Sezze Artichoke Festival

Sagra di Carciofi Sezze, 18th April, 2010

Just under an hour by train south of Rome, Sezze (MAP) is a solitary hilltop town set on the highest point of a ridge surrounded by fertile plains which are home to a vast number of artichoke fields. Nestled in amongst the modern town is the historic centre with its long, narrow and tangled streets. It’s a typical or rather stereotypical old Italian town with cobble stoned paving, stone buildings and old, grey haired ladies peering out through doorways at all the curious visitors roaming the streets on days like this one when it hosts the Sagra of the local Artichoke.

This sagra was held on Sunday, 18th of April on the same weekend as the festival in Ladispoli. If you have to choose between the two, I would absolutely recommend this one as it was all about the artichoke and nothing else. On the day the streets are lined with stalls selling cute little handy crafts or artisanal foods like salami and cheeses. Some stalls promote and sell the local artichoke called carciofo setina or, as the locals say, carciofolo sezzese.

Fried artichokes served in cute conical containers.

Most people who come to town on this day come specifically to try the artichokes which can be had at any of the town’s restaurants, each with a full menu of artichoke dishes on offer. Each restaurant also sets up temporary stalls outside on the street, which were definitely more fun, preparing the traditional local artichoke recipes; the carciofo fritto (battered and fried) and alla Matticella, which they roast with a few simple ingredients used as a minimal stuffing. In a later post I will discuss the authentic Matticella recipe carried out at another sagra in Velletri because here at Sezze, they do a slight variation on the original but still call it Matticella.

The Sezze version of the Matticella.

This felt like a true sagra as it was an authentic celebration of the locally produced artichoke, which the locals are extremely proud of and each boasts that their’s is the best artichoke in town. Even though these events can be lucrative for the local restaurants, it seemed that in Sezze they were more concerned to put on a fun event which focuses on great food and good times. It didn’t really matter which stall you ate at because you were guaranteed a great meal and usually your choice of place to eat was determined by where you could find a free space to sit.

Just one of the dining piazzas.

Continuing to explore the town I came across piazza after piazza where more people were somehow engaged with different artichoke preparations. In Piazza D’erbe one lady was serving her fantastically simple artichoke cream, which she spread onto bruschetta.

Creamy and tasty bruschetta.

Right next to her was another lady who had a top-secret recipe for marinated baby artichokes (I think her trick was to use less vinegar than normal).

Classified, TOP SECRET

And just alongside her was the enterprising local cultural association that used artichokes leaves, which would usually go to waste, to make a mild digestive alcoholic drink. It is a little like Cynar but without the intensity of a high alcoholic content and much subtler in terms of herbaceousness.

Even the local theatre group, ACTA Teatro, performed a rather elaborate and entertaining piece called PIAZZA D”ERBE telling of  bureaucratic dramas the local artichoke sellers experienced, in that very same Piazza they performed in, generations ago with a little romantic subplot thrown in too.

Performers in local artichoke sellers drama.

Enter the love interest.

Most of the locals were out and about and getting into being part of the main celebration of their year. The history of the Carciofolo sezzese is taken quite seriously in this town and you could ask any of the locals about them and count on there being some connection to growing or selling the vegetable somewhere within the family as it has been a major part of the the town’s economy for over a century. I met nonna Giuseppina whose grandchildren were performing in the play and who willingly shared her recipe for Carciofi alla Matticella with me. Everyone tells you a slightly different way to make it but it is really simple. It’s the perfect kind of event to come with friends or family as the visitors I saw on this day all enjoyed plenty of food and wine over a long and festive lunch in good company and in a beautiful picturesque town.

Nonna Giuseppina who gave me a few tips on her recipe for Matticalla

Alla Matticella of Sezze

Method

Make a mixture of chopped fresh garlic, mentuccia (calamint), pancetta and salt.

Trim the stem of the artichoke and wash out between the leaves with running water.

Remove a few of the outer leaves but not too many.

Gently spread the leaves away from the artichoke without snapping them off.

Put a little of the mixture between some of the leaves but stuff it mainly into the middle of the artichoke.

Pour some extra virgin olive oil into the artichoke.

Place all your artichokes in a baking tray with some oive oil and a little water and bake at 200 degrees C for about 40 minutes, occasionally rolling them over.

All the outer leaves will be too dry and roasted to eat but peel away one leaf at a time, stripping off a little of the flesh at the base with your teeth.

Work your way to the heart and as you do it will get tastier and tastier with the preence of the suffing.

Truly finger linking good.

Matticella on the right, Fritto on the left and the local version of Giudia in the centre.

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