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Sagra: Taste Testing Tuscany

Tuscan Style Food Festival

To get the most out of your travels–especially in Tuscany– you don’t want to miss out on any event that includes home cooked food!

The Italian sagra is probably one of the more popular local events. It might intimidate you and probably even confuse you. But it will be a fun and classical culinary delight!

For those looking in from the outside, a sagra is a delicious opportunity to sample some of the more famous (and not so famous) culinary delights of an area. For those looking out from the inside of a sagra will see the perfect fund raising opportunity for the community. The event is run by the inhabitants of a town or community who have pretty much issued an open invite to anyone and everyone.

Read our article about local events to find some of the best sagras in Tuscany while you are visiting.

Why attend a SAGRA?

Pros: true local feel, good food at a good price, giving to the community, music/dancing and sometimes even a small market are attached.

Cons: it can be a bit overwhelming jumping into the mix, most sagras are only held in the evenings…read the sign to know the times, dates and address.

These animated food parties attract locals and tourist alike—so don’t worry about sticking out, it’s just not possible.  And the best part (other than the food) is that the funds raised at these festivals are used to furnish parks, community centers or restore local monuments.  In other words, it’s all for a good cause.

Here are few pointers to find a sagra near you, how to navigate the menu and feel relaxed in the the sometimes hectic and loud atmosphere.  Just sit back and enjoy the smells, the sounds and the colors of Tuscany.

Picking a sagra

So how do you find a sagra?

Picking which one you want to attend is probably the easy part – finding it can be a little bit more challenging.  As you tour through the quaint and charming streets of Tuscany I am sure you have noticed (or you will, once you get here) that the Italians love to hang posters on buildings, at traffic lights, near bus stops, in parking lots – it seems like they put them everywhere. They are worth noting, this is how they advertise events (concerts, festas and yes, sagras)

You will be looking for one that will read SAGRA – have no fear they make it easy for you because they are normally a florescent yellow, orange or green.  The word (or group of words) after sagra indicates the theme of the menu, followed by a series of numbers (which correspond to dates), then there will be times (check these out because many times they only do a lunch and dinner option on Sundays and limited hours on other dates) and finally a location.   

See? Even if you don’t speak a word of Italian you can navigate the sagra announcement like a pro.  Now, navigating the road to get there—well, you are on your own.  Sometimes even a GPS won’t get you there without a bit of frustration.

Hints for Navigating the Road

The first thing you need to know is that in about 90% of the cases, a sagra is about the food – not the décor or location.  Yep, it’s always all about the food in Italy (as if that were a bad thing!)  There are the odd occasions where the event will be held in the picturesque historic center of a town but normally that’s just not the case.

They need space to cook and serve, thus they are normally held at the least romantic and suggestive area you can imagine: the sports center (aka local soccer field.) Because after food and family, it is all about the soccer!

This means you will not only be looking for signs with the town name but also signs that say STADIO or CENTRO SPORTIVO.  The fields will have ample parking, lots of open space for tables and chairs and a functional kitchen (of sorts) for cooking.

I will point out that these are controlled events, so you can rest assured that the cooking areas have been approved by the regulating authorities.

The Heart of a Sagra is the Menu

Choose your sagra according to the food or theme that most tickles your fancy.

Interested in tasting wild boar (cinghiale) or wild mushrooms (porcini) … or perhaps you have a hankering for some real homemade ravioli or tortelli … or you are in it for the surprise?

In any case, the way it works is typically always the same. You order and pay at the main desk. You receive an itemized ticket of all of your choices.  You find a table. Someone will pass by to get your ticket. And then the food will begin to arrive.

SEASON TYPICAL DISHES
Summer Pasta, Fruit, Grilled Meats, Fish
Autumn Chestnuts, Truffles, Mushrooms (Porcini), Potatoes and though not always in the form of a Sagra, this is an excellent time for the new wines to make their appearance
Winter Pasta, Dessert, Grilled Meats
Spring Truffles, Mushrooms (Porcini)

 

A menu will be posted by the main desk and will detail all of your options. Most menus are À la carte though occasionally they will offer a fixed arrangement (antipasto, pasta, main course with a veggie and dessert).  Note the menu will almost always be a variation on the theme of the highlighted ingredient (and the menu is almost always in Italian). 

Good To Know

Wine: these events center more around the food and not the wine. You will find that most of the time wine is served "sfuso" probably from a local cantina. You can buy wine, beer or water with your menu selection. (1/4 ltr, 1/2 ltr or a full bottle which is 750ml)

For example, if the theme is porcini mushrooms then you will find mushrooms on the menu in 10 different ways: crostini with mushrooms, pasta with mushrooms, mushroom soup, fried mushrooms, sautéed mushrooms, mushrooms with pork roast – I have yet to see a dessert with mushrooms though I did hear about a courageous soul making gelato in the flavor of porcini mushrooms…as a lark…I hope.

Don’t worry if someone in your group is a party pooper and doesn’t want to be adventurous and try the theme food. As a rule, sagras will offer an alternative choice (obviously it is frowned upon, but available).  

Late summer and fall have an extra plus because of the vendemmia!  Wine is never the main protaganist in a sagra but that doesn't mean that it isn't good.  For example when chestnuts and chestnut flour is fresh you will often find it combined with "vin novello", a fresh wine with a short fermentation period.  There are also several festivals for the end of summer which highlight the harvest, especially "uva" or grapes...and that means you will probably find schiacciata con uva on the menu.  This a classic fall dessert that uses a dough similar to the foccacia bread with grapes cooked on top with a light sprinkling of sugar.

Generally, if the menu centers around a particular food (like tortelli pasta or panzanella) and not an ingredient (goose or snails) then it will be offered in two or three fashions (pasta with meat sauce, pasta with tomato sauce, pasta with butter and sage, etc) and then accompanied by grilled meats, pizza or some other local specialty.

Don’t be intimidated by the seating arrangements

The theme here is first come, first serve.  The idea is to get as many people seated and served as fast as possible...actually the real goal is to have fun but if you can do it while serving it up quickly then all the better.  The informal atmosphere will often include long tables and benches where you pretty much seat yourself--normally next to total strangers--but once the wine starts flowing and the food starts to arrive you won’t even notice.

Since this is a community run activity, don’t expect professional waiters just delicious food.  Those people that you see rushing to and from the kitchen most probably have limited serving experience but they make up for it in eagerness!  I love to see the way the community pulls itself together and leaves room for everyone to participate.  Kids (of all ages) are busing tables, bringing out water and cleaning up while, teenagers and adults are taking tickets and serving the food – and the more seasoned participants are probably those in the back rolling the pasta, tending the grills and plating the food.

Sagras are one of those local events that may appear unapproachable but once you make the first step, you can’t help but get caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of the occasion. Enjoy the food, enjoy the noise and confusion, enjoy the music afterwards, the games and the markets. Enjoy Tuscany like a local!


Author: Donna Scharnagl

It has been over 24 years since I took my first steps in Italy and I still haven’t found a good reason to leave.  Between the food, the culture, the history, the art, the landscapes … did I mention the food? I have become a lifelong student. And I soon learned that Italians all have stories that long to be told; stories that paint a picture of how hard work produces character, how life is made of ups and downs and how good it feels to laugh.



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