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A culinary folk festival: the 'SAGRA'

As you drive through our beautiful Tuscany, during the summer months of July and August, you can see one of the colorful posters announcing all the sites of one of the many Sagras.

Sagra in der Toskana

Click on the photo to see a very short video.

The Origins of the Sagra

If you drive through our beautiful Tuscany, it can happen, especially in the summer months of July and August, that your eyes fall on one of the colorful posters that announce in many places one of the numerous Sagras. There are the sagra della pizza, the sagra del coniglio fritto, the sagra della bistecca, once in the Ferruzza district in Fucecchio in June and then in the village of Galleno in August. There is also the sagra of the polenta (Polenda a Palle) and the sagra della zuppa (bread soup) in nearby Massarella... There is indeed a Sagra for every taste! But what exactly is a Sagra and where does this word come from?

The word "SAGRA" comes from Latin ("sacrum") and means "holy". So it is connected to the blessing (or consecration) of a particular place or a specific cult object. This also explains why there is often a religious program with different fairs and a procession in the course of a sagra. Today, Sagra is a small village festival or a small folk festival in a neighborhood dedicated to a particular culinary specialty (more on that later). I must admit that personally the gastronomic part was always more important to me than the religious one. For example, in the Sagra della Polenta a Palle, there is a small calendar of rosary prayers, services, pilgrimages and processions, but with a much larger calendar of social events! There is a proper calendar of these musical evenings and judging by the extent of these events, they seem to be very popular. I must admit that I have often participated in musical evenings, but never before in religious ceremonies... Toskana Sagra der Kugelpolenta

The calendar with rosary prayers, services, pilgrimages and processions of the Sagra della Polenda a Palle

Many of these Sagras were born in the 1970s. I think they were mainly created to meet up with locals and friends. At that time, going on holiday was not for everyone, but towns and cities "closed down". In August it was quite possible in Italy that the "CLOSED" sign was hanging everywhere: in one place all the espresso bar, all restaurants and even the grocery stores were closed. So there was no place to meet and there was no way for the older persons to sweeten up August. After all, we all like to go out for dinner in the evening. Still today, going out is a small luxury, a way to treat yourself. Therefore, I am convinced (of course, lacking any scientific basis) that many Sagras were created solely because people wanted to meet each other. After the heat of the day, you could enjoy the slightly cooler evening and enjoy a meal and a drink in the company of your fellow neighours.

How does a Sagra work (3 Ways)?

Normally, these Sagras are organized in a very simple and unpretentious way, so no-frills (to put it mildly). In this post, you will read something that is not usual for me. I strongly recommend something that does not take place in Fucecchio, but somewhere else, the Sagra in Spianate, a part of Altopascio.  

The Classic Way

Most Sagras are based on a rather cumbersome system that requires a certain degree of personal initiative and dedication. It usually happens that the time you spend queing or wandering around the dining area in search of a fork or a wine glass is longer than the time you spend having a good time on a beautiful evening with his your friends. Right at the beginning you have to go to the cashier to order and pay for anything you want. So you have to decide immediately, before you are seated, which appetizer you want, which main course, which of the special dishes this particular Sagra is dedicated to and even, foresee if you will still have room for a dessert. So it 's all about queuing, a lot of confusion, undecided persons hesitating to make up their minds that stop the whole queue and a lot of kids whining impatiently and jumping around and getting lost every now and then... When you place an order, you will be given different colored pieces of paper. Once you (well about time!) have these in your hands, you have to start queing again for the drinks and then once again for the appetizers (provided you can see the correct color of the corresponding queue in low light conditions!). Now you have to juggle holding the drinks and food in your hands through the crowd (always hoping that, in the meantime, the provision for what you ordered has not run out and you have to order from scratch again) and look for a seat. If you are lucky, you might have a friend who "has a seat" for you. Poor thing, he spend the whole evening telling people who wanted to sit next to him on the bench. "I am sorry, this place is taken, occupato". All this because you can not reserve seats in advance at this kind of Sagra. And of course, once you're done with the appetizer, you have to get up and get the next course! The service staff that clears the tables is very young people (sometimes really too young!). Who are once more, once less motivated. Often the sanitary facilities here consist only of portable restrooms. I try to avoid this kind of sagras as much as possible. For me, an evening spent going out to dinner means something special and I have no wishes to come home totally exhausted and in a bad mood! An English couple, who stayed at La Scuola di Furio with their little daughter of 14 months, tried to have dinner on the Sagra della Bistecca in Galleno in August, on my recommendation. They went there, parked, took their child to the venue but were confused and deterred by the organization there and they quickly had to change their plans. Unfortunately, it is still common in many places to organize a sagra this way.

The Modern Way

A real improvement in terms of the process described above is the method used, for example, in June at the Sagra della Bistecca in the Ferruzza district in Fucecchio. You order and pay as ever at the cashier at the entrance, but then you take place at your tables and all the food and drinks are served by the staff. But what happens when you are suddenly hungry and decide to order something else? Then you have to get up again, queue, pay and then sit down again.

The Spianate Way           

There is the possibility to pre-book a table (depending on the number of people you get a table per reservation) or you stand in line at the entrance and wait for a free table. Here at the entrance hangs a huge sign showing the menu of the evening and a calendar showing the specialty of the day. Then a person of the staff takes you to your table. After a short while, a smiling young man or woman comes to take the order. If you do not know about the menu yet, you will get it orally again. This may of course be difficult for foreign guests and I therefore recommend that guests who do not speak Italian take a look at the menu hanging in the entrance area and decide there. So you order something (which you can also do gradually), get the order, you can taste it, you ask for the bill and you pay. Everything from the table. Which is very comfortable and relaxing! In my opinion, this is the best way to have a nice evening with your family or friends.  

La Sagra della Polenda a Palle (boiled cornmeal)

In Italian, the word is usually written with T, polenTa. Here in Tuscany, however, the T sometimes becomes a D, so here we have polenDa. In the summer of 2018, this Sagra was held for the 40th time. Therefore, this event has been in Spianate since 1978 and is always very busy. It is really a great place to eat! followinf its great success, it has been held in a very large marquee for several years now. The kitchen is in a brick building and everything is well equipped. This marquee is only used for the Sagra della Polenda a Palle and the sanitary facilities are also located in a well-lit building. Spianate is a rather small part but very lively of Altopascio. The Sagra della Polenda a Palle offers entertainment for both adults and kids alike. In front of the main tent there is a carousel for toddlers, a few booths where you can fish plastic swans or shoot at tin cans, a stall with sweets and a few stalls selling all sorts of trinkets. Next to the entrance there is also a small fencing with a guinea pig. In the guinea pig game, it has to find its home among different small houses, each marked with a different number. If you buy the lot with the correct number for 1, - Euro, you can win a salami, a ham or a 5 liter olive oil can. the daughter of my friend Simona, Ludovica, actually won a ham when we were there for the first time this year!

Schinken Polenta a Palle

My friends and me. And the ham Ludovica won!!!

There is also a take-away option if you prefer to eat at home or do not like to stand in line at the entrance. You just order and take the different dishes home with you. On the right is the stage for the orchestra, because music is an vital part of every sagra. As mentioned earlier, there is a calendar of events announcing the various artists. Sometimes these groups are unknown to the general public. But there are also bands of music who have a large fan base, so I expect to find huge crowds on evenings when they perform. These fans follow their favorite band throughout their summer tour in the many Sagras around Tuscany. To the left of the small orchestra stage and the dance floor is the marquee, where the Sagra della Polenda a Palle is held. You queue in front of a man at the entrance. He has a board with the tables set up and will take care of assigning the guests a suitable place. Or you can book a table in advance via Facebook or by phone (a very convenient service). I always recommend reserving in advance as it will save you a long wait. Another advice, which I always like to give, is not to come in too large groups, because the marquee is quite loud already. My advice is that there should not be more than 6 to 8 people. As mentioned, the menu is at the entrance and announces the dish of the day. Thus, apart from the dishes of the classic menu, which are always available, there is also a special dish that is only offered on that evening. The listed prices are very cheap, of course this is not a real restaurant. It is indeed a small luxury that families can afford every night. In 2018 I ate there about 6 out of 18 evenings the Sagra della Polenda a Palle was held, and I have always enjoyed it very much. I tried something different every time. For example, the pizza was delicious and I especially liked the polenta with wild boar goulash that I enjoyed twice on different evenings. I do not really like the polenta with baccalà, because I think it's about codfish, which I do not particularly like.  

Die Polenta mit Baccalà mochte ich nicht so sehr...

The Polenta con Baccalà is not my favourite dish...

Usually my dog Napo comes with me at Sagra della Polenda a Palle and this means I can't watch the dancers hitting the dance floor. Early in the evening, usually when we are having dinner, there is the soundcheck and shortly afterwards the music starts. The band begins to play and the dancers put a sole on the floor. There are dancers of all kinds. There are couples who have obviously attended one or more dance classes and are now anxious to finally show what they have learned in the dance school during the winter months. There are women who dance with their grandchildren, there are women dancing with a girlfriend because of lack of men, and even women who dance all by themselves, which is really great!

How to arrive at Sagra della Polenda a Palle

Coming from Fucecchio (just over 10 Km, about 12 minutes by car from La Scuola di Furio), you will usually find a parking spot on Viale Mazzei, which goes right through the village. At the weekends, a small part of the street is closed as it is filled with stalls selling sweets, jewelry and clothes. That's why you have to park closer to the cemetery, at the other end of the road. But those of you used to the lack of parking in the city will have no problems in the small village of Spianate!

Sagra VS Restaurant

In the past, there were already Sagras, which had dishes that have nothing to do with this region (very curious, for example, I find the "Sagra della Paella e della Sangria" in Buti, in the province of Pisa ). Some of these events were run by operators who were actually proper restaurants and lasted MONTHS. These "sort of" Sagras became so popular at some point that they provoked the protests of the regular restaurant owners, who saw unfair competition. They claimed that too many different dishes are offered on a Sagra and the sagra restaurants do not have to adhere to the strict hygiene guidelines and controls of traditional catering establishments.

In November 2018, the Provincial Government of the Tuscany Region introduced a number of changes to the new Commercial Code, which set out the exact rules that a Sagra must adhere to in terms of:

- DEFINITION: A Sagra is "an event that aims to promote regional oenological-gastronomic traditions and regionally typical foods" and, as such, can only be "run by the organizations themselves". Their income may be used in accordance with the regulations "only for the purposes stated in the statute of the association that operates them". In addition, celebrations may no longer call "Sagra", if they do not advertise any of the approximately 90 food products certified Dop, Doc, Igp in the region, or any of the 470 foods listed in the Typical Tuscan food archive.

- DURATION: Sagras have to last a maximum of 10 days. Sagras organized by political, trade union, sporting, religious or social associations or the local Pro Loco clubs, which intends to invest the proceeds in charitable activities, may last longer than 10 days (for example, the Sagra della Polenda a Palle is organized by a Blood Donation organization called Fratres, brothers in Latin). But the Festes organized by the Contradas (Tuscan neighborhood associations, such as the Contrada Ferruzza of the Palio di Fucecchio, which organizes the Sagra della Bistecca), cultural associations or private individuals will continue to exist. The Tuscan District Council states in this sense that: "Provided that their structures such as buildings and equipment are proper, they may continue to operate, but no longer define themselves as "Sagra" but only as "Feste". Just this. Otherwise, Authorities threatens to shut the event down.

- SAFETY: With hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors attending the events, the organizers must ensure their safety by providing adequate ambulance services that are proportionate with visitor numbers. They must also guarantee protection against possible attacks by vehicles by placing the appropriate concrete blocks to protect the venue (a measure resulting from the terrorist attack in Nice on the Promenade des Anglais).