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I thought I had planned the perfect trip to Italy’s lakes region. Our itinerary took in historic villas covered in wisteria, perfect lake views and pretty towns. I researched restaurants thoroughly and scheduled visits to local attractions.
Everything was going to plan and then we found out about this.. a local food festival. Why hadn’t I researched festivals in Italy?
The missing bite
As we wandered the streets of Como on the day of our arrival, I found this flyer and knew we had to change our plans immediately.
As far as flyers go, it was not that attractive, but the words “Pasticerria” and “mercatino prodotti locali” leapt off the page. I realised this was not an advertisement for an agricultural fair despite the cows.
My basic knowledge of Italian told me that this was a local food festival and celebration. Even better it seemed to have a farm to table focus. The emphasis was on fresh, seasonal and local food.
It is a strange person who visits Italy without some interest in its food culture. For me, it is probably the top reason for visiting Italy and I could not resist a nearby food festival.
Sagre or food festivals in Italy
Some quick online research revealed the potential of the flyer. It seemed we stumbled on a sagra – a traditional Italian festival usually focused on local food and produce but often linked to historical and cultural events. Many have centuries-old origins and are steeped in local traditions in celebration of the harvest.
Each year at the beginning of autumn the Umbrian town of Cannara celebrates the onion during its week-long Festa della Cipolla. To the north, in Piedmont, the Fiera nazionale del Marrone is dedicated to the chestnut.
In Como, the community comes together annually to celebrate patron Saint Abbondio, who became the fourth bishop of the city in 448AD.
The Fiera di Sant’Abbondio – Como
The entire neighbourhood seemed to turn out for the local sagra. Our little family followed the trails of people snaking through a residential neighbourhood of Como. As we entered the grounds of the Basilica of Sant’Abbondio my heart sank a little.
There was a very long and chaotic.. let’s call it a “queue” and a huge white tent where it looked like food was being prepared on a mass scale. People were leaving the tent with take away containers. This wasn’t the rustic festa I had envisaged.
I shouldn’t have worried. Italians have a wonderful knack of looking like they are out of control when in fact everything is as ordered and efficient as you’d like it. On entering the tent the queue split into 4 lines of hungry festival goers discussing the menu. How to choose? The menu was full of delicious sounding dishes from appetisers and starters to pasta, main courses and desserts.
On entering the tent the queue split into 4 lines of hungry festival goers discussing the menu. How to choose? The menu was full of delicious sounding dishes from appetisers and starters to pasta, main courses and desserts.
Como sits on the lake of the same name and the dishes of the region reflect the terrain. There is a strong emphasis on locally caught fish as well as game meats from the nearby hills and mountains. I was tempted, as always, by the fritto misto (mixed seafood) of the lake, cheeses as well as various dishes made with boar.
We decided we must try something slow cooked and with polenta. And of course, it would not have been right to skip the pasta course.
In the end, we decided on the sharing plates – “Tastes of Como” and the other “Cold cuts of the Lake” followed by osso bucco with polenta. The kids chose gnocchi alla lariana.
We managed to squeeze ourselves onto a table with some other festival goers and savoured every bite of our meal. The fare at the festival was rustic, wholesome and incredibly tasty.
While we ate, we happily watched the local community discussing each dish with passion as traditional music drifted in from the stage outside.
I managed to track down and English version of the festival menu after the event. I took a bit of a gulp when I read the ingredients of the cold cuts plate.
Let’s just say the concept of nose to tail eating applied judiciously to this dish. Nevertheless, it was delicious and I was probably better off not knowing its origins.
The total bill including wine came to around €30 making it one of the cheapest meals of our holiday.
After eating we spent time enjoying watching our children join the local kids playing on huge inflatable slides and browsing the stalls of local produce including cheeses, sausage, honey and baked goods.
I’m afraid we were too focused on our appetites to venture into the Romanesque basilica that I understand it is very beautiful.
We almost skipped back into the old town of Como, bellies full and cheeks glowing. It was a wonderful evening.
How to find a sagra food festival
We were lucky to find the festival completely by chance but next time we visit Italy we will be better prepared. Thanks to the marvel that is Google Translate, you can access this fantastic Italian resource for finding local food and other festivals in Italy. You can search by region, month and special events such as Pasqua/Easter.
This article explains more about the origins of sagre and includes a favourite list of festivals in regions across Italy.
If you visit in the latter half of the year you might want to check this article on some favourite autumn sagre across Italy.
Sophia Loren famously said “Everything you see I owe to spaghetti”. Not all spaghetti is cooked equally though and having tried the local specialties on offer at the sagra, I now know this was an experience missing from my Italian food adventures.
Make sure you seek out these festivals on your next trip to Italy. You will no doubt enjoy a veritable feast and have ongoing memories of the tastes of the region you visited.
Visiting the sagra was one of several memorable experiences we enjoyed when visiting Lake Como and Lake Orta. The area is an easy day trip from Milan but I suggest you linger a little longer and discover some of its hidden charms.
Food festivals are found throughout Europe. Check out this European food festival guide to discover the tastiest events showcasing local produce and traditional dishes.
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