Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Food Fests

 On Sunday we made our way down to Agropoli's Sports complex for the Agropoli International Street Food Festival, organized by 'Buongiorno Italia', a quasi-government agency that promotes all things Italian, especially food, throughout Italy and in various cities around Europe.

   The festival was originally scheduled for August 26-28 but was postponed to show solidarity with the victims of that terrible earthquake.  The event was organized in three sections, one for truck foods (it seems that truck food eateries are increasingly popular in Italy too), one for traditional Italian foods, and one for international foods.  There was also a section for beverages, featuring a number of craft brewers, another trend which is popular here, though hardly as much so as in the U.S.

    Fall is the time for such festivals in Italy, and they usually revolve around food.  The traditional form, an outgrowth of the Medieval fairs, is the sagra, a festival that celebrates some traditional food or craft that is associated with a town or region.  There are literally thousands of sagre in the Fall all over Italy.  A quick check on the internet for just our local festivals reveals a Sagra of the Wild Boar in Sasso Cilento, one for the Cornish hen in Prignano, one for antique pizza in Giungano along with two other local towns, another for artisan pasta in Omignano, and one for the local Zeppoli in Rutino.  Zeppoli are Italian donuts, but they take dozens of different shapes.  Our local ones tend to look more like funnel cakes and are made in much the same way and often even sprinkled with powdered sugar.  There are also feasts for figs, especially the white figs famous in the area, for buffalo products, no doubt especially mozzarella di bufala, one for onions, another for grilled meat, two for wine, others for eggplants, potatoes, plum tomatoes, bread, beef products, and pasta, including one in the little town of Felitto which we visited last year (and almost starved) for the particular form of fusilli that was allegedly invented there.  There's one at San Mango for sfriunzolo, a dialect word which refers to a dish with pork products and peppers which coincides with pig butchering.  Based on my hick upbringing I'd speculate that the pork products involved will be organ meats, the most perishable of pork products; down home the locals made a virtue of necessity and fed the hearts, kidneys, spleen, and such to their neighbors who helped with the slaughter and turned the event into a real feast.

    There are other sagre for bocconcini, the little 'mouthful' sized mozzes that we love so much on pizza, for fish, and for anchovies specifically.  Then there are the towns which just cut to the chase and celebrate whole categories of food, like Trentinara, which celebrates bread, and my favorite, Pattano, which celebrates FOOD!

    Italians have a wonderful talent for celebrating life, and you will notice that most of the sagre celebrate humble peasant food and not haute cuisine. Good, simple food and the solidarity of close friends and family have sustained the locals in this economically disadvantaged part of Italy for centuries.  With good food and friends, the party is ON!

     Truth be told, this festival was a bit disappointing.  I'm afraid many of the participants had other commitments, or else they knew that the tourist season in Agropoli was over precisely at midnight on August 31, and looked for greener pastures.  In any case, the food segment of the festival (there was also the inevitable carnival) had basically been collapsed into one zone, a large parking lot around the perimeter of which were food and beer stands of every sort and in the middle of which were numerous picnic tables for the diners.  There was a DJ up front playing mostly electronic music, too loud, as in most of Italy, but not obnoxiously so.
The fried seafood stand

Sandy's anchovies, shrimp, calamari and 'zeppoli'.

Stirring the pot


We scanned all the food vendors, then Sandy settled on an assortment of deep-fried seafood and a soda, and I went for a dish of paella and a beer.  Sandy's dish contained fried calamari, anchovies (the real ones, fried and eaten whole, not the little fillets you get in the tin), shrimp, and the Italian version of hushpuppies.  The stand consisted of a series of deep-fat fryers being manned by several burly Italian men, periodically dumping various sea critters out on a draining board and loading up with more.  Meanwhile a squirrelly little ragazzo ferried the hot food over to deep chafing dishes and doled it out into paper cones and aluminum trays.

      My paella was being cooked in a huge paella pan, easily 5' in diameter, and consisted of shrimp, mussels, calamari and what purported to be lobster but was in fact lumps of that artificial crab meat you find at the grocery.  The rice was a brilliant yellow, artificially colored, I'd wager; no way they could afford enough saffron to color at least 50 pounds of rice such a brilliant hue.  Little fresh peas set off the color nicely with their bright green flecks.  Not great, but not half bad.

     One stand was selling all sorts of fritture, 'deep-fried foods', which seems to be a theme in fairs the world over.  Another stand served pork ribs which we saw being barbecued on a huge wood-fired grill in the shape of a flattop.  Elsewhere juicy portions of pork were being cooked on a large circular grill suspended by chains over a red-hot tray of embers and swung around in looping circles by a grill man who periodically turned the meat and moved it from hot spots to a cooler spot.  Further along there was a strange little food truck with a long row of skewered meats attached to rotating spindles.  The meat looked like thick bacon cut into squares of about 1/2" and threaded onto bamboo skewers and slowly rotated before a tray of embers.  Beside this was a variation on curly fries, a clever little device which cut potatoes into a long spiral.  These were threaded onto large spits, about 2' long, and the whole inverted into deep fryers and cooked to a golden hue and quickly salted.  A sort of continuous potato chip, as it were.

Fritture, including seafood and veggies

Mixed grill, fair style

And here's the grillmaster

Italian kebabs

A new kind of curly fries

     Another stand had various Italian specialties, including a huge selection of arancini, 'oranges', not really oranges at all but balls of cooked rice wrapped around a variety of fillings such as cheese, meat sauce, or peas, then dipped in an egg wash and covered in bread crumbs and deep fried.  The same stand sold a selection of Italian dolci, sweets, the most beautiful of which were various brightly colored candied fruits.

Pizzette and arancini

Beautiful cannoli

Candied fruits

And lots of biscotti

    The piece de resistance was the stand which purported to serve American barbecue and 'hamburg' with cheese, cooked in the Italian way, whatever that means.  The barbecued pork smelled delicious, but was sliced thin like beef barbecue (harumph!) and served on huge buns topped with lettuce and with french fries on the side.  Customers were offered little packets of barbecue sauce, the kind you get at Arby's, and mustard.  Elsewhere a ragazzo was tending huge slabs of ground beef on two large charcoal grills and the sign claimed that these were 8 ounces each.  I suspect few Italians have a clue what a half pound is, since everything's metric here, but they appeared to be just that and were served on equally humongous buns.

"American skills, Italian style

    Apparently the thing which makes food 'American' to the Italian mind is the fact that it is served in such ridiculously large portions.  Sadly, based on my experience with American 'Italian' restaurants, there is a great deal of truth in that stereotype.

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