In a country where seasonal foods are venerated on Italian tables as if beatified saints, one could say that the sagra, or food festival, is a sort of gastronomical religious holiday. Throughout Italy, every month of every season has something new to table, and summer is perhaps the sagra's most buzzing period.
Sagre are culinary and social adventures: the websites (when they exist) are often vague, and the towns difficult to reach. Indeed, most events are reachable only by car. (Check websites and call phone numbers for directions, or to find out whether or not they are near a bus or train stop.)
But we promise it's worth it. Ingredient-specific experts prepare the food, and everything is extremely affordable for the quality. You will see one ingredient used in more ways than you ever thought possible, and you are not likely to enjoy Italian cuisine in more authentic settings than these.
While some are stand-based and stand-up, many often take place in gymnasiums or event centers and feature multi-course menus. So show up, wrestle for a spot and sit down where you can. You may find yourself next to anyone from a goth punk with a passion for pine nuts to the senior who licks his lard-covered plate.
Here we offer TF staff's handpicked list of food festivals in Tuscany. Our experience has proved these are worth attending.
Cherry season is short, so head out to Larciano (Pistoia) for the Cherry Festival (Sagra della Ciliegia) to grab a kilo or two at a stand. Eat them there and enjoy the fair: a theme park and other attractions open every evening (June 18, 19 and 20; http://www.comune.larciano.pt.it; 0573/85811). Unfortunately, Livorno's fish festivals will be over by the time you read this. How about mussels instead? The Mussel Festival (Sagra delle Cozze) will unfold at a community center, Circolo San Jacopo, on the water in San Jacopo, Livorno. Stuffed mussels, mussel pasta, mussels in jars are yours to savour from June 30 to July 3 (0586/805484).
Not just a festival dedicated to the pine nut, the Sagra del Pinolo in San Piero a Grado (Pisa), exclusively features the organic pine nut. The website promises a restaurant serving pine-nut-based dishes, cake and wine stands, karaoke and more (first two weekends of July; http://www.sanpieroagrado.it). For a multi-product option, head to Maresca (Pistoia) for Extramangiando, a stand-up dinner of traditional products like pecorino a latte crudo, sausages and Marzolo wheat breads in the breathtaking Foresta del Teso woods (July 3, http://www.extradarte.it). Jazz & Wine takes place in Montalcino from July 14 to 24. At the beginning of the porcino mushroom's season in mid-July, head to Scarperia's Sagra del Porcino (called by its organizers ‘the real Porcino festival'; July 22 to 31; http://www.comune.scarperia.fi.it; 055/843161).
Tuscans say eating without drinking is like plastering a wall without water. During Calici di Stelle, entire piazzas in historic Tuscan wine towns will be serving up wine under the stars well into the night (August 10, http://www.movimentotusmovino.it). If you have to choose one festival, we recommend Cortona's Sagra della Bistecca (Steak Festival, also featuring sausage and other grilled meats): a 14-meter-long grill will be positioned in the Giardini del Parterre in this postcard-perfect town for a village-wide BBQ. Excellent local wines will be yours for the tasting, and you'll be guaranteed a Frances Mayes moment as you enjoy rare slices of Tuscany's favorite meat (August 14 and 15; http://www.cortonaweb.net). The beautiful ancient town of Colonnata (thus named because it was a Roman colony) is known for its silky, buttery, salty lard, and rightly holds its famed Sagra del Lardo at the foot of the Apuan Alps. Taste this historic salume with bread and tomatoes, then tour the marble caves (some say that lard was used to lubricate marble blocks long ago, to facilitate their positioning) and narrow, steep streets of Colonnata (August 22 to 24; http://www.lardodicolonnata.org/sagra).
MORE, MORE, MORE
We found a great website with an exhaustive list of food festivals. At http://www.giraitalia.it, search sagre by month and region (see the purple buttons on the bottom and click ‘Sagre'). All of the Tuscan favorites are represented, including tortelli di patate, cinghiale-even beans and escargots (chiocciole). Despite frogs' endangered status, there are frog festivals being held this summer in Marcoiano (Mugello), Staggia Senese (Siena), Paganico (Grosseto) and Baccaiano (Florence); consider yourself warned: you may be accosted by a PETA or WWF activist!