Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Sagra della Zuppa di Aquilea

I should go more often to Italian Sagras, those beautiful village food festivals named after a dish that makes the place proud of it. The ones I visit are generally well away from home so we can make a good family day out but because of its vicinity, I didn’t put very much energy in trying to visit the Sagra della Zuppa di Aquilea. 
In fact for the last eleven years I have been driving near Aquilea, have seen the boards advertising the dates of their sagra, have promised myself that as soon as I get home I would write the dates down in my diary and have punctually forgotten to do it. Yet a chap I know, Luca, who often works in Aquilea, stated that if I really wanted to know what a good Tuscan soup is I must experience the Sagra.

As the Sagra happens in the heat of the summer for three consecutive weekends, while I was mulling over it I managed to miss another chance to go. Finally this year, during the winter to be precise, I decide to repeat the mantra “This year I must go to Aquilea”, so when I saw the boards at the cross roads advertising the dates I found that I had developed a compulsive urge to be there. I nearly missed another opportunity, through no fault of my own this time but managed to be there on the last weekend.

Aquilea is a small village surrounded by olive groves in the hills north of Lucca, just 20 minutes drive from the city walls up a narrow very windy road. Being aware that Sagras can attract large crowds of visitors we made our way to the hills well in advance, in fact we managed to park the car without problems and headed for the Sagra at a slow amble. 

A menu, I don’t know how, materialized in my hands, so we marked our desiderata, then I proceeded to the paying point which had just opened and placed the order: Zuppa, gnocchi al ragù, grilled local  sausages and chips, pasta fritta (deep fried bread dough) and local white wine. The area was not yet crowded so we could chose our seats in peace. Now I could go to the counter to collect the food. In the meantime a queue was gradually building up at the till. The relaxed family atmosphere nearly obliterated my main reason to be there: to test the famous zuppa! I was not disappointed. It was the best Tuscan soup I had ever had.

I tried to work out all the ingredients that made this soup a notch above the average. Tuscan soup is a fairly wide term and there are many variations on a base of beans and greens. My conjectures for this little gastronomic marvel was: dark beans, cavolo nero, potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, marjoram, bread, olive oil naturally and some mysterious wild herbs, which were no doubt collected locally, that gave the soup its unique personality. I now want to make friends with a local who can divulge the unique recipe.

We had gnocchi al ragù. Again a superb dish beautifully cooked. The ragù was a very luscious sauce and the gnocchi were freshly made. We were honestly astonished by the caliber of the cooking and the quality of the ingredients. It was a like a top restaurant. The sausages were good and enjoyable, the pasta fritta I just love it but the primos were above all. The chilled white wine was fine, “honest” I would define it.

The air was cooling down and the tables were filling up with people. We stayed for a while then decided to have a walk to burn the calories. The sun went quietly to sleep so we headed to the car park while the buzz slowly faded away.

Next year I’m sure I won’t miss it, to be honest I will my best to attend all three weekends!  

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