Milan’s annual International Crafts Fair – “Made in Italy” at its best
Date for the diary – there are a host of great reasons why a trip to Milan in December should be on everyone’s Bucket List. An absolute “must-see” if you are visiting during the first couple of weeks leading up to Christmas is the seriously terrific “Artigiano in Fiera” International Crafts Fair, which traditionally takes place during the first ten days of the month. It’s a larger-than-life sight to behold: the show brings together over 3,000 artisans and small producers from all over the country and beyond, showcasing an embarrassment of the riches that make Italy so very great.
An easy 30-minute metro ride from the centre of Milan, entrance to the trade fair is free of charge, and a daily throng of thousands of Italians and tourists come pouring through its doors every year. At the entrance, I’d recommend you pick up a copy of the handy fold-out map which indicates how each of the six enormous hangars are laid out – you’ll need it, as it’s all too easy to lose your bearings! A seemingly endless series of stands are installed within each pavilion, organised by region and extending geographically from Aosta high up in the Alps right down to Lecce in the heel of Italy, and heading south as far as Siracusa in Sicily.
Where to begin? The sights and scents are almost overwhelming as you enter the first hall. Unless you are looking for specific types of food or local speciality, it doesn’t really matter too much where you begin your visit. Everything from impassioned third-generation cheese-makers to entrepreneurial truffle seekers will tempt you from the get-go, offering extraordinary things to eat and drink as you make your way around Italy. As you wander, you can try just about everything imaginable, from sipping freshly extracted pomegranate juice from Sicily to trying tasty morsels of infinite varieties of Calabrian charcuterie cuts.
You’ll be able to feast your eyes on outsized Tuscan truffles nestling like royalty under glass jars and get to experience heady whiffs of the Sardinian fish speciality bottarga. There are ceiling-high columns of glass jars containing every possible type of condiment, from carciofi ripieni to spicy sauces for bruschetta toasts, while the neighbouring stand beckons with pannetone cut into wafer-thin slices and jar upon jar of pesto di pistacchio.
As you make your way from stand to stand you are likely to be offered a free taste of each vendor’s wares. It’s a very heady feeling, and initially it will be tempting to accept every morsel as you go. Beware! you’ll be plied with more samples than you can do full justice to throughout the day, so it’s definitely best to pace yourself, or to decide ahead of time which part of Italy you most want to discover during your visit. In theory, it would be feasible to eat your way around every corner of the country, although I’d defy anyone to do so in just one sitting – and regardless of how long you stay I guarantee you will leave hankering to return for another bite of the proverbial cherry…
Many of the regulars do make a day of it, in fact, and by the time we’d reached the Emilia Romagna and neighbouring Liguria areas lunch was in full flow. In some cases, people were tucking into a three-course meal with the full works, complete with decanted wine and waiter service. More casual seafood restaurants were doing a brisk business deep frying fritti misti, while across the way fresh pasta was being whipped into shape and transformed into generous portions of steaming and heavenly scented primi piatti. The atmosphere is warm and friendly wherever you choose to sit, and everyone is keen as mustard to tell you all about their special take on la cucina italiana, whether it be farinata pancakes made out of chickpea flour or ragu’-filled arancini rice-balls. You really can’t go wrong at any turn.
One of the most unforgettable moments for us was stumbling upon a father and son business producing quantities of a Calabrian staple called Nduja, which can be spread on a bruschetta or used as a sauce for pasta. This initially rather off-putting sausage speciality is made from very finely chopped pigs’ offal and wrapped in the intestine along with a healthy dose of local peperoncino, before being matured for at least a year to render the aroma and taste even stronger. We were intrigued to taste the final product – which I confess is absolutely delicious and packs quite a punch – but what sealed the deal was the encouragement we got from the company’s founder, the grandmother who has lived and breathed the family trade for well over 70 years…
Getting the lowdown on how to preserve la Nduja for the next 12 months in the fridge
Seeing is believing – this however definitely wouldn’t fit in the fridge back home…
We realised after a while that the majority of the people trundling suitcases behind them were not on their way straight off to the airport, but were in fact locals doing the equivalent of their supermarket run. Cardboard caddies are also sold on the spot to allow you to get carried away on the day: you can basically do all of your Christmas shopping under one giant roof here, or stock up on a host of gastronomic stocking fillers in one foul sweep. For anyone visiting Italy it’s a great opportunity to find just about everything under the sun you could imagine to take back home with you.
TRAVELLING FURTHER AFIELD
Of course, it’s not all about the food: the artisans’ fair also includes sections devoted to jewellers demonstrating their techniques, guitar makers explaining their craft and lamp specialists showing traditional weaving skills. Some of the busiest concessions were those devoted to Asian cookery and crafts, and throughout the day there was a series of special presentations taking place in each pavilion.
Overall, the “Artigiano in Fiera” exhibition was a wonderful experience. Without doubt, the most interesting part was talking with the families and owners behind the stands who had travelled the furthest to participate in this annual event. Times are tough for small businesses, and the world of the Italian artigiano is a shrinking one, as larger companies take over much of the skilled work done for generations all over the country. ‘Made in Italy’ creativity has always been a core strength, and has never been more sorely needed. It was a privilege to meet with so many impassioned spokesmen defending their trades, and this fair is a great way of helping their businesses prosper and develop. Long may they and the International Trade Fair continue – see you there from 30 November 2019…
Getting to Rho Fiera could not be easier: jump onto the red line 1 metro connecting from your nearest station or directly at Duomo after purchasing a €5 return ticket from either the automatic machines or the newspaper stand. Plan to arrive at the exhibition halls on the early side if you want to avoid too many crowds, as the show gets packed from late morning onwards. Open daily from 10:00 – 22:00, free of charge.Email us for information of a guided tour of this fabulous initiative.
All photos by Nicola Collarile