Comacchio Eel Festival

 

Comacchio is a rather strange little city, by Italian standards. Built on the delta of the river Po, it is one of the few marshland communities in the country and its long history always revolved around the unique activities allowed by its geography. Saline extraction is one, but the most famous is the breeding of the particular kind of fish that lives where fresh and seawater meet – eel, above all. This snake-like fish (called anguilla in Italian) is a sort of symbol for Comacchio, where it is of course the main ingredient of many recipes. Risotto, brodetto (broth), marinade or grilled with polenta, the anguilla is everywhere. Truth to be said, the local enthusiasm for eel isn’t generally shared elsewhere, so you might assume the two weeks long Sagra dell’anguilla (eel festival) to be a rather sad little thing. Well, think again.

Turns out there is a reason if this event is one of the longest festivals in Italy. Eel-based dishes are of course the focus of the sagra, with the local restaurants competing with creative – and very tasty! – menus offering both classic recipes and new takes on the local delicacy. They are however just one of the dozens of elements coming together to attract the public to an otherwise quite depressed area, which really flowers during the event. Talking about food, in example, the eel festival comes in fact on the heels of two other festivals that actually overlap with it: one about truffles, and the other dedicated to gorgonzola cheese. In the same days the wineries throughout the valleys around Comacchio also organize visits to taste the excellent local productions, and to see how it is done firsthand. Ditto for parmigiano reggiano cheese – if you ever wondered how to make a 25 kilos wheel, you will have a ball by actually giving a hand at it.

Then there is a slew of initiatives geared toward saving the disappearing legacy of the uncommon marsh culture of Comacchio. A very unique example is the course to become a real bataniere, or conductor of vulicepo, the flat-keeled boats used to move in the shallow waters of the area. Just make sure not to bump into any hunter, as the traditional way to hunt around there is to stand in an empty wine barrel in the middle of the swamp, in order to stay dry while waiting for prey. Half-submerging the barrel and moving with it require special skills in itself – and they are the subject of other demonstrations and lessons. Or maybe you want to visit the salt-gathering flats? The beautiful surrounding valleys? The people of Comacchio have thought of that too, with a series of surprisingly engaging guided tours. To rest between one adventure and the other you could then choose between forty different concerts, a handful of museums, too many farmer markets to count, a fashion show or even the finals of several sport events orchestrated to bring even more people to the area. If you love the weird, we’d suggest the go-karts endurance race that lasts more than two days of unending speed duels. But whatever you do, don’t forget to taste the eel!