A must if you’re ever in the area in early May! The four weekend long Sagra del Carciofo just took place for the 47th consecutive year in the pineta (pine grove) outside of Riotorto. On approach, the smells already wafting through the pine grove from the grills at the sagra-grounds are intoxicating…
The true star of this event however is not grilled meat but the carciofo. The local variety is called the moretto (although they also grow the Sicilian Violetto in the area), and like most artichokes in Italy one eats the whole thing once the tough outer layer of leaves have been removed.
You know they mean business when the bins of both the shucked leaves as well as those full of artichokes yet to be cleaned have to be moved by a forklift.
So how many are consumed at the sagra each year? Well, it seems that this year is set to confirm the quantities of the last few years, reaching about 60,000 artichokes once again. The team of locals working the friggitoria (deep fry hut, in this case) says that they do not rotate jobs, everyone sticks to their given task for all four four-day weekends. (Respect to the 6 person team that cleans carciofi for 4-5 hours every night!)
The signora in charge of deftly flouring the quartered carciofi before they are fried says she enjoys the fun of being together on the weekends during the sagra and making the artichokes buoni e leggeri. (Lit. tasty yet lightly fried.)
The usual sagra procedure plays out. First you take a number and then you look over the “menu” to select your dinner. People chat with friends and maybe pay a visit to the various stalls, such as the one selling artichokes (what else?!), as they wait for their number to appear on the display. By this point you are already hungry and anticipating the feast…
Once your number comes up, you give your order and pay for it at the cassa, and you get a printed sheet of your order in return which you then take to the food tents/marquis. Hand the sheet to one of the children food runners and tell them the table number where you’ve found a place to sit and off they go… You are now half-mad from the intoxicating smells, and feel deep kinship with Pavlov’s dogs and the “torture” to which they were subjected in the name of science.
Eventually your teenage runner (it feels like it has taken so long that you swear they have grown in the meantime) comes to your table with your order… in this case, a trionfo di carciofi (an artichoke triumphal procession). Lasagne ai carciofi, followed by the above-mentioned carciofi fritti (the signora knows what she’s doing!) as well as carciofi trifolati (sauteed in olive oil, garlic and parsley). Side of ribs?
You now can’t help oohing and aahing as you finally enjoy the feast, sharing impressions and comments about the various dishes with the other parties at your long table with whom you are basically now family, having bonded during the whole starving/anticipation process.
During your meal, the band has in the meantime likely started with some of the warm up Italian ballroom dancing classics. Sated sagra goers eventually work they way over to the bandstand, and once a critical mass is reached, young and elderly alike work off their carciofo dinner to line dances, polkas, and mambos.
One last touch, per digerire (lit. to digest) is a caffe’ and/or an amaro… in this case what else but Cynar, an artichoke-based after-dinner liqueur.