n September, I was in Italy for a poetry retreat near Torri in Sabina — where appropriately, the ancient Roman poet Horace is said to have composed his verse. Poetry aside, the experience was a rightful pilgrimage to great eating (not surprisingly, my pregnant belly took a growth spurt).
Sabina is about an hour north of Rome, and is most associated with the rape of the Sabine women, a mythological event that repeatedly crops up in art. Like other places around Rome, local inhabitants claim its discovery predates that of Rome itself. To me, it immediately felt like home. There were no tour buses on its winding roads, and the hills were filled with sweeps of lavender and stalwart olive trees (one dating back 2,000 years.) The sleepy villages were sparsely populated —mostly with elderly people and disoccupati lingering in the bars. There was the requisite pizzeria, along with a meat or cheese shop, a church and the Comune, city hall.
Sabina resembled the slice of life that I’d come to know when I lived in Rome and traveled to the countryside on the weekends for sagre, or feasts featuring local food. My boyfriend would faithfully buy the now defunct Roma C’e guide every Thursday, and we’d turn straight to the pages with sagre listings. A sagra was often our primary weekend activity. We’d typically set out on Sunday after breakfast, allowing plenty of time to get lost, since the remote villages hosting the sagre were often hard to reach, especially in the absence of correct signage. The organization of sagre was also a little loosey-goosey. Sometimes we’d arrive only to find out the sagra had been cancelled, or once, that the organizer had suddenly died.
But when we nailed one, it was great. I associate fall with sagre because the harvests made for many: for funghi porcini, chestnuts, and of course, wine. There was just enough chill in the air and wait time in lines wrapping around the villages to make the hot plate of food and flask of wine taste especially good. The artichoke sagra was one of our favorites. It was held every March in Ladispoli, a dumpy seaside town with a traditionally robust artichoke harvest. I’d never eaten an artichoke before the sagra, and I had no idea it could be eaten so variously: sott’olio, alla giudea, in pasta, steamed with mint and garlic. We’d come back to Rome with full bellies and a bag filled with two weeks-worth of the plump and oddly pretty vegetable.
We liked sagre, not only because of the food, but the company. Usually we had to nestle in with strangers at the wooden tables set out in the main piazza. My boyfriend would try to enter into conversation with locals speaking dialect. He was a literature professor who normally spoke refined Italian, un italiano colto, but he had a soft spot for gente semplice, as he said, and his eyes lit up when he could talk to them.
Sagre were multi-generational events. I loved watching octogenarians mingle with the middle-aged and their beloved toddlers in tow.
One of my most memorable sagras was the last one we went to before I moved back to the United States. I don’t even remember the food it featured, but I do still have the bread board we were given. It was in Sermoneta, a walled hill town about an hour south of Rome. A band played in the central piazza where we sat. As we were leaving, an older woman pulled me out to dance, and I followed her lead for a few minutes. She was donned in widow’s black, and I remember feeling sad that my mother, who had cancer, would not live as long as this woman. I glanced up at the starlit sky and felt grateful for that moment.
In Sabina, we didn’t go to any sagras, although I saw signs for a steak sagra. But the whole week felt like a sagra —especially the evening we ate homemade pasta with a simple mushroom and minced veal sauce. The father of the girl who’d been cooking for us made it, and everyone was mesmerized by his confident know-how, as he carved the dough into characteristic strozzapreti. The outcome was melt-in-your-mouth goodness.
The only meal that was unlike the others — and unlike a sagra — was at a new restaurant with a spectacular hillside view. They specialized in nouveau cuisine that seemed more French than Italian. While everyone else oohed and ahhed over appetizers like zucchini mint macarons, eggplant in phyllo and pumpkin puree with prune sauce, I welcomed the most familiar item on the plate: a triangular piece of cacciocavallo, a simple and pungent cheese that’s a staple in the region. It smells of the earth, and stared up at me like an old friend.
At the end of the week, I wrote a poem about cacciocavallo —an ode, not just to the cheese, but also to a way of life that resists big-city pressures and cosmopolitan ways. The Italy of my Sunday excursions. The Italy I come home to.