Wednesday 5 December 2012

SABINA TRAVELOGUE PART 6 - March 25 Roccantica & La Sagra del Frittello

Roccantica courtesy of Giorgio Clementi

Roccantica and the SAGRA DEL FRITELLO
La sagra del vicino celebra il cavolfiore fritto! (I had a way more clever way to start out this story in English that I wanted to use, but it slipped my mind...

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Three years ago, when we first visited the Sabina, Candace, Richard and I took the car to Roccantica, the neighbouring town whose name means "the ancient hilltop fortress" and there are indeed the remains of an old stone keep on a hill above the town. Apparently a Pope took refuge there once.

Castle ruins at Roccantica in 2009 by James J.
 I think both Richard and I have mentioned just how different each of these hill top communities feel. Topography, the availability of local building materials, and their own peculiar history and age, their political and economic ups and downs, give each of these hilltowns their own "vibe" as we say in English.

Roccantica certainly has its own particular flavours and today that was fried cauliflower. 

It seems that every day of every month of the year has its own particular food-themed festival or "Sagra" here in Italy. Some communities celebrate more than one annual food festival in a calendar year. When we began planning our vacation months ago we were thrilled to find that we would be able to enjoy a Sagra just a five minute drive from Casperia.

Though the weatherman had predicted rain for today, this first day of daylight savings time in Italy started out bright and sunny. "Ha ha!", we thought. "Weathermen! What do they know?" and happily donned short sleeve shirts and khaki pants for the day. We ate light: cereal, fruit, and yoghurt, knowing that there would be tons of food at the festa. Richard brought his Ipad to take videos and I had my camera. What a bunch of turistas!

At first we thought we would walk to Roccantica. It is only five kilometres away, but we thought the better of it. Instead of rain we worried about sunburn and possible heat stroke—I had no hat—on this hot sunny day, and on hearing that there would be parking, decided to "fare la macchina, invece". I am glad we did. 

Casperia by Chris Warde-Jones for NY Times article on Il Sogno
One of the highlights of any drive to Roccantica is one of the best views of Casperia that you see out of the passenger side window (Richard does not drive "standard" so I have never personally enjoyed this experience, but from what I can tell from the corner of my eye is that it is indeed a veduta mozzafiato.)

Why, you may ask, do you not just stop the car to take a picture? Believe me, I would like to, but the road is very narrow and does not have a proper shoulder to park on, and traffic coming both ways seem to dictate to this timid foreigner that this is not a wise thing to do. Richard has taken a number of flying shots out the window as we drove by. I hope these turn out.
 Being typical foreigners, we arrived early, which was great, because we got parking along a shouldered part of the road close to the town. I made sure that I left ample space between me and the car ahead of me because I did not want to face the prospect of being tightly boxed in and having to clumsily "tap" our way out from between two parked cars to do the requisite U turn to get home. Again, I usually drive an automatic, so these extra precautions on a narrow sloped country road are necessary for me at least.

 We got out of the car and ambled up the winding, already car-choked road to the piazza where the Sagra was to take place. Little road-side stands with all the expected country fair merchandise: dried fruit, sweets, local cheese, pastries, cotton candy, arts and crafts, helium-filled balloons, toys, accesories, chachkas, etc. lined the way. As I said, we were a bit early, so the square was still in the final stages of set-up. Rows of tables for the noon meal to the right. The meal and wine ticket counter and band stage along the imposing stone and brick town wall to the left, and opposite us, at the far end of the piazza, in front of the landmark campanile, and its eponymous restaurant was the holy of holies, the kitchen where all the food for the thousands of celebrants was being prepared. Somewhere under that cauliflower bedecked roof were the cauldrons of hot oil that must already be seething in anticipation of the batter-dipped cavolfiori.

We took a few pictures then sauntered over to the growing line of people waiting to buy meal tickets. A large white parchment sign proclaimed a Menu Fisso of Fettucine con ragu', a secondi consisting of a choice of salsicce or braciola (thin beef cutlets), and a contorno of fagioli. This all for €13. Wine was €2 and bottled water was €1.

We brought our own water from Casperia so we ordered two meal tickets and a half litre of wine. They were selling canary yellow Sagra del Frittello brimmed caps. Richard bought me one, so now we had my sun stroke problem solved. 

With both our heads covered and with these precious tickets in hand, we headed into the town proper to take a little tour down memory lane.

As I mentioned above, each of these towns has its own "vibe" or flavour, and I like Roccantica's. There is something otherworldly about the layout and feel of the town... Something almost "Brigadoon-ish", magical somehow... I can' t really explain it, but walking the zigzag stairs and streets of Roccantica feels like living in an M. C. Escher painting, but instead of the colour palette being an austere black and white, your topsy turvy world is pink-brown and cream sand tones.

We stepped into a couple of shops and Richard found a great gift for his nephew Geoffrey who is house sitting and looking after Smokey. I saw a shop that was selling Falloni, a local wild green (sometimes dandelion or spinach) filled delicacy...

Falloni courtesy of Hello Sabina Facebook Page
but I didn't dare buy one because I knew there was going to be tons of food for lunch and I was here for the Frittelli. Mass was going on in the church just inside the gates. The bells started to peel from the church tower. (See video here).

Richard said, I think they are calling us down to lunch. : ) So down we went...

I lined up for lunch and Richard got the wine and found us a place at a bench at a table in the shade. We met a group of people visiting from Kent who were in Italy for a week and who had come in from Roma for the Sagra. I got our food and found Richard. 

A man came by selling raffle tickets for a prosciutto. We bought one each... We should have bought ten! He had a huge roulette wheel by the side of the stage and in between music sets he would spin the wheel and call out the lucky number. We did not win. : ( but perhaps hoping to win a cured Italian ham is asking too much... This holiday in the Sabina already feels like we have won the lottery. 

The crowd was amazing. What a people watching opportunity. People young and old, mostly country folk, but some city folk and a small smattering of happily overwhelmed tourists. Every so often a group of Carabinieri would appear, resplendent in their impeccable, ever-so-elegantly-designed uniforms, and walk through the crowd slowly, like a float in a parade.

Canada prides itself in our iconic red serged Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Perhaps in terms of a national symbol, the RCMP have more power, but set one beside a Carabinieri and you have to cry out, "Makeover!" I don't think there is a better looking police uniform out there. In Italy, everyone pays attention to la bella figura... but I digress... 

With lunch over, it was time to line up for the fritelli. I took a number of shots and videos as I got closer and closer to the front of the line. 

The fire that raged bright gold under the seething cauldrons of oil for the fritelli was mesmerizing. About six people worked behind the fire adding batter-covered fritters to the oil. Others scooped the perfectly cooked fritters out in large scoops, shook them free of extra oil, then dumped them on a stand from where others hand scooped piles of fritters into bags for people in the queue.

I got our bags of Frittelli and headed back to the table. You will have to wait for the videos Richard took on his IPad. While I was waiting in line for the fritelli and paying attention to what was going on in front of me, behind me people hard started dancing. (see video)

Some were doing a sort of waltz, others a two step... but what blew me away was that the majority of the crowd did a very elegant and flashy form of line dance. I saw Richard standing watching the people dance (and swaying to music himself). I don't think I have seen a bigger smile on his face. The fun was infectious. Fathers dancing with their kids. Nonne and young girls dancing in couples. A cacophony of happy Italians all around us eating, drinking and talking and watching the dancers... while the air was permeated with the smell of hot oil and steaming Frittelli! 

The Frittelli! So what did they taste like? We're they good? I have to say that I have never tasted more delicious cauliflower. The people of Roccantica sure know what they are doing. Each piece of battered cavolofiore was perfectly cooked, the batter light and crisp, perfectly salted and not greasy... This Sabina Sagra truly elevates the lowly cauliflower into a culinary star, perfect in itself, no condiments necessary. 

Sadly as we munched on the last of our Frittelli the clouds that had been slowly gathering over Roccantica let loose with an epic downpour that brought the Sagra to a stop, at least a pause. Coatless and without an umbrella (we should have trusted the weatherman) we had to head to the car and escape to Casperia. But what a day. I will never forget this first of what I hope to be many Sagra experiences over the coming years. Richard has his heart set on the Sagra della Polenta which takes place in October. When is artichoke season, and who is holding the Sagra? 

Cin Cin! Alla prossima!

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