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The Pedaso Cozze Festival

The Cozze Festival at Pedaso, August 2009
During August, every town in this part of Italy holds a sagra or festa.
Strictly speaking, a sagra is a fair and a festa a party, though in practice there seems to be little or no difference between a sagra and a festa. Every town’s sagra focuses on a particular type of food; one we are intrigued by but have never been to is Altidona whose food focus is polenta and snails, but the sagra we go to every year is at Pedaso, where the subject is mussels.
At Pedaso, the festival of mussels
2009 was the 43rd sagra of cozze (mussels) in Pedaso, which means that the first was held in 1956. Every year since then, during the few days leading up to and including ferragosto (15th August), Pedaso holds its sagra delle cozze; some of the streets are closed and the tennis courts and football pitch are dedicated to the sagra. You buy a ticket at a shed that serves as the ticket office; precisely what’s on offer varies a bit each year but this year you paid €6 for a bowl of mussels, and/or €7 for a bowl of spaghetti with a marinara (chopped seafood and tomato), sauce and a bread roll. Every year it’s a bowl of mussels, a bowl of spaghetti marinara, and a bread roll, it’s just the price bundle that periodically changes.
You buy you ticket, then queue for your tray of dinner
When you’ve got your ticket you take it to the food dispensing tent, where you exchange it for a cardboard tray on which is placed a plastic container perhaps 8 inches by 6, piled high with mussels; a similar plastic container full of spaghetti and sauce; a bread roll in a transparent sealed plastic bag – this is a good idea as the roll can roll off the tray – and a paper wallet containing a plastic knife and fork; a paper serviette; and a lemon-scented hand wipe in a sealed envelope.
The mussels cookers stir big vats in the serving tents
The mussels have been cooked by being tipped from sacks into large heated vats, stirred by a man with a paddle. The vats will contain a little water and some oil and herbs, and when the mussels have opened and are lifted out you get a fair amount of the juice in the bottom of your little container. The spaghetti is cooked al dente, somehow they manage this on the large quantities, and is mixed with the sauce in orange plastic washing-up bowls before being ladled out into portions. The bread roll is a typical Italian bread roll, of heavily-processed white unsalted flour, and with a good crackly crust; for some reason only Britain seems to insist on bread with rubbery crusts, which is a pity as the bread itself is often of good quality, just badly let down by the pathetic apology for a crust (why is there no popular uprising against this?).
And da bere (to drink)
To drink, this year it was plastic glasses of white wine for free, or rather bundled in with the cost of the food, and litre bottles of sparkling or still water for a euro each.
Next, find a spot at a table
You take your food to one of the trestle tables that are laid with white paper tablecloths that cover about four place settings and are surrounded by white plastic moulded chairs, and you sit down and eat your dinner, and talk with your friends.
For dessert, cocomero (watermelon)
After you’ve eaten the mussels and spaghetti, you can buy a large lump of watermelon (cocomero the Italian word) on a plastic plate, together with a plastic knife, for a euro a portion, and for a further euro if you want it an espresso coffee in a paper cup.
Efficient clearing of tables
When you’ve finished, a man comes round and shoves all your leftovers, trays and all, into a black plastic sack, and when you’ve got up and left he does the same with your paper tablecloth and replaces it with a fresh one, ready for the next customer.
Efficient functioning of the whole event, amazingly
And it all works, surprisingly efficiently; surprisingly because efficiency is not something that Italy is famous for, but even more surprisingly given the number of people eating at any one time. It’s hard to estimate exactly, it will be at least a thousand, probably two or three thousand, may even be as much as five. This is at any one time. Serving starts at 7.30pm and goes on until about 9 or 10, and for most of that time there are few spaces available for someone to sit down; people are found wandering about with their tray looking for a free seat. It’s not too bad if you are a couple, you can usually find somewhere, a foursome generally not too much problem, but six or upwards can be a real struggle and they often have to split up.
The old fashioned screwing of the system
Since the Italians tend to arrive in largish groups, this difficulty of finding adequate places together presents a problem, so what many of them do is to send someone to find a place, who then reserves the seats alongside by telling anyone who comes along that they are already taken. No one seems to start a fight by disputing or arguing with this, even though they themselves might be hard-pressed to find anywhere to sit.
The next difficulty arises on account of the queues. A couple of thousand people needing first to buy a ticket, and then to collect their dinner from the dispensing tent, will inevitably create a queue. For much of the evening this is an immense queue, which moves, slowly, slowly, but snakes for a hundred yards or more. So the trick of certain unscrupulous groups is to send one person to find and bag some seats, another to queue for the tickets, while the rest stand in the food queue, so that with any luck the person buying the tickets will be able to get to them before they reach the food serving counter and so hand them the tickets. This sometimes works, but often it takes longer to buy a ticket than to queue for food, so you find a gaggle of people waiting by the counter, saying to others behind them, who have followed the procedures in a more public-spirited fashion: please, you go ahead.
The queue-jumping and general overall uncertainty puts some people off going, but we find it all part of the general theatre. Also we try to get there reasonably early.
You walk on a bed of linolem
All this movement of people might be expected to churn up the football pitch and make a pretty muddy experience underfoot, so to overcome this they lay down a floor. This year it was a kind of springy grey linoleum-like vinyl, a bit like we have in one of our bathrooms at home though a lot more bouncy. It’s therefore simple to clean and presumably gets chucked away at the end of the four days, since there will undoubtedly be the odd cigarette burn-mark, though actually the number of people who smoke at the tables is surprisingly low – I’d estimate about one in twenty.
Ancillary entertainment
After having finished your dinner and bounced your way on the vinyl past the still-queuing ever-hopeful diners, there are roadside stalls to see; sometimes – though not this year on the day we went – there are street entertainers, and there is a live band with dancing. You can take a stroll by the sea, and you can go to a café for a coffee or an ice-cream.
The stalls are a bit predictable: an African selling carvings; a grubby-looking girl with lank dark hair, smoking a cigarette and selling silver jewellery; candy floss and sweetie stalls; and this year, somewhat ominously, the Scientologists, selling books. We take a look at these; we watch for a few moments the people dancing to the band, though only for a few moments as the band, which this year consisted of a female singer, a male trumpet player, and a man playing an electronic accordion and simultaneously controlling the synthesised percussion machine, were a bit hard to bear for long.
A stroll by the sea
We walked by the sea and then went to the café for an ice cream, leaving eventually to drive home at a quarter to eleven. We went on the 13th August; had we gone, as sometimes in previous years, on the 15th, we could have waited to see the firework display over the sea, which begins at an Italian midnight, ie about twenty past twelve.
This is the fifth year we’ve been to the mussels festival at Pedaso and we have formed some observations about it:
1. All the standing in line, queue-jumping, reserving of seats at the tables, it has a feel of Britain in the 1950s. It probably has a feel of Italy in the 1950s too, but Italy hasn’t moved on. The Brits still queue at the checkout in IKEA, they still queue to get on the Ryanair plane, but they don’t like it, and I think they’d take one look at the queues in Pedaso and say: let’s go somewhere else.
2. No one stands on the sidelines. Everyone participates. I’m sure in Britain now you’d get groups of people standing about and looking while they make up their mind. This is another change since the 1950s.
3. There are no immigrants, nearly everyone is a working-class Italian. It’s not entirely true that there are no immigrants, as there’s us, but we’re most unusual. The first time we went to the mussels festival in Pedaso we looked around at these thousands of heads around tables there on the football pitch and said to ourselves: there must be some Brits here. But there weren’t, and there aren’t. The local Brits don’t go. Nor do the Poles, or Albanians, and there are certainly no black faces to be seen. The whole thing works because everyone is following a common cultural set of rules. Why don’t any of the many local Brits go to the sagra? Who knows?
4. Free wine works for Italians of a certain age. No one drinks too much. Many don’t drink any wine at all. Unlimited booze obviously wouldn’t work in Britain, and it probably won’t work for the younger Italians, especially in the cities, where there’s an increasing drink problem.
5. Italian children in this area of Italy eat mussels like sweeties. Next to us at the trestle table were two women and two children, a boy and a girl, the boy perhaps six-years-old, both children tucking in to the mussels as if they were a bowl of coco-pops. Which just goes to show . . . probably something about the power of mothers. We’ve seen children enthusiatically chomping mussels in Sardinia too.
6. One in twenty Italians smoking is a surprisingly small number. And even if it isn’t one in twenty, it’s not many; you’d almost look around and believe that no one is smoking at all. This must certainly be a recent change.
7. Five thousand people on each of four nights, each spending €10. It comes to €200,000 and will be an underestimate. The organisers will have to pay for the sacks of mussels and the pasta, for the staff of whom there are a fair number especially those clearing tables, for the vinyl flooring, for the personalised cutlery wallets, for the fireworks on the last night, for the band, for the (not very extensive) marketing. Do the sums stack up? Hard to know.


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