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The Uber-Sagra: La Festa della Cipolla (Cannara)

If I only had one summer left to live and had to choose a single last sagra to attend, (Yes, I realize it’s an unlikely scenario.  Humor me.) I would choose Cannara’s over-the-top-out-of-control-mother-of-all-sagras Festa della Cipolla at the beginning of September.  Hands down.

There's a big sign. Just in case the smell of cooking onions doesn't clue you in.

This year I went on a Saturday night at 8 pm.  If there is a night that one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s Saturday night.  If there’s a time one should not attempt to eat at the Onion Festival, it’s 8 pm.  But there are days—stretches of days, sometimes—out here in the Umbrian hills during which I do not see another human being who is not a blood relation, so I get a little starved for human contact.  And if there is a place to be in Umbria if you are looking for human contact, that place is the sagra in Cannara on a Saturday night at 8 pm.

As I parked my car (so far away that the guys directing traffic spoke with Roman accents), I thought Wouldn’t it be funny to say in my blog that despite parking roughly 25 kilometers from the sagra, the smell of cooking onion hit me as soon as I opened my car door for comic effect. Then I opened my car door, and the smell of cooking onion hit me.  These folks are serious about onion, and their onion gravitas stays with you for days.  I speak from experience.

This is what I'm talking about.

The reason I love the onion festival so (aside from the fact that it is one of the few sagre where a vegetarian can eat to her little piggy heart’s content) it that it embodies the essence of all that a sagra should be:

History

At a time where sagre are multiplying like mushrooms, and disappearing with the same speed, La Festa della Cipolla is in its 30th year and still going strong.  From a tiny little block party-esque communal dinner, this annual event now feeds around 60,000 people during its two week run.  Just to put that in perspective, keep in mind that the population of the entire region of Umbria hovers around 900,000.  This festa has put Cannara on the map, and it’s fun to be a part of it.

Sorry this picture is a little blurry. I was being jostled by roughly ten percent of the population of Umbria.

Tradition

Nothing bugs me more than these young whippersnapper sagre serving foods that have absolutely no cultural value whatsoever.  The Beer Sagra.  The Nutella Sagra.  The Seafood Sagra.  In Cannara, the main food celebrated is a genuine local delicacy.  Cannara’s red, yellow, and flat onions are unique to this area (their flavor influenced by the type and humidity of Cannara’s marshy soil) and have been noted by Slow Food and various famous chefs.

Onions. Consume them on site, or purchase for home. Either way, you'll be sleeping alone.

How much of the real stuff is actually used in the menu is debatable (that would be a heck of a lot of onions to serve 60,000 people for a tiny area like Cannara), but you can buy rustic braids of onions from the stands set up along the streets of the town and taste them for yourself.

The onions go like hotcakes.

Community

I love a sagra where I get the feeling everyone and their brother (and sister, mother, father, cousin, and car mechanic) is involved…and that is definitely the vibe for two weeks in Cannara every fall.  There are six “stands” set up in various courtyards and squares in the town–by stands, they mean entire piazzas crowded with long tables and benches under canvas tents—which can serve a total of 2,500 people at a sitting.  Given that Cannara is home to less than 4,000 residents, to keep an event going of that size–between the planning, cooking, serving, cleaning, organizing, and entertaining—it’s pretty much a whole town affair.  And then some.

The stands are hopping on a Saturday night. Or any night, for that matter.

Venue

At one end of the spectrum, there are sagre set up underneath anonymous tents in the middle of some wheatfield, then come the ones set up in a gravel and concrete paved community park, then come the ones which are in the main piazza of a town, then comes Cannara, where the town and festa exist in perfect symbiosis.  Every courtyard is occupied with tables, the streets are crowded with booths hawking wares, the larger squares have main stages set up with band playing music or clowns entertaining the kids, local shops are open until after midnight.  This is Cannara’s moment to shine, and it goes all out.

Onions, spices, mushrooming baskets, art, crafts, disco lights, jewelry, antiques, pet rocks. I saw them all on sale in Cannara.

Food

There are doubtless naysayers who do not love the Onion Festival.  It’s crowded (though if you hit it at 7:00ish on a weeknight the crowds are much more manageable), overblown (lots of people attend the festival.  See above.), overpriced (expect to pay pretty much trattoria prices for your food), slow (hey, they’ve only got 4,000 people working there) and leaves you gassy (no denying that).  But the food is delicious.  Some stands are better than others (for the record, I’m a Giardino Fiorito abituè), some years are better than others.  But I have never been disappointed by my dinner, and that’s a big plug for a meal that is being prepared inside camp kitchens by volunteers.  Don’t miss the onion desserts.  I’m not kidding.

Il Giardino Fiorito is the oldest stand and housed in the cloister of an ex-convent. It is also my stand of choice.

If you have a rare onion intollerance and have to choose just one thing to eat, get the onion pizza. Trust me.

La Festa della Cipolla is held the first two weeks of September every year in Cannara.  For a complete program, list of stands and their menus, and map please see their official website.

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