Monday, July 31, 2017

Celebrating Summer

Summer in Umbria, and probably in all of Italy, means being outdoors in the evening, taking your evening stroll (passeggiata) to see and be seen, having a gelato on the piazza, or visiting the local sagra or festa. A festa is just a big party, but a sagra will usually feature food as a theme. The food might be something the town is famous for, something that's being harvested now, or simply an excuse to eat a favorite local dish.

Most of the feste around here run Thursday to Sunday, but some of the larger ones run every night for ten days, encompassing two weekends. Advertising for these events is limited – apparently enough locals know when they are, so if you're in Italy be sure to keep your eyes open for posters both large and small, advertising these local treasures.

 When we arrived in Italy in 2003 we mistakenly thought the feste and sagre were similar to church picnics, but we quickly found out how wrong we were. Instead of being held during the day and running into the evening, an Italian festa rarely starts before 7:30. There are of course, exceptions to this rule, but for the smaller, local feste, 7:30 is pretty standard.

The first order of business is food. Well, maybe the second, because after all, it's all about socializing, so a quick turn around the site to see who's there, as well as where you want to sit is always a good idea. If you're ordering your food at a central location, you'll definitely need to know your table number so that the locals (usually teens) know where to bring it. On rare occasions, like the other night when we were in Fontignano, near Lake Tresimeno, people came around to the tables to take our order, and menus were conveniently supplied on each table. In San Venanzo you read the large posted menu, which might vary slightly from night to night, then pick up an order form and pencil. After noting how many of each item you want and what you want to drink, you add your name and your table number then proceed to the cassa (cashier) where you pay. Drinks are usually available at a different stand, and the choices are as you might expect: water, both still and fizzy, red or white wine, usually very local and very reasonably priced, and for the kids, the standard assortment of sugary drinks. Coffee for after dinner is also available. There may also be beer, but since that's something I never think about, I honestly don't remember. I would guess it is, because in addition to the more famous national brands like Peroni and Moretti, artisanal beer is also very, very popular now.

Music and dancing is also a traditional part of every sagra or festa. The music doesn't start until 9:30 or so, and is usually a local group playing traditional music. The music is well-suited for two types of dancing: line dancing, which is extremely popular, and waltzes that have everyone swirling around and around the dance floor. Normally everything is over by midnight, but we do have to think about driving home on curvy, unlit two-lane country roads, so we usually leave before the final song. It was so easy when we lived in San Venanzo and could just walk up the street!

I was a little disappointed when I discovered that the Street Food Festival – definitely a break from tradition! - in Marsciano wouldn't have as many trucks as the one in Foligno a few weeks ago. There, the trucks had been not just from various regions of Italy, but also from Spain, Greece, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico and one, while perhaps not from the U.S., featured American-style barbeque. Marsciano featured trucks from several regions of Italy – Sicily, Abruzzo, Piemonte, Calabria, Lazio, Umbria and Tuscany. There might have been other regions I'm forgetting, but there was a good selection of food (except for the truck offering horse meat! Neigh!!!). The only international truck there was one from Spain, so we knew we wouldn't be eating BBQ and/or Mexican.

I had a huge American-style hamburger and Art had a burger made from the pork of the Cinta Senese pigs, a particularly flavorful pork. Both were delicious, cooked fresh while we waited, and Art enjoyed sampling a few Sicilian beers with our friends to go along with his burger.

 And then, off in the distance I heard a very surprising, but very distinct sound: bagpipes! I turned my camera on and walked towards the sound. It was dark by this time, but eventually I saw them coming down the stairs from the hill above, and once in the parking lot where the festa was being held began walking through the crowd. I would later learn that this was a Palestinian group called Bagpipes For Peace.

We knew there would be another musical act, presented in conjunction with the Musica Per i Borghi program, something that's been bringing diverse music to Umbria for many years now. The large stage was set near the road, with way more chairs than I expected to see. The first act, who I heard but did not see, was a woman who sang exclusively in English - “My Heart Will Go On”, and other similar songs. I think there must have a different woman, or women who sang after her, and we heard both “Imagine” and “Hey Jude” - another surprise! After that another act was introduced. I could hear the announcement but wasn't really paying attention, so when I heard a lot of drums I immediately jumped up. Bagpipes, Beatles AND percussion, all in one night?! The act was a drumline – eight boys, and a man playing a regular drum-kit.

We left shortly after that – we had ridden with a friend who needed to get up early the next morning, but I have to say the night turned out much better than I expected. I knew we'd have good food, and I knew we'd enjoy the company of our friends, but to have these musical surprises was really the cherry on top. You just never know what's going to happen in Italy!

Update: The following day, Saturday, we joined friends for a festa in tiny San Faustino, just outside of Mass Martana. Although the village is small, the festa, called the festa of good eating, no less, was amazing. On the menu was melon with prosciutto, goose (oca), pork shank (stinco), tagliatelle with tartufo, guanciale, torta al testo, and on and on and on. Everyone shared bites and we all groaned as we left the table. We walked down to the dance floor to watch and listen, and met more friends along the way. Another delicious evening!






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