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Village festivals the heart and soul of Italy

No matter how small, villages across Italy put on summer festivals. Some are religious, others celebrate special foods. Either way, it's an excuse for parades, feasting, dancing and fireworks.

March 14, 2014|By Carolyn Lyons

CERRETO, Italy — Think of an Italian summer and you think of azure seas, sun-splashed beaches, cool mountains cupping dark lakes and overheated crowds of tourists investigating every museum and ancient church.

Things are different in Tuscany as well as in Umbria, where I live, for part of the year. Every local community, no matter how small, puts on its own summer festa, or festival. Some are based on religion: Each village has its own patron saint to celebrate with a day of services and parades followed by a night of feasting, dancing and, of course, fireworks.

Then there are sagras, festivals dedicated to food. Each community chooses a specialty food and organizes its festivities around it. There is the sagra del cinghiale (feast of roast boar), the sagra dell'oca (goose), della lepre (hare), degli umbrichelli (fat local spaghetti), della castagna (chestnut) and della lumaca (snail). There's even a sagra dedicated to bombolone, a custard-filled doughnut.

Last summer, I decided it was time to get out and party like an Italian. I wanted to see how much fun I could have without spending much money or fighting my way down the clogged autostrada to sweltering beaches in the annual rush al mare (to the sea).

I started at Cerreto, the hamlet I see from my kitchen window. Cerreto has a single street, no shop, no church and a school that closed decades ago. But for seven nights every August, it stages its Sagra della Focaccia (bread) that brings together more than 7,000 visitors to eat, drink, dance and make merry. That would be a challenge for a large professional catering operation, never mind a community with a population of 200.

My friend Bernardo Barberani stopped by the first night. He is a third-generation award-winning local winemaker. He was carrying a chilled bottle of his Orvieto Classico and poured some into my plastic cup. He said that when he was young, his mother never let him go to sagras, "because the hygiene was a bit lax — people cooked outdoors around open fires." Now, Barberani said regulations have been tightened and sagras are safe places to eat.

Like other Italian dishes that now fetch premium prices in Manhattan and L.A., focaccia was once the poorest food of the poorest people; it's just bread made with flour and water. It used to be baked on the hearth in the evening under the ashes of the dying fire. Traditionally, when half-cooked, the bread was split open and stuffed with leftovers before being put back into the fire to get gooey. The Sagra della Focaccia re-creates this by offering a variety of fillings. I tried the sausage with arugula (about $6). The sausage juices soaked into the bread, which my husband, Mike, and I washed down with a bottle of Barberani's wine (another $6). Mike had the caprese, but there were plenty of other choices, including tuna or Nutella.

By now, cars were driving slowly up the hill to park in a field set aside for the purpose, and the piazza was filling. Any fears I'd had that we would feel out of place soon evaporated. Italians are brilliant at making everyone feel welcome, and the communal tables mean you can mingle or not as you choose. There were British and American accents to be heard too, belonging to local expats and others.

Typically, festas and sagras are run by committees. Giacomo Bonaccorsi, the local geometra, a cross between an architect and a surveyor, is a stalwart of Cerreto's core group.

Guided by Bonaccorsi, I stepped behind the scenes to watch. Women made the dough, forming circles the size of dinner plates that they passed on to be baked in one of six wood-burning ovens. Franco, the retired village postman, was melting in the heat as he baked focaccia after focaccia. Small boys collected the freshly baked bread and took it to old men in red hats who sliced and quartered the loaves.

Young women, giggling in their white hairnets and latex gloves, stood around a huge square table. They snatched up the fresh bread and stuffed the triangles for girls to stack on paper trays and take out to the waiting line. Threading in and out, children in Focaccia festival T-shirts tossed rubbish into black trash bags, their squad marshaled by Big Steve, formerly of Morgan Stanley in New York and now a Cerreto resident.

"There's nothing like this in the States. It's so community," he said, swiping another crumpled paper plate into his sack.

No one gets paid except with food and drinks. All the profits are plowed back into the festival, which is how organizers built the huge piazza and six wood-burning ovens.

With the feeding of the 1,000 that evening well underway it was time for the evening's second half — music and dancing. There's a different band every night of the festival, all of them professional touring groups. The bands draw the crowds and are the biggest item in the budget — $1,000 to $3,500 a night for a lineup of saxophones, dueling guitars, accordion, drums and two or three female singers in skimpy sequins.

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