If someone invites you to go to a sagra, stop whatever you’re doing, cancel other commitments, dress up comfortably and bring along a mosquito repellent. The sagra, a town food festival, is the heart of the true Italian food scene.
The sagre fill up parking lots, sports facilities and squares throughout the year, but mainly during Summer and Autumn. They are often yet another reason to visit villages in the countryside that you would not have discovered otherwise, and you will find them all dolled up, lively, full of people of every age and walk of life, all sharing the common intent of eating well and spending little.
You can spot the sagre advertising posters from afar. They are all the same, black bold fonts, stylised drawings and gaudy background colours: fluorescent green, lemon yellow, magenta. Hipsters, their handwritten fonts and opaque paper have not yet affected this world so embedded into the Italian province life.
The menus are either written daily with a marker on a yellow disposable tablecloth or quickly printed on white thin paper. The choices are just a few essential dishes, and it highly depends on when you arrive, because at the end of the evening many dishes will be crossed out with a thick black mark: finito, finished, come back tomorrow. Everything revolves around the sagra protagonist, being it wild boar or onions, which will be declined in every possible way, sometimes with a deep respect for tradition, others with inventiveness and curiosity. If the menu lists fresh pasta, often behind the festival tents, or in the local club, there will be ladies of all ages preparing it as in an assembly line: knead, roll out, fill up, cut, cook.
The meeting point is usually on the queueing line for the cashier’s desk. While you are waiting, one of your friends would usually start declaiming the menu. Most often it goes like this: one takes note of who wants what on a piece of paper and takes it to the cashier. Tortelli? How many tortelli? I also want the sausages. Just add another portion of chips for me. Do we chose desserts now or shall we wait until the end?
I guess you can easily recognize your group of friends in these dynamics, as each one has a friend who would meticulously scribble down everyone’s order, one who is always ready to do the math on his phone, and one who will change his idea at the very last second to order yet another portion of tortelli, forcing you to start with the math again. But isn’t this, in the end, the beauty of a sagra?
A few weeks ago we had dinner at the Sagra del Cinghiale of Pelago, just outside Florence, among vineyards and olive groves. There, queueing in order to have our portion of wild boar tortelli, I began to mentally write this post. When summer arrives, we usually mark on our calendar all the sagre that most interest us in the area, so I said to myself: let’s collect all these sagre here on the blog, as if you want to visit Tuscany this summer, you don’t want to miss the chance to spend some time wandering in the countryside searching for a sagra to enjoy a hearty meal in plastic dishes on a long communal table.
And since I was there, I also prepared a stewed wild boar with olives, very similar to the stew I had in Pelago. Once you have tasted it you will understand why it is worth simmering it for three hours even during the hot summer.
Stewed wild boar with olives – Cinghiale con le olive in umido
When you are a novice in the kitchen and you want to prepare a meat course, a traditional slow cooked stew is always the most forgiving option. Cooking to perfection a fillet can be daunting, as within a matter of seconds it goes from perfectly cooked to a rubbery shoe sole.
With a stew you do not incur these problems. Just arm yourself with patience and start ahead of time: if you get distracted and braise the meat for ten more minutes, then nothing happens. It actually gains more flavour. The first time I cooked a wild boar I faced it with a serene spirit, reassured by this perspective.
Marinade the wild boar with herbs, vegetables and wine overnight and do not forget bay leaves and juniper, which beautifully marry the gamey meat. Bring the wild boar to room temperature before cooking it, a small expedient which is alway of use when it comes to cooking meat.
Braise the wild boar with its battuto, the chopped vegetables, and its marinade liquid on low flame and slowly, as if you had the whole day. You do not need to be there constantly watching it, just check it from time to time to add more liquid when needed.
Do not be scared by the amount of extra virgin olive oil used in this recipe: you are not going to eat wild boar every day, are you?, so cook it as it should be and enjoy it. If you reduce the amount of olive oil you will end up with a dry and stringy meat.
Serve the stewed wild boar as a main course, accompanied by a simple side dish as a potato salad or enough crusty bread to mop up the sauce, or use it to dress a generous bowl of tagliatelle or tortelli.
Stewed wild boar with olives
- 850 g of wild boar meat
- 1 carrot
- 1 celery stalk
- 1 red onion
- 1 sprig of rosemary
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 clove of garlic
- 5 juniper berries
- 500 ml of red wine
- 100 ml of extra virgin olive oil
- 2 generous pinches of salt
- A few rounds of black pepper
- 500 ml of slightly salted hot water
- 100 g of green olives
- Rinse the wild boar and place it in a bowl that fits it comfortably. Add the chopped carrots and celery, the quartered onion, the bay leaves, rosemary, garlic and juniper berries. Pour in the red wine to completely cover the meat, close the bowl with clingfilm and put it in the fridge to marinate overnight.
- The next day remove the bowl from the fridge and bring the meat back to room temperature. Cut the wild boar into regular pieces slightly bigger than a walnut, then put it aside.
- Filter the marinade and collect it in a jug, you will need you later.
- Finely chop all the vegetables, rosemary and juniper berries, leaving the bay leaves whole.
- Pour the olive oil into a thick bottomed pot and add the chopped vegetables and the bay leaves. Let it brown on low heat for about ten minutes until it softens. Now add the wild boar and stir well to mix it with the sautéed vegetables. Season the wild boar with two generous pinches of salt and a few turns of black pepper. Cook it over medium heat for about ten minutes until seared.
- Pour in the wild boar marinade, then move it on low flame and cover the pot with a lid.
- Braise the wild boar for about two and a half hours, checking it from time to time to prevent it from drying too much. After about one hour add 500 ml of slightly salted hot water.
- When the wild boar is almost ready, add the olives and cook for the last five minutes.
- Turn off the heat and let it rest for a few hours. It will gain flavor.
- Before serving it, warm it on a lively flame.
Tuscan sagre – Summer edition
You find more dates and infos on Sagre Toscane. If you have visited a sagra which is worth sharing, just write about it in the comments!