said to start at 10 am, we decided to make our way there for the start of the competition but allowed for the fact that in Italy, start times are often suggestions rather than rules. And indeed on arrival we found no cherries up for judging yet- in fact we found no cherries at all, save for the ones which had been inventively fashioned out of plastic cups and festooned for decoration.
After waiting about an hour and having a great chat in the dining area that had been set up for the festival, we decided to walk about the town to get another look. We noticed that outside of each house there was a bench meant to welcome passersby to sit for a chat, and neighbours could be heard chatting to each other from across their balconies as they hung laundry or prepared lunch. Aurelia talked about her trips to small towns near Naples and did spot on impressions of the old women who would grab her cheeks and tell her what nice skin she had, and we finally arrived at the requiste disproportionately large church. There we ran into Giovanna, a recent arrival to Sant'Angelo from Rome who was walking with her impossibly cute dog, a beagle named Cory.
After a long chat with Giovanna about the virtues and drawbacks of small town living (yes, it's a bit hard to have privacy but at the same time, people knock on your window and give you free cherries) we took our leave to return to the actual festival, curious to know who would win the title of best overall cherry. As we continued to the end of the street, a woman sitting in her window advised us that Aurelia's car lights were left on and that she may want to check to make sure there was still battery in the car (how did she know that was Aurelia's car, you ask? Well, how many unknown cars do you think there were, honestly?). As Aurelia went to confirm that in fact yes, the battery had died in her car, Nikki and I had a chat with an older man about his geraniums (Nikki runs a plant nursery with her fiance, so there is foundation for the pointed interest) in as much as the very certainly deaf man was able to do so.
As it happened, Giovanna walked down the street with Cory (there really is only one street here) and we quickly thought to ask her if she could advise us on the best course of action per the now dormant mode of transport. What ensued was very directly taken from a Wes Anderson movie (or perhaps it is Wes who took it from Sant'Angelo): Giovanna promptly knocked on a window to have her mother open it, smiling and with yet another impossibly cute Beagle, and asked her mother if they had jumper cables. Her mother replied that no they did not, and I then asked her if there was a mechanic in town. Upon hearing the word 'mechanic', an upstairs neighbour who was hanging her laundry interjected and said that indeed yes, Alessandro from across the street would be able to jump start the car. She promptly yelled his name across the street and lo and behold, Alessandro appeared at the ready, and escorted Aurelia to the car where he pushed it back to life. As it happened, Aurelia told him that she had a friend from that town. And what do you know, naturally Alessandro knew Andrea quite well because really, there is only that one street.
One more dramatic hairpin turn later and we were back in the heart of the festival, where the cherries had finally made their appearance on the judge's table.
We realized then that farmers from the area were picking their cherries at that moment and bringing them directly to the festival, which explained their delay. At 3,50 Euro a kilo, we bought an audacious amount and preceded to eat ourselves into wretched yet ecstatic oblivion, for cherries are a force not to be trifled with. They were without question the best cherries I have ever tasted; it was as if Plato had been proven wrong and I was tasting the actual Form of the Cherry. They tasted artificial because honestly, what cherries have ever really tasted like that?
So what did we learn at our first Sagra? For starters, summertime Sagre don't really kick off in the daytime, as the temperatures are too hot to encourage much exploration. (however we would later find out that alas, the final judgment of the cherries was canceled due to rain, but we all agreed that bin #4 was the clear winner). Going in the evening also promises a better chance of music and dancing, different food items made with the local product, and possibly some parades. We also got to experience this little borgo in the best possible way, by wandering around and having misadventures that allowed us to breech the space between stranger and neighbour. If we went back to Sant'Angelo in a year we might still find those people who would remember us, and we might be able to sit down on an outdoor bench and shoot the breeze for a while. Getting to know someone and someplace is sometimes just that easy, and when there is an open invitation based on the food that grows around them, people are happy to welcome you.
Oh right and also, don't forget to check that your lights are off before you leave your car…