Sagra Sisters #2: Portrait of a Porchetta
Aurelia and I, in our endless pursuit to deliver Sagra perfection to you, our dear readers, decided last week that we should look for the most authentic Sagra we could find. But wait, aren't they all 'authentic'? What does 'authentic' even mean anymore? Well yes, there is that false pursuit of authenticity that we here at ViaMedina are always grappling with. But in Sagra speak, there is something to it.
The thing about a Sagra is that ideally they should be a celebration of a local product and tradition that is typical and indeed intimately connected to the history and collective experience of a town. Often a Sagra is a celebration of a particular food that helped a community to survive a particularly difficult time period or event, such as the Fried Cauliflower Sagra that happens every January in Tuscania. That particular celebration marks the aftermath of the 1971 earthquake that destroyed a large part of the old town and left much of the area in ruins. A communal pot was erected and, as it was one of the main crops found during those lean winter months, cauliflower was fried for people. For countless reasons like these, Sagre are meant to celebrate something that the town has lived through and survived together.
However some Sagre do wind up in towns somewhat without a collectively recognized foundation, and are thus thought to be less 'authentic'. For instance, there may often be Sagre listed that celebrate a particular fish while the town in question is in fact far from any body of water. There may also be those who celebrate a particular delicacy that hasn't actually appeared in the town at all, or has done so only in the very recent past. None of these things are 'wrong' per se, but if the Sagre doesn't have that connection to a lived moment that people somehow remember it feels a bit more like a marketplace, and less like a celebration.
In this spirit and with the Sagra season in full swing, we decided upon the Sagra della Porchetta in Vallerano, a tiny town perched high in the Cimini mountains near Viterbo. Porchetta, the slow roasted, stuffed pork dish is iconic in Lazio and one of the great traditional plates in the cucina povera. Great right? Except for one thing.
I can't eat pork, not even a little of it.
I'll spare the story but I haven't had pork in over 10 years because of a bug I caught in Nicaragua after eating some affected (yet delicious) pork. Since then, any time I try it the results are devastating; doctors have called it an 'intolerance', I mostly call it the very most inconvenient thing a person living in Italy could bring with them. But we are nothing if not intrepid, so we said Onward! and with great haste we made our way towards the hills of Vallerano. Aurelia would be the sacrificial Sagra Sister and would eat the porchetta for both of us (a terrible hardship for her, as you pork lovers can well imagine).
Having learned from our previous Sagra experience, we went to Vallerano on Sunday evening rather than during the daytime, knowing that particularly during these scorching summer days not even the pork wants to roast in that sun. We got there as that wicked sun was beginning its sleepy descent and the 2,500 people of Vallerano were slowly making their way into the less harsh light of the evening. Its a lovely thing, the Sagra, I really cannot stress that enough; watching a town of any size rally around home-made tables heavy with home-made food and drink is a unique sight. We sat around the tables like we were at a family picnic, and watched children running back and forth across an empty concrete dance floor while a karaoke machine started peddling out its first chords.
Luckily for me, the Sagra was not only in celebration of porchetta but also featured a menu full of other “prodotti tipici” or local products. These mostly consisted of various things deeply fried: fried vegetables, fried bread, fried dough all serving as reminders that in an area so remote from a region that was historically so poor, making every little thing count was (and remains) the name of the game.
The wine was also made locally and had that particular taste that we've come to know when finding ourselves in these situations; if you close your eyes for the first moment, it almost seems like tequila. Not sure if that's a ringing endorsement...
But it was after all, the Sagra della Porchetta- so how was the blessed meat? Served in panini as it often is during festivals, Aurelia said it was more tender than the Roman version and in her opinion, preferable. The lines for the porchetta were a testimony to its popularity and Aurelia was a very big fan of the result.
We also picked up a panini for Mark, who was working in the restaurant that night and while we were 40 minutes late in picking him up from the farm, we did at least have a delectable sandwich with which to repent. Why were we so late, you ask? Because Vallerano is not far from Vasanello, where Aurelia swears she's found the best gelato in the area. Challenge accepted, you say? I smell an investigative report coming!