A photographer, a video maker, a painter, a chef and a writer on a journey through Italian regions to document the Sagre, regional food festivals in which the community celebrates itself through food
The twenty women running around the kitchen hardly spoke. They were too busy seasoning the chunks of meat. From time to time the joker of the group came in the room, and in thick Umbrian accent she teased the old cooks: "Hurry up, hurry up, or I’ll steal your husbands". It was her way of urging them to cook faster, and in response they giggled and shouted dirty, naughty words back. My four friends and I took up our positions: Alida, the chef, began to learn from the women the secrets of local spices, Florence, the painter, sketched in watercolours outside the kitchen, Giada and Sarah filmed everything - one with a camera and the other with video. I was jotting down everything that was going on around me.
This was the first Sagra we visited - Sagra della Carne Spoletina e della Frittella - (named after the town, Baiano di Spoleto) and the Frittella - a type of local pancake. A Sagra is a unique type of festival that takes place all over Italy at different times of the year, in which the community celebrates itself ?? through food. Each town, region, and district has its own Sagre (plural for Sagra), each with its own local ingredient or dish that truly represents the place. There is a Sagra for everything - for onion, polenta, for strawberries or figs; a Sagra of every kind of meat, any flavour of ice cream and all types of mushrooms. For each area there are unique species, for each season - the seasonal food. In each district there is a body responsible for the Sagra, and the only sponsors are the members of the community themselves. The money comes from the community and returns to it. A remarkable tradition, which in recent years has been declining in certain cases, and in others becoming overly commercialised.
We went on a two week journey between three Italian regions, to document the Sagre. Five women - five different Sagre. We did this in an independent framework because we felt that although most traditional culinary knowledge is held by women, the near totality of documentation of culinary traditions and food culture is made by men. Absurdly, even in a field that is considered feminine, we are exposed almost exclusively to stories about men. For example, the creator of the excellent series Chef's Table is male , and from the six directors of the series, only one woman directed two of the 20 episodes - a tenth of WHOLE THING?. The amount of female representation, of course, corresponds to the percentage. In the first episode of Ugly Delicious, the successful David Chang’s series, which deals with pizza - food I am sure women have numerous comments on - only three women were interviewed, along with dozens of men. In the second episode, which tells the story of chef Rosio Sanchez, there was a somewhat suspicious focus on her mentor, Renee Radzipi, a good friend of Chang. There are many examples but?? there is not enough time or space to cover it all, but I'm sure you can think of a few more examples ?? yourself. We met in Rome last August and rented a large, clumsy van that we called Ugo. We loaded it, each with her own tools of trade and set off.
Umbria - Sagra della Carni Spoletine e della Frittella (Baiano di Spoleto)
As the women were scampers around the kitchen, Matteo Tarantino's famous band sets up on stage. The sun begins to set, and the early birds are queuing in front of the cashier's office, where a serene woman with a pearl necklace and a bright yellow blouse sits patiently. Twenty people in their sixties are sitting around the tables. They begin their meal with piadina, a type of flatbread sandwich, often filled with cheese and prosciutto. Amongst all the adults, two young girls stand out with plaits, red lipstick and Dr. Martens. They do not seem to have dressed up for the special occasion though we have. Alida comes in a frenzy. She comes in and out of the kitchen with quick, sharp body language. Alida was born in Sardinia to a Tuscan father and an American mother. She grew up in New York and studied with me in Italy, and she is the link between the five of us. She is young and pretty-looking ? and has the soul of an Italian nonna (Grandma), with a natural talent for cooking.
"They won’t let me do anything important, they’re just letting me put a piece melon on the plates,” she says sadly. I tell her that she knows it's not true, only a minute ago I was in the kitchen with her and we worked on the meat: we wrapped the lamb ribs in Lardo (Lard), and with clear instructions from the kitchen headquarters we mixed it with local herbs: rosemary, Serpillo thyme, wild fennel seeds, capers, garlic and salt. Florence, the Irish-French blonde in our group, who wears only vintage clothes and shows an unmistakable fondness for yellow outfits and red lipstick, settles outside and illustrates the temporary stand of vacuum cleaners in front of her. It turns out that this Sagra needed a sponsor, and a local company that markets hoovers decided to get involved.
It's almost nine in the evening. The long tables are already bursting with members of the community, and the boys and girls in red uniforms are responsible for serving and organising the guests. There is excitement all around and we are lined up around the table as well. An antipasto dish called Maialissimo, a name that means - Porctastic - is already waiting for us on the table. Prosciutto, salami, capocollo, dried salsiccia and pancetta - all for only five euros. Stainless steel cutlery is offered to us in a plastic bag, and Alida says that five years ago it would not have been so, that Italians are already internalising the recycling issue, albeit a little oddly.
"Look at these boys," she says, turning my attention to the three children sitting next to us. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the example of how you should eat. Look at how they’re enjoying their salami, how they understand and appreciate it. It's all about being in close contact with the senior generation all the time”.
The band is on stage, and Matteo Tarantino performs his famous song: “Nato in Italia” (“Born in Italy"). In the background, a clip with a patriotic tone plays in a slightly ridiculous way which reminds me of my four years as a student in Italy, and my proud Italian friends, who first saw me as an immigrant. Suddenly it struck me - I am surrounded by hundreds of people coming from almost identical backgrounds. There were no immigrants around us, no dark-skinned people, no different denominations or classes, just Italians. It is not without reason that Italian society has managed to preserve its traditions almost hermetically for hundreds of years. This is a conservative society, in many cases xenophobic, whose only distinct dichotomy is between men and women.
Tuscany - La Sagra della Bistecca
On the way to our next Sagra in Tuscany, we stopped Alida’s aunt and uncles home - Andrea and Patricia Borgna. The former is an economist, a retired lecturer and an activist who distributes the ideas of Slow Food, the latter works with schools on programs that teach children farming. Both of them share their memories of the farming of their childhood and talk about the power of Sagre in the education of the next generation. "Over the years there has been less response from young people, they are no longer so eager to participate in the Sagre," Patricia says sadly, "but there are quite a few that still involve the children, and that's good. They start working in waitressing, and from there they are integrated into the preparation of the sauce, the frying then the organisation and the logistics. "
Andrea speaks at length about the importance of food culture and the dissemination of knowledge. "People who do not eat well are easy to control," he says. According to him, most of the food accessible to people today is of low quality and it is an anti-democratic act in his eyes. He goes on to say that in the past, the division between those who produce food and those who consume it was more equal. Almost half and half. Many will produce for many. Today, however, a few people hold the monopoly on food production, and the amount of consumers far exceeds it. When we ask Patricia about the men's role in the cooking, she smiles: "In the past, only women cooked in the Sagra, and with time the men joined in too, first on the grill, because it was male work, and then they started helping with the serving. Naturally women control these kitchens, and without them none of this would have happened, but even men are involved, so let's give them some credit".
In the sagra of the Bistecca Fiorentina, (famed Florentine T-bone Steak) it’s easy to see the change of roles. A group of sweating men in white chef's uniforms surround a huge four-meter length grill, without a woman to be seen. We sit around the table and wait for our steaks to arrive. A few minutes later, when only bones are left on the table, we make dirty jokes about the phallic shape of the bone. We’re a bit tipsy already. On the main square, performances of local youth bands follow one another while the dance instructor orders the women to shake their behinds and the men - their upper body. Just before leaving for the parking lot we stop by a stall with four elderly men, tipsy and smiling, who insisted on giving us a final drink before we go. They dip peaches in punch decorated with thick cinnamon sticks, and give us each an alcoholic peach, directly into our mouth. This act makes me feel that on the one hand I was being treated as an object, and on the other these men seem to me as somewhat exotic, meaning that in a way, I turned them into objects, too. More than anything, this act made me laugh and exhilarated me, and maybe I was too drunk to think about serious significance.
Tuscany - La Sagra delle Polenta e Uccelli, Barga
On the way to Barga Alida experienced a serious hypoglycaemia, so we had to stop to find her something sweet. We were in ugly town without a bar, no one on the streets, and Alida asks us to stop here, outside this brightly lit kitchen. It turns out that the town's lady cooks were preparing for the snail Sagra that was taking place the day after. "I will ask them for something sugary, they will certainly help!” Five minutes later, Alida came out with a bottle of Coca-Cola in her hand, excited: "I told them about our project and they were so happy, they invited us to come tomorrow and wanted to show us the Sagra and share their stories." Unfortunately, we never went to the snail Sagra, but Alida was at her best again.
At eight in the morning we are awoken by the hunters’s shooting, or perhaps it was one of us snoring, but either way - we woke up. The hunting tradition in Italy and in Tuscany and in Barga in particular is a long-standing and inseparable part of the local culinary culture. We do a short tour of the town with Franco, one of the hunters and organisers of the event.
"People who care about ecology and environmental issues are opposed to hunting. I respect and understand them, but the hunting tradition goes back a long time and is an essential part of our identity. Not only that, the hunt connects us to the food on the plate. People today buy chicken and believe it grows in the supermarket. Here everyone deeply understands the meat’s provenance, and has a realistic view of the matter.
At Aldo Bacci's flour mill, he and his assistant Matteo Pioli, give us a glimpse of the local pride and joy: traditional polenta, made with an ancient variety of corn called Otto File. This low yield but high quality corn variety is typical of mountainous regions, especially the areas of Garfagnana and Serchio valley. Bacci and Pioli grind the dry corn at their mill, using water from the neighbouring mountains, a process which preserves the intrinsic property of the corn.
Meanwhile, in the Sagra’s kitchen, the women busy themselves with the sauces whilst the men grill the birds, and prepare the polenta. The smell of the sugo (the tomato sauce) is intoxicating. Giada climbs up on a chair to photograph the polenta from above, and Sarah, serious and focused as always, records the polenta men: one pours it out of a heavy brown sack, the other mixes it in warm water with a large device that looks like a drill. I am amazed by the delicious taste of the polenta when we sit down to eat. Alida shrieked with joy at the arrival of the little wild birds, "Oh, my father will be so jealous, you will never eat these anywhere else, unless you go back to Tuscany. You need to crack their heads with your teeth, just like this!”. She demonstrated the right way of eating them, and I wondered if Italy would soon become a kind of museum, an isolated island of traditions reserved mainly for tourists.
Tuscany - La Sagra del Fico, Carmignano (PO)
The dried figs of Carmignano (Fichi Secchi di Carmignano) are prized throughout Italy and famous around the world. The traditional drying process starts on straw mats and they are transferred to a sunny spot to dry. Due to the region's unique climate, local varieties of figs are exceptional, resulting in the best dried figs you will ever taste. Siro Petracchi grows around a hundred varieties in the area. "If there are so many variations of wine, I don’t see why it should not be the same with figs", he tells us just before we taste dozens of them in his groves.
In the Sagra’s kitchen we meet the ladies of the town. Laura (66 years old, head of the kitchen for the last 42 years, since her first Sagra), Franca (30, in charge of desserts) and Rita (40, responsible for the children and the sauces). We sit down with the women around the prepping table to help them peel the figs. There are three varieties - Dotatto, Verdini and Brigotti. After that we put the figs into a bowl filled with white wine, where they will be soaked to absorb the flavours and alcohol, and from there they will be put on the Tuscan fig focaccia, which will rest in a fire fuelled stone oven, manned by the same old grandad for many years.
"We heard that in other places in the world, children eat dishes of pasta without even dressing", Rita says, and laughs loudly. "Here the children eat wild pigs and birds - they eat it all, they taste everything, they love it and most importantly - they are not afraid of food, which is how they get to know our culture."
The pots are on the stove and various types of ragù - Arrabiata and Pomarola (a rich tomato and vegetables sauce) simmer on low heat. Pan con l’Uva, (bread with grapes) and Covaccino, a Tuscan flatbread are placed on the table one after the other. The chicken stew which has been cooking for hours will be pilled on Tuscan style crostini. One of the ladies in the kitchen asks me in deep wonder how is it possible that I have never tasted Tuscan chicken before, and I answer that her amazement is indeed justified.
"We must not tell you the secret ingredient in the sauce," says one of the ladies, while the other whispers in my ear: "Coffee, espresso powder, just a dash.” This won’t be the first or last time the ladies reveal the secrets of their cooking. "We cook dishes here that people do not usually make at home, because these are recipes that require a lot of preparation time, and everyone here is always in a hurry to go to work". Boys and girls, aged from 12 to 16, run between the different areas of the event. They are dressed in the Sagra’s uniforms, loaded down with trays, and their faces express how seriously they take their task. This whole scenario strongly reminds me of the Scouts summer camp, where the mothers came to cook and the children were busy practising their tribal patriotism. "This Sagra is not about the figs," one of the ladies told me. "It's a celebration of the community, of all the children who come here and spend time with the older generation from whom they learn so much”.
Sardegna - La Sagra Simbua Fritta cun Sattizzu, Villanovaforru
Simbua Fritta cun Sattizzu is an ancient sardinian dish of polenta made from durum wheat, served with pieces of beef and lard. The ladies who welcome us sit in a garden located just behind the traditional knife shop. They are dressed in black Sardinian costume and greet us amiably. Beatrice was born in 1931, and a few years ago she published a cookbook: "Segundamente", which means "spice" in Sardinian.
"I named it so because the book is about things we put in our food - from herbs and spices to fantasy, love, quality and freshness - what you people call Zero Kilometer". Beatrice's book has dozens of very simple recipes and pictures taken in a rather amateurish way. "We do not usually cook with a lot of ingredients here, but they are always fresh”, she says. Beatrice grew up as the 12th descendant of an old Sardinian family. "My father was a great hunter, he brought us boars and rabbits, and thanks to him I learned how to cook them".
When Alida asks her about the way the pig is prepared, her eyes flood with happiness and her body fills with vitality. She tells us about all the parts of the pig, about how in the past every family had one, and about the salami she makes at home. When Alida asks her why the names of the dishes in the book remain in the Sardinian dialect, while the recipes are in Italian, Beatrice says: "I thought about it at length, and in the end I decided to give the names my mother gave them. After all, this book is dedicated to her.
I could go on and on. I could tell you about the monumental family picnic in the Sardinian forest, the long grill and dozens of men who roasted whole piglets on the fire. I could mention the evening in Livorno, a wonderful harbour town with fantastic seafood, or recount the eight-hour ferry ride to Sardinia where we finally had a moment to digest all these experiences. I could describe the dancers at the closing of every Sagra and about the wise words we heard from all our interviewers, from the most elderly to the youngest children.
We ended the journey with many questions. First of all, those which arise from an attempt to understand the place of the Sagre within society and the community: Are we, as liberated women, who come from places like New York and Tel Aviv, cities that contain innumerable identities, able to bring the Sagre back to our home towns? We wondered - and still wonder - whether or not there is room for communal activity within a postmodern society, a post-truth society whose politics of identities are an inseparable part of it? Is it possible to have communal activities within a society that sanctifies the individual? Does promoting Slow Food ideas when it comes to spending longer hours cooking make the women return to the kitchen, or does cooking have a real power that will advance the society to better places?
With these questions, we each returned to our own country. Since then we have processed the documented materials and slowly begun to develop them - each in her own media - on canvas, the stove, the screen, the picture and through writing. We have established a women's collective called The Taste of Memory, which is based on the idea of creating a global female network that will continue to document culinary traditions from a feminine point of view, each in its own way. Sarah is working on the film, Alida is cooking special pop-ups in New York, and the visual images of Florence and Giada can be seen here, and hopefully in a future book or exhibition. My words are scattered before you, and I hope it is suitable to say that we have only just begun.
Originally published at HaShulchan magazine