In a barn-like marquee in Italy, diners of a rice festival sit at dozens of long wooden tables. They are laden with carafes of wine and plastic plates piled high with colourful risotto dishes: pumpkin and sausage, Amarone wine and mushrooms and truffle.
This is one of the hundreds of sagre that take place up and down the country, especially in autumn. These food festivals celebrate a local produce or dish, from chestnuts to snails, and offer diners some of the region's most authentic dishes.
But visitors don’t just come for the food. Inside the tents, the dining experience is unique. It’s noisy and chaotic. Strangers sit elbow to elbow and find themselves sharing the wine pitcher by the second course. It is convivial, festive and very Italian.
Many sagre have their roots in historic pagan or harvest celebrations meaning a whole series of appendage activities still accompany the eating. Some put on traditional music and dancing while others content the younger generations with gaudy fairground rides. There may also be historic processions, carnival floats or food-related competitions.
Some food festivals have become commercialised and inauthentic, but here are some of the best that have remained true to the sagra spirit.
Sagra dell’Anguilla, Comacchio
Comacchio is a small coastal town located inside the wild, beautiful Po Delta Park in northeastern Italy. Historically, the community’s economy centered around fishing and particular methods of preserving and canning fish. Their speciality is eel, which is celebrated annually at the Sagra dell’Anguilla.
Along the canal-side streets, bars and restaurants offer special menus filled with fried, marinated and grilled eel. The hub of the festival is inside the historic marinating factory, now a museum.
In the brick-floored building, smoke billows above the diners as the food is cooked inside the old chimneys once used for grilling the eel.
The highlights of the menu are anguilla in umido – eel cooked in a sweet and sour tomato and onion sauce – and grilled eel with a succulent crispy skin.
Peperoncino Festival, Diamante
Down in the tip of Italy’s boot in the region of Calabria, the town of Diamante puts on the country’s spiciest sagra dedicated to the local chilli pepper, Diavolicchio. The streets undergo a transformation, bedecked with hundreds of bunches of dried peppers and crimson chilli sculptures. Attendees of the festival adorn themselves with chilli-shaped earrings, red outfits and even chilli crowns.
Street-side stalls sell chillis in all shapes and forms as well as infused in oils, crushed into cheese or flavouring the pork sausage that is used to make the famous Calabrian spread Nduja.
The highlight of the festival is the chilli-eating competition, where a few brave competitors sweat and cry their way to victory by eating the most chillis in 30 minutes.
Fasulin de l'Oc e Cudeghe, Pizzighettone
Every November, the little walled town of Pizzighettone in Lombardy is filled with the rich, meaty scent of fasulin de l'oc e cudeghe. This hearty stew is made from beans and pork rind and has been the focus of this sagra since 1993.
The food festival celebrates the local fagiolini dall'occhio beans as well as one of the town's annual traditions. In the past, the powerful bean and pork stew would have been dolled out by tavern owners on a chilly, damp November 2nd morning as part of the All Souls’ Day ritual.
Now, festival goers huddle inside the ancient walls of the city to receive their steaming bowl of stew, dished out from enormous metal pots.
Sagra della mostarda di fichi d’india, Pegagaggi
When autumn arrives in Sicily, pale green plants across the island are adorned with bright pink, orange and yellow prickly pears. Traditionally, housewives would turn the fruit into a jewel-coloured preserve called mostarda. This is now the protagonist of a sagra in the town of Pedagaggi.
Festival goers can try the mostarda hot or cold at stalls lining the village streets. There are also freshly peeled prickly pears, local pasta called cavateddi with pork meat sauce, homemade bread, porchetta and locally produced wine and oil. The entertainment at the festival sticks to tradition, with musical and folklore spectacles in the streets.
Fiera del Tartufo Bianco, Sant’Agata Feltria
White truffles can be found across Italy, but for decades the city of Alba in Piedmont has been seen as the tuber capital. Its fair is now a smart, expensive international affair, but the truffle festival in the Emilian town of Sant’Agata Feltria is still riotously unpolished.
The tiny hilltop hamlet explodes into life for three weekends in October during which the streets are lined with stalls selling earthy-scented truffles, fried porcini mushrooms, local wine and a plethora of artisanal products.
Inside a giant marquee, local restaurants man their outlets and attempt to feed the frenzied crowd salivating for cheese fondue, ricotta ravioli, roast pork shank and wild boar casserole all topped with shavings of white truffle. On the grassy slopes beneath the town, there is a fair to entertain the children and wine stalls for the waiting parents.