When people tell me they love going on holiday to Italy, apart from the country’s beauty and diversity, they inevitably say it’s because of the food! And who can blame them – with an abundance of good, fresh produce made into delicious regional specialities, Italy is a number one foodie destination. Italians love their food, and food festivals, known locally as sagre, are a regular occurrence from north to south, often dedicating the whole festival to one particular foodstuff.
Whenever I’m in Italy, I like to check with the local tourist information centre whether any sagre are planned in the area during the time I’m there – these days it is also easy to check online especially for the larger festivals. Going to one of these festivals really gives the visitor an insight into the people and culture of the area as well as taste some delicious food.
Each season brings with it a delightful array of goodies – I love autumn when chestnuts, one of my favourite foods, are in abundance. On a trip to Lunigiana in northern Tuscany one late October, Liz and I went along to a chestnut festival in the village of Liciana Nardi where locals dressed in period costume roasted chestnuts and served regional dishes made with chestnuts and chestnut flour like the popular castagnaccio cake. It was quite a spectacular event with a huge bonfire, music and dancing attracting visitors from far and wide. On our last trip to Amalfi last October, we came across another chestnut event held at the tiny hilltop village of Scala, not far from my home village of Minori and beautiful Ravello. Although a smaller affair than the one we had been to in Tuscany, there was still a great turnout of people, watching the various competitions and organised activities as well as enjoying the new season’s chestnuts.
Autumn is also a good time for wild mushrooms and truffles especially in Tuscany, Umbria and northern Italy. In the scenic rural area of Val Borgo del Taro conveniently situated between the regions of Tuscany, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, grows the highly prized porcino mushroom where whole festivals are planned in its honour. If you are visiting either of these regions during mid to end September, be sure not to miss the renowned porcino fair where you will be able to witness cooking demonstrations as well as taste the delicious wild mushroom. The pretty village of Borgotaro is interesting to visit with its historical sights and you can enjoy lovely walks in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
If you love truffles, then a visit to Alba’s white truffle fair during October and November is a must where you will be able to see, touch and taste this most highly prized and very expensive underground fungus. Easily reached by car from Milan or the Ligurian coast, a trip to rural Piedmont through its scenic vineyards will be a memorable experience. The whole region celebrates this gourmet food and along with some of Italy’s best red wines – think Barolo or Barbera d’Asti – you will soon find yourself in foodie heaven.
Sicily in early spring is stunning when almond trees are in full bloom and locals celebrate this most versatile of nuts. The most famous almond festival is in Agrigento with stalls selling almond-based products as well as other Sicilian specialities. There are also musical events and processions. Almonds are the basis of many Sicilian desserts and pastries so it is quite rightly held in such high reverence. Try Sicily’s renowned Cassata cake, made with marzipan, or a multitude of almond biscuits and pastries when you’re there – the local almonds really are the best.
In most coastal resorts in Italy you will find fish festivals especially during summer months. Probably the most famous is the Camogli fish festival held each May on or around the feast of Saint Fortunato, the patron saint of fishermen. Camogli is a quaint little fishing village along Italy’s Riviera, the Ligurian Coast, where I had the pleasure to spend some time a few years ago whilst filming. Processions, fireworks, competitions and of course, enjoying platefuls of fritto misto (local fried fish) are the highlights of this traditional festival. Close to the more well-known resorts of Rapallo, Santa Margherita or chic Portofino, the fishing settlement of Camogli is really worth a visit even if you don’t make it for the festival.
The pretty little village of Cetara near Amalfi holds an anchovy festival at the end of July. Not the tinned variety we are so familiar with, but delicious, fresh from the sea anchovies. The village is also known for its anchovy syrup, colatura, used in local cooking.
One of the food festivals I really enjoy going to is Gusta Minori - literally translated Taste Minori – it’s quite a spectacular event over three or four days in early September. Not only does it showcase an array of Minori’s gourmet specialities but gives you an insight into the town’s past with cultural events such as concerts, plays and poetry recitals. Each square and corner is turned into a mini-theatre for all to enjoy. Processions and firework displays take place during the late summer balmy nights, mingling perfectly with the aroma of delicious food being cooked at the many stalls and local restaurants. If you’re staying on the Amalfi Coast or in Sorrento at this most perfect time of year, then a visit to this festival should definitely be on your itinerary.
I have given you just a little taster of a few of my favourite sagre, but there are so many, many more all over Italy throughout the year. The smallest village or settlement in the most rural part of Italy will proudly celebrate whatever produce they are known for, whether it’s a humble vegetable, a particular bread or a selection of specialities. And if you don’t make it to a sagra, don’t worry, all you need to do is walk into a salumeria (deli) or panetteria (bakery) or pasticceria (cake shop) to create your own foodie festival!