Since arriving in Italy, our days have been quite full. Our time has been made lively by the presence of family and friends, while my mother (mamma) is taking care of us.
As you probably know, food is central in Italy, to the point that lunches and dinners are the major venues for meeting others and engaging in light (or heavy) conversation. We have been spending time at people's homes or in restaurants (ristoranti) and pizzerie, both in my hometown, Colle di Val d'Elsa, in Tuscany, and in other nearby towns and cities such as Siena, Florence, and Montepulciano, where we have the opportunity to meet friends from the US, both Italian and American.
Summer time is also the best period of the year for festivals focused on food and local traditions. In Colle and close by we can find many of them, including the one devoted to the local saint, San Marziale, who is the protector of the town, celebrated on July 1st. This kind of celebration is called Festa del santo patrono (Feast of the Patron Saint) and often involves commemorative ceremonies, processions, fireworks, games, and candy. The day of the celebration is not only a local holiday (stores, banks, and schools being closed), but is also a social occasion, with many people gathering around the local church dedicated to that saint.
Italians eating at the Sagra della Miseria in Santa Caterina Square in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Tuscany. In the distance, the church of San Francesco.
Sagra della Miseria in Santa Caterina Square in Colle di Val d’Elsa, Tuscany.
Other festivals are focused particularly on food. These include a sagra (festival) of the pastasciutta (pasta), of the rana (frog), of the cinghiale (wild boar), of the pesce (fish), or of the vino (wine), where people can taste different locally prepared dishes and drinks. These festivals are usually organized outdoors, using tents and carts, both in squares, parking lots and on open meadows. They are organized over one or more weekends from May to September, and such festivals generally have local associations sponsoring them, who use these events as a form of fundraiser. One of our favorites is called Sagra della miseria (Festival of Poverty) since one can find dishes representative of the "poor" and traditional Tuscan cuisine, namely that cuisine which was typical of peasant families for hundreds of years and which is quite popular and still well appreciated nowadays. At the Sagra della miseria you can meet locals and tourists, all enjoying food and local wine, red and white, since Colle di Val d'Elsa is located in a wine-growing area, similar to Dunkirk and Fredonia. The town is at the edge of the so-called Chianti region (which the British even used to call Chiantishire), a world famous denomination of wine.
This year, the Sagra della miseria, which usually takes place in Santa Caterina Square, in the Renaissance-era upper part of Colle di Val d'Elsa situated on top of a hill, extends throughout the five weekends of June, and it starts at roughly 7:30 p.m. Why so late? In Italy, people are used to eating dinner starting at 7:30 or even later. If you go there on one of these weekends, you can see a placard with a menu, while you are seated in the open air, underneath the sky, stars, and century-old trees. The menu is varied and it follows the Italian meal structure with the appetizer (antipasto), the first course (pasta or rice), the second course (meat or fish), a contorno (vegetables, including salad, or legumes to accompany the meat or fish), and the dessert (dolce).
At the Sagra della miseria, one can savor first courses such as pappa al pomodoro (tomato soup) prepared with bread, tomatoes, and extra-virgin olive oil, and zuppa di verdure (vegetable soup) with bread, various vegetables, and oil; second courses such as baccala' (dried salt-cured cod) and salsiccia e fagioli (sausage and white beans); contorni such as white beans or fried vegetables, especially fried fiori di zucca (the flowers at the top of the zucchini, which are available mostly only in June and July), which are prepared with a thick mixture of flour, water, and salt. Some people add eggs as well, but the lighter version does without.
To prepare them, one washes the zucchini flowers, dipping them in the mixture, being sure that the fiori are completely covered. Finally, fry the flowers in oil until they are golden brown, taking them out of the pan and adding salt. They are so delicious! We already found some fresh fiori di zucca in our local grocery store, and we are waiting for our neighbor's ones to bloom soon. My mother loves preparing them, and we all enjoy eating these fiori di zucca, even if it is difficult to ensure that nobody eats more than his or her fair share.
We attended the Sagra della Miseria on Saturday, June 9, and we enjoyed it so much that we made plans to return the following weekend as well! So, if you ever visit Colle, be sure to be here in June to taste our local food, including the crostata (a cake prepared with jam) and our local wine. And if it rains? You can still go the next weekend!
Chiara De Santi is a professor of Italian Studies at SUNY Fredonia. Her travel series will be running Sundays on the Travel page. Send comments on this column to firstname.lastname@example.org