Sagra in Salento
Hannah Murphy gives us a taste of Southern Italy…
Italians may well be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italian unification this year, and yet I see very little of the cosmopolitan North of Italy here in Salento, the baking heel of the boot.
Tonight the streets of the small town of Otranto are teeming with all ages, though it must be as late as 11pm. We are here for a sagra, a typical Italian festival or fair which normally centres around gastronomy. Each region has its own specific locally produced food or wine. It then follows that local sagre will be hosted in order to celebrate these delicacies – another testament to the colourful variety between regions which is both Italy’s blessing and its curse.
I arrive to fumes of sage and garlic wafting over the piazza. At a table nearby, there is a line of robust women with bare hands kneading dough in a bed of flour, perspiration glistening on their foreheads in the evening heat. Wherever I stand, I seem to be in a lively queue, as the stalls dish out steaming plates of the finest wild boar in Pugliese cuisine to greedy hands. Nestled in among the whitewashed buildings, the older generation line the streets on stools, smoking and watching the ebb and flow of youth as they make their giro, or casual wanderings. “I’m afraid to drive in this town,” claims one Italian friend. “Often, they sit quite literally in the middle of the road!”
Up on a small stage, an upbeat band with tamburelli, flutes and guitars begins to play and suddenly small circles are forming in the middle of the throng to create space for brave, slightly tipsy dancers. The beat is powerful and driving as they circle one another, arms outstretched. They are doing the pizzica, an Italian folk dance, in which women with bare feet and bustling gypsy skirts indulge in a seductive game of cat and mouse with male partners. The music is linked to the healing of the bite of the taranta, the legendary spider of the South, which was said to target workers in the fields during harvest. Swirling until I become dizzy, I enter into a bygone era of feasting and ritualistic dancing.
When the evening begins to die down, I wonder if and when the South, somewhat neglected and in many ways considered backwards when compared to an affluent North, will strive to catch up. My best answer is offered by a local musician: “Men don’t feel like starting a revolution when they have a full stomach. And down here we always have a full stomach.”