Any summer visitor to Italy cannot fail to see all the publicity for the annual sagras and festas. They are a fabulous opportunity to join the locals and enjoy typical food of the area very cheaply. When I first moved to our village of Pieve di Compresseto, near Gualdo Tadino, I was a tad intimidated by the thought of turning up at one but I soon discovered there’s nothing to it. And for the past three years I have helped prepare the dishes for our village festa.
The Festa dello Gnoccho is usually held on the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday in August in a purpose-built roofed area. Food preparation begins early each morning with a big group of helpers who have been kind enough to include my husband Brian and I in their happy band. The menu is the same each year and everything is home-made, from the sugo d’oca (goose sauce) for the gnocchi to the coratella d’agnello (a stew of finely chopped lamb’s liver in a savoury sauce) served with the local torta al testo bread. We all have aprons and caps and this year quite a few of the men wore frilly aprons just for a laugh. It’s fun to see our local polizziotto in a frilly pinny!
There is a huge cauldron outside where the potatoes are boiled. When they have been cooked they are brought through to us in the kitchen where we women remove the skins. The peeled potatoes are then passed to the team of men (including Brian) who put them through a mouli grater to make mash. This is then put on trays for the ladies experienced at mixing the mash with eggs and flour to make the dough. The mixture is passed round the rest of the team of ladies (about 14 or 15 around two large tables) who knead it into long sausage shapes and then chop them into small pieces. The children help to collect the gnocchi balls on to trays which are then left to rest before being partially cooked in large vats of boiling water. After cooling they are stored in a food safe (rather like the walk-in meat fridge in your local butcher’s) ready for the evening. Another vat is cooking the sugo, another the coratella, while another couple of ladies are chopping up tomatoes for the bruschetta. And of course there’s the washing-up to do. This process continues each morning of the sagra with the chief cooks arriving at the kitchen at around 7.30 and then continuing on till lunchtime. By 1pm everything is usually finished and we all sit down to a delicious lunch of – yes, you’ve guessed – gnocchi, followed by grilled pork steak and salad and wine. So it’s definitely worth the hard work! Most of the team also work in the kitchen in the evening doing the last-minute cooking for the festa-goers, while the younger ones who have been unable to take time off from work during the day, serve as waiters. It’s an incredible feat when you consider that on the most popular night – the Saturday – more than 1000 people are fed.
Most villages, large or small, will have a summer festa. When you arrive, you usually queue up at the cash desk to choose your food and wine from the pre-printed list, then find a place to sit at one of the long tables provided, many already crowded with happy festagoers, to wait for the food to be brought. They are, as with most social events in Italy, for all ages from babes in arms to the very elderly. I am always amazed the way everyone knows how to dance. But then it’s understandable when you see dads teaching daughters, mums dancing with sons and older children teaching younger ones. All the men are accomplished and even when one of the line-type dances start you will see even old men getting up on their own to take part! No self-consciousness here. Dress code can be anything from shorts to full-length floaty dresses worn with loads of jewellery. Footwear - and remember, you’re usually dancing on a concrete area that normally serves as a playground or sports area - varies from trainers to stiletto heels. Beware if you have accommodation near the sagra – the music can sometimes go on to 3am, with the jolly, slightly old-fashioned music provided by enthusiastic bands of anything from one man with a synthesiser to a group of up to 10 musicians/singers. Of course the female singers are always beautiful, tanned with long hair, long legs and very short skirts! But for us, the most memorable part of our village’s summer festa is the remarkable experience of being part of it and made to feel welcome despite our lack of language skills!