On a Broomstick with La Befana.

The Befana comes at night, With her shoes all tattered and torn, She comes dressed in the Roman way, Long Live the Befana.”

These lines sound so much better in Italian (see below) and it’s one poem that all children learn by rote and then recall as adults. La Befana is one of the most loved figures associated with Italian Christmas: the celebration is still popular throughout Italy. It’s nice to see photos of Italian women of a certain age getting into the spirit of Befana, dressing up as witches, while family groups attend the many winter feste and sagre dedicated to La Befana on the evening of January 5, 12 days after Christmas day.

Orion and the Seven Sisters. Photo by my brother Michael, whose celestial photos can be found at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

For those who don’t know the story, the legend of La Befana is associated with the Epiphany which occurs 12 days after Christmas. Befana was an old woman who was asked to accompany the Three Wise Men on their journey to bring gifts to the new-born baby Jesus. She declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, Befana had a change of heart, and went in search of the three astrologers and the new born Jesus. That night she wasn’t able to find them, so to this day, La Befana goes out searching for the little baby on the night of the Epiphany, on January 5-6. Befana is a corruption of the Italian word of epifania, and is derived from the Greek, επιφάνεια, meaning appearance or manifestation. She is depicted as a kindly old witch wearing ragged clothes and riding a broomstick. She enters the house via the chimney and brings a sack of gifts for the children, sweet things for the good children and a lump of carbon or garlic for the naughty ones. See my earlier posts about Befana, here, here and  here.

Image courtesy of my brother Michael at https://regionalcognisance.wordpress.com/.

But there’s still something odd about the Christian aspects of this legend. Why a witch and why is she flying on a broomstick above Italian villages and cities? As it turns out, there are many pagan and folkloric threads to the story, each one providing more clues. Like many Christian stories, this one has been appropriated from ancient times and tacked on to a Christian legend about the birth of Jesus.

Moon and Tree. Courtesy M Robinson at Mick’s Cogs

‘The origin of the Befana is probably connected to a set of pagan propitiatory rites, dating back to the X-VI century BC, and is linked to seasonal cycles, to agriculture, and is related to the harvest of the past year, now ready to be reborn as a the new year’.¹

In the Roman era, the twelfth night after winter solstice symbolised the death and rebirth of nature, and was celebrated. They believed that the twelve nights after solstice represented the twelve months of the Roman calendar: female figures flew over the cultivated fields to promote the fertility of future crops, hence the legend of a “flying” figure. According to some, this female figure was first identified as Diana, the lunar goddess linked to game and hunting as well as to vegetation and the moon. Befana is also linked to minor deities such as Satìa and Abundìa, symbols of satiety and abundance. There may also be an association with an ancient Roman winter festival in honor of Strenia ¹, the goddess of New Year, a time when gifts were exchanged. (the word strenna meaning gifts is derived from this).

Other precursors include Holda and Perchta, nocturnal witches of Nordic mythology, and in the Veneto region, Erodiade. It is customary in these areas to burn an effigy of La Befana. Good, evil, mother, witch, goddess, housewife, grandmother, hag, crone, the modern, often cartoonised character of Befana, has emerged from a rich store of pagan and Italian folklore. In a sense, the Christian element is just one minor thread.

Seen in Trastevere, Roma, November 2017. The real Befana?

As for La Befana who comes dressed as a witch in the Roman style, historians specialising in Italian witchcraft and folkloric traditions have more to say. A story perhaps for next year’s post on this topic?

La Befana nell’orto d’abbondanza. Madre, nonna, dea, strega, casalinga, vecchia, contadina, amica, cuoca.

There are at least 12 versions of this little Italian poem, but this is the one I learnt many years ago. See opening paragraph above for the English translation.

La Befana vien di notte
con le scarpe tutte rotte
col vestito alla romana:
Viva viva la Befana!  

¹https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strenua

 

 

 

 

Gnocchetti Sardi. Pasta of the week number 2.

The pasta variety, Gnocchetti Sardi, or little Sardinian gnocchi, is a small ridged pasta around two centimetres long. It’s a great shape to use when you want an amalgam of pasta, vegetables and protein, blending nicely into one comforting bowl.

Close up of Gnocchetti Sardi or Malloreddus

Malloreddus, the Sardinian name for these little gnocchi shapes, means small calves. They have been prepared since ancient times, often for festivals and weddings and are usually combined with sausage, or meat and saffron. Traditionally they were made from semolina flour and water and hand rolled into long strips of dough, then shaped into cubes and crushed against a straw basket (a ciuliri or straw sieve) to make the textured stripes. They were meant to resemble vitellini, ( the Italian translation of Malloreddus ) meaning small calves. As you can see in the photo above, they do look a lot like gnocchi, the striped pattern designed to hold a good sauce

This vegetarian dish combines shredded silverbeet (chard) with a little gorgonzola dolce, thin cream and toasted walnuts to create a wholesome dish. The recipe is deliberately imprecise. Combine the ingredients listed to suit your taste, keeping a fine balance as you go. This dish is an Almost Italian original and one inspired by the return of chard to my garden.

Gnocchetti Sardi con Bietola, Gorgonzola e Noci/ Sardinian gnocchi with Silverbeet, Gorgonzola and Walnuts

Ingredients in sequence of use.

  • 100 gr pasta Gnocchetti Sardi per person
  • salt
  • EV olive oil
  • one garlic clove
  • some small silverbeet leaves, finely shredded
  • a small chunk of gorgonzola dolce, {DOP is you can find it/flash but so good}
  • some fresh walnuts, toasted in oven, then chopped into small pieces.
  • pouring cream
  • ground black pepper
  • Parmigiano cheese shavings for serving, optional.

Cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente. Meanwhile in a wide and deep frying pan, heat the olive oil and gently saute the garlic clove. Remove the clove after it has flavoured the oil. Add the shredded silverbeet and toss around for a minute or so until wilted. Tear the gorgonzola into small clumps and add to the pan. As it begins to melt, add some pouring cream to the pan and a few grinds of black pepper. Don’t swamp the dish with cream. Reduce the cream and cheese mixture a little. When the pasta is ready, drain it then add to the pan, tossing through the sauce. Add the nuts, toss once more. Serve with shaved parmigiano.

About draining pasta. I rarely drain pasta in a colander over a sink, preferring to keep a small amount of residual pasta water to add to the secondary cooking which happens in a deep wide frying pan. With long pasta shapes, I lift them from the boiling pot to the pan with tongs or a claw pasta lifter: with short shapes I scoop them out with a wire sieve and shake a little. In this way, a small amount of the starchy, salty water helps to loosen the sauce.

Last weeks pasta of the week: Ditalini con Cacio e Uova

More Figs Please and Another Lovely Cake

I am a late comer to the sweet, exotic taste of fresh figs. I put this down to the fact that I didn’t grow up with a fig tree in the backyard, and so I never tasted fresh figs as a child. If I mention figs to those of my mother’s generation, they always respond with the word ‘jam’, indicating that fresh figs didn’t feature in their cooking repertoire but knew them only in jam. Figs, until recently, were not sold in fruit shops and markets, being difficult to transport and keep. You either learnt to love them or hate them based on your ready access to the fresh fruit. Figs now appear in our markets, especially farmer’s markets, and often fetch a grand price.

The laughing fig

In Italy, figs have been associated with Cucina Povera, poor rural or peasant food based on seasonality. Many amusing idiomatic expressions centre around the humble fresh fig. If you say ‘mica pizza e fichi‘ you are indicating that something you have, such as a fine wine or a new purchase, was quite expensive, not like pizza and figs which are cheap and commonplace. Another expression- non importare un fico secco, ( doesn’t matter a dried fig) means something is of little importance, not unlike the English expression ‘not worth a fig’ or ‘couldn’t give a fig’, the latter phrase now modernised in Australia, a land not shy in embracing creative variations of the ‘F’ word, to ‘couldn’t give a fuck’, or ‘a flying fuck’. Given that fresh figs are now too expensive and fashionable, figgy expressions may become obsolete, unless you grow them yourself.

Before cooking. Lay the cut figs on top of the cake batter.

Ottolenghi’s Fig, Yoghurt and Almond Cake

200g unsalted butter
200g caster sugar, plus 1 tsp extra
3 large free-range eggs
180g ground almonds
100g plain flour
½ tsp salt
Scraped seeds of ½ vanilla pod or ½ tsp vanilla paste
1 tsp ground star anise
100g Greek yoghurt
12 figs

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Line the bottom and sides of a 24cm loose-based cake tin with baking parchment. Put the butter and sugar in an electric mixer bowl, and use a beater to work them well until they turn light and pale. Beat the eggs lightly, then, with the machine on medium speed, add them gradually to the bowl, just a dribble at a time, adding more only once the previous addition is fully incorporated. Once all the egg is in, mix together the almonds, flour, salt, vanilla and anise, and fold into the batter. Mix until the batter is smooth, then fold in the yogurt.
Pour the batter into the lined tin and level roughly with a palette knife or a spoon. Cut each fig vertically into four long wedges, and arrange in circles on top of the cake, just slightly immersed in the batter. Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 170C/340F/gas mark 3 and continue baking until it sets – about 40-45 minutes longer. Check this by inserting a skewer in the cake: it’s done if it comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool down before taking it out of the tin and sprinkling with a teaspoon of caster sugar.

Fig, Yoghurt and almond cake.

Simple Chocolate Brownies for La Befana

As we lazed around the pool yesterday, I asked the girls if they were expecting a visit from La Befana. They looked at me blankly. I began explaining the legend of La Befana when suddenly the penny dropped- yes Daisy had heard about her from her Italian teacher last year and Charlotte simply said, “You mean that witch lady who does a Santa thing?”

Italian grandmothers fondly relate stories of their childhood in Italy when they eagerly anticipated the evening of the Befana between the 5th and 6th of January, L’ Epifania, the epiphany, is the night when La Befana would deliver gifts. La Befana, personified as a benign old witch with broken shoes, riding on a broomstick, and dressed in gypsy clothes, brings gifts to all children. Legend has it that the three kings, the Magi, dropped by the home of La Befana on their way to see the new-born baby Jesus. They asked her for directions as they had seen his star in the sky, but she didn’t know the way. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village. The Magi invited her to join them on the journey but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework and sweeping. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to find the three wise men and Jesus. She searched but never found them. And so to this day, La Befana flies around on her broomstick, searching for the little baby Jesus, visiting all children with gifts. She also brings a lump of coal for those times when they have been naughty, and a sweet gift too. In the past, gifts were simple. I remember my dear friend Olga, who grew up in Marechiaro, near Naples in the 1920s, was delighted to receive an orange and a few caramelle from La Befana.

Carbone Dolce?

The epiphany is the 12th day of Christmas and signifies the end of the seasonal festivities. I like to celebrate this day in a small way: it’s my perverse nature I suppose, but I relate to the simplicity of this legend and the grandmotherly figure of the kindly old witch. Fat Santa, shopping mall Santa, Americanised commercial Santa be gone, and down with that Christmas tree too. The new year has begun in earnest.

This year’s sweet offering will be a tin of old school brownies, the ones we used to make before expensive pure chocolate became the preferred ingredient. This recipe is gooey and rich and is made using cocoa powder, a pantry staple. You won’t believe it’s not chocolate. They last for three days or so and as they get older, I serve them with custard or icecream as a small pudding.

Old School Chocolate and Walnut Brownies 
140g unsalted butter
55 g natural cocoa powder
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp strong coffee, made from instant coffee or leftover espresso
2 large eggs at room temperature
250 g sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
105 g  plain flour
¼ tsp baking powder
¾ cup chopped walnuts, plus extra chopped for topping
Method
  • Preheat oven to 180 C.  Line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin pan with baking paper. If you don’t have a square tin, an old slab tin 18 cm by 28 could be used, but the brownies might be slightly lower in height.
  • Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir in cocoa and salt until smooth. Stir in coffee.
  • In a medium-sized bowl whisk together the eggs and the sugar vigorously until thickened and lightened by a shade. A stand mixer makes the job easy.  Add the vanilla extract. Whisk the cocoa and butter mixture into the sugar mixture.
  • Sift the flour and baking powder over the mixture and fold it in until combined. Fold in walnuts.
  • Spread batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle with extra walnuts.  Bake for 20 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven, cool and cut into small squares.

Recipe from Christina at Scientifically Sweet.

Cute, very Italian and kitsch, this cartoon caught my attention. It’s good to know that La Befana is still alive and well in Italy as a quick search will show.

 

April 25, Resistance and Bella Ciao. A Musical Journey

Australians and New Zealanders will be celebrating ANZAC Day today, a national holiday which commemorates all Australians and New Zealanders who served and died in wars and conflicts, with a particular focus on the landing of the ANZACs at Gallipoli, Turkey on April 25 1915. Coincidentally, April 25 is also significant in the Italian calendar as it marks the Festa Della Liberazione (Liberation Day), also known as Anniversario della Resistenza (Anniversary of the Resistance), an Italian national holiday. Italian Liberation Day commemorates the end of the Italian Civil War, the partisans who fought in the Resistance, and the end of Nazi occupation of the country during WW2. In most Italian cities, the day will include marches and parades. Most of the Partisans and Italian veterans of WW2 are now deceased: very few Italians would have first hand memories of that era.

One of the more accessible documents from the partigiani era of the 1940s is the well-known song, Bella Ciao, which has been adopted by resistance movements throughout the world since then. The original Partisan version is included here. Open this clip: you can find the lyrics in English and Italian at the end of this post.

Many Italian versions, including this modern rendition by the Modena City Ramblers, have appeared over the years, while international adaptations include punk, psychedelic and folk versions in many languages. A Kurdish version was revived after an ISIS attack in 2014, and the Anarchist movement has also appropriated the song. Popular folk songs are often derivative and evolutionary: the history of Bella Ciao makes a fascinating study in itself. There are two threads to follow here. The original version of this song dates back to the 1850s: the first written version appeared in 1906 which was sung by women workers in the risaie, or rice paddies of Northern Italy. The lyrics concern the harsh working conditions of the Mondine. The fascinating rice workers version can be heard here by Giovanna Daffini, recorded in 1962.¹

The Mondine or Mondariso were female seasonal workers employed in Northern Italy’s rice fields, especially in Lombardia, Piedmont, Emilia Romagna and Veneto. Their task was to remove weeds that could stunt the growth of rice plants. Working conditions were extremely hard, as the job was carried out by spending the whole day bent over, often bare-foot, with legs immersed in water; malaria was not uncommon, as mosquitoes were widespread. Moreover shifts were long and women were paid significantly less than men. For these reasons since early in the 20th century, mondine started to organise themselves to fight for some basic rights, in particular to limit shifts to 8 hours a day.’

From Mondine di Bentivoglio . “Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, E noi curve a lavorar”. The boss stands with his stick and we bend down to work. Line from the Mondine version of Bella Ciao.

The other thread concerns the euphony of the song itself. The much older women’s version, a slower folkloric piece, reflects the plight of the women rice field weeders in their struggle for better working conditions. The 1940s partisan version became more masculine and heroic, despite the sombre sentiments expressed in the lyrics. Most of the modern versions sound Russian, revolutionary, or defiant. Slower versions suggest Yiddish as well as gypsy roots, which may indicate the melodic path of this song during the 19th century. I’ve selected two more versions which reflect these latter impressions. They can be heard here and here.

An Italian partisan in Florence, 14 August 1944. Signore Prigile, an Italian partisan in Florence. Tanner (Capt), War Office official photographer.This photograph TR 2282 is from the collections of the Imperial War Museums and is available for use, with recognition.

The partigiani make fitting heroes for Liberation Day: no one would deny that their struggle was courageous and honourable. However, one might question the level of mytholgising when it comes to patriotic days such as Liberation Day. The day was initiated by Alcide De Gasperi, the Prime Minister of Italy between 1945 to 1953. It could be seen as a very astute political move to create a national holiday centred around liberation.² It signified a break with Italy’s fascist past, an era spanning 25 years, as well as assisting the new Italian government establish a stable democracy.

Parallels may be drawn between the idealisation of the Italian Partisans and the Australian and New Zealand soldiers of World War 1. The stories and the images of those struggles are often used to boost a sense of national identity and patriotism in both countries.

Anzac soldier at sunset, Invergargill, New Zealand

See also my previous posts on April 25, Anzac Day.

Notes

¹ Giovanna Daffini (22 April 1914 – 7 July 1969) was an Italian singer associated with the Nuovo Canzoniere Italiano movement. Born in the province of Mantua, she started associating with travelling musicians from an early age. During the rice-growing season she worked in the rice-growing districts of Novara and Vercelli where she learnt the folk-songs that afterwards made her famous. In 1962 she recorded the song “Alla mattina appena alzata”, a version of Bella Ciao, for the musicologists Gianni Bosio and Roberto Leydi.

² http://www.informatore.eu/articolo.php?title=il-25-aprile-da-pia-illusione-a-volgare-a-menzogna

In the 1960s, the tune, with new lyrics, became a revered song of the Lotta Femminista, the Italian Feminist struggle.

Lyrics.

Partisan Version in Italian and English

Una mattina mi son alzato
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Una mattina mi son svegliato
Eo ho trovato l’invasor

One morning I woke up
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
One morning I woke up
And I found the invader

O partigiano porta mi via
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
O partigiano porta mi via
Che mi sento di morir

Oh partisan, carry me away,
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Oh partisan, carry me away,
For I feel I’m dying

E se io muoio da partigiano
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
E se io muoio da partigiano
Tu mi devi seppellir

And if I die as a partisan
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
And if I die as a partisan
You have to bury me

Mi seppellire lassù in montagna
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
Mi seppellire lassù in montagna
Sotto l’ombra di un bel fiore

But bury me up in the mountain
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,
But bury me up in the mountain
Under the shadow of a beautiful flower

E le genti che passeranno
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
E le genti che passeranno
Mi diranno: “Che bel fior”

And the people who will pass by
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,
And the people who will pass by
Will say to me: “what a beautiful flower”

È questo il fiore del partigiano
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
È questo il fiore del partigiano
Morto per la libertà

This is the flower of the partisan
O bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao
This is the flower of the partisan
Who died for freedom

Bella Ciao, Versione Delle Mondine. In Italiano
Alla mattina appena alzata, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao, ciao,ciao
Alla mattina appena alzata, In risaia mi tocca andar
E fra gli insetti e le zanzare, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
E fra gli insetti e le zanzare, Un dur lavoro mi tocca far
Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
Il capo in piedi col suo bastone, E noi curve a lavorar
O mamma mia o che tormento
O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
O mamma mia o che tormento
Io t’invoco ogni doman
Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
O bella ciao bella ciao bella ciao ciao ciao
Ma verrà un giorno che tutte quante
Lavoreremo in libertà.
Mondine Version in English.
In the morning, just arisen, Oh beautiful ciao……
In the morning, just arisen, In the rice field I’m going to go.
Amongst the insects and the mosquitos, oh bella ciao….
Amongst the insects and the mosquitos. I have hard work yo do.
The boss is standing with his stick, oh bella ciao….
The boss is standing with his stick and we bend down to work.
Oh my mother what torment, oh bella ciao….
Oh my mother, what torment, that I call you every day
But the day will come, o bella ciao..
But the day will come, when we will work in freedom.

Sourdough Buccellato. Fruit Bread from Lucca

There is a local saying in Lucca about its famous Buccellato sweet bread: who ever comes to Lucca and doesn’t eat Buccellato might as well never have come. (“Chi viene a Lucca e non mangia il buccellato è come non ci fosse mai stato”).

Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, Lucca

The last time we stayed in Lucca, we were fortunate to try this bread, thanks to our host Guido, who brought us a warm fresh loaf one Sunday morning. I’ve dreamed about making it ever since, especially now that Easter is around the corner. It seems like a good substitute for Hot Cross Buns and is great toasted. The Lucchese eat this loaf at any time of the year: it is not a festive Easter bread, but it does seem to suit the season. It is said to go well dunked into a licorice based spirit such as Anisette or Sambucca, as there is a hint of anise in the bread.

Buccellato. Dunk in an Anise flavoured liquor or toast and spread with butter.

I have used a ripe sourdough starter in this recipe, which I’m sure they used in days of old.  It is fairly plain, as many Italian cakes and festive breads seem to be. If you wish to make it using yeast, see the notes below.

Makes 2 small loaves, or 1 large

  • 150 gr golden raisins or sultanas
  • 450 gr baker’s flour
  • 50 gr wholemeal flour
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • 150 gr ripe liquid sourdough starter
  • 200 gr milk
  • 1 large free range egg
  • 80 gr granulated sugar
  • 50 gr unsalted butter at room temperature, in pieces
  • 1.5 teaspoons aniseeds
  • egg wash, made from an egg yolk and a little water.

Place the raisins in a bowl, cover with warm water and leave to plump up until needed. In the meantime mix the two flours and salt in a large bowl. a separate bowl, crack the egg, add the warm milk and sugar and mix well. Finally add the sourdough and mix through.

Add the liquid ingredients to the flours and mix until a dough begins to form. ( I used a stand mixer for this process). Put on a work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, or knead on low with a dough hook for 3-5 minutes. The dough will be a little hard.  Begin adding the butter in small pieces until it is well incorporated and the dough is smooth. Add the aniseed and leave to rest covered in a warm place under a bowl to rise. I found that the dough needed around 4 hours to rise. This will depend on the temperature of your room. It may take longer.

Drain the raisins and dry with kitchen paper. Lightly dust with flour and add to the dough, kneading through by hand, until the fruit is well-distributed. If making two small loaves, divide the dough into two equal pieces. Shape into two logs with pointy ends, place onto a lightly dusted work surface and leave to prove again until about doubled in size. Or, shape into one large batard shape. Leave in a warm spot to rise again.

Preheat the oven to 200°C FF.  When the dough has risen, slash the loaves/loaf in the centre with a straight cut about 1cm deep and brush with egg wash. Bake in the oven for about 30 minutes. If making a large loaf, count on around 45 minutes.  Remove and leave to cool before eating,

Straight from the oven. Buccellato Lucchese

You can make this bread without a sourdough starter by using 20 gr of dry active yeast, adding it to the flour at the beginning of this recipe. The bread dough will rise more quickly with yeast.

My name is Lucca.

Un post interessante del Buccellato qui.

Day of the Dead. Legends for the Living.

I used to look forward to All Saints Day when I was a child. In Catholic schools, All Saints Day was a religious holy day of note, which meant that we had another day off school. November the first blurred into November the second, Melbourne Cup Day, which is a State holiday in Victoria, and if the days lined up nicely with the weekend, even better. The beginning of November meant horses, saints, holidays and good weather, with only one down side, the traipse up the road to Church, a small price to pay for another day off. I don’t remember much about those saints or what the day was about. To me, it all seemed a bit morbid and sinister so I conveniently blocked it out.

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Pane dei Morti di Siena

It was in the tenth century that Odile, the abbot of Cluny in medieval France, transmuted the Day of the Dead, Samhain, the ancient Celtic feast of ancestors, into a Christian holy day, All Souls Day. Curses and blasphemy, I missed out on all the Celtic fun and got Odile’s version, made extra ominous by the Irish nuns who taught me. At least in modern Italy, the day still goes by the name I Morti, the dead, and the practices are more in tune with traditional pagan legends than the version I grew up with, though I’m sure there’s a bit of Church attendance involved. Going to mass in Italy often means chatting through the service and ducking out for a smoke. Other than the widows up the front, Italians often don’t seem to take church too seriously. Church is a local catch up and a ritualised prologue to a good lunch.

In Sicily, legend has it that on the evening of November 1, departed relatives rise up from their tombs and rollick through the town, raiding the best pastry shops and toy stores for gifts to give to children who have been good during the year. Children write letters to their dead relatives, just like the Christmas letters written to Santa. On this day, ancestors and relatives “feel an attraction to the living and hope to return for a visit and families set the table for ancestors returning from their graves.”

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Small loaves for the day of the Dead. One for now, one for the freezer.

What a wonderful legend. Just to think that you might have a visit from your dearly departed loved ones for a fleeting moment in time. When it comes to a good Celtic legend, adapted along the way by some wily Siciliani, I’m in. Time to write a letter to the dead and make some sweet things for  I Morti

Pan co’ Santi – A sweet bread from Siena to share with I Morti.

Makes two small loaves

  • 300 gr raisins
  • 1 ½ cups tepid water
  • 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 25 gr sugar
  • 3 Tbls lard or olive oil
  • 500 gr unbleached plain flour plus 2 -3 Tbls for the raisins.
  • 8 gr sea salt
  • 1.25 gr freshly ground pepper
  • 100 gr walnuts, toasted and roughly chopped
  • 1 egg yolk for glaze

Soak the raisins in the tepid water for at least ½ hour. Drain the raisins, but reserve 1 1/3 cups of the soaking water. Warm the soaking water to 105-115 degrees.

By mixer: Stir the yeast and sugar into the raisin water in a large mixing bowl; let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Stir in the lard or olive oil in with the paddle. Add the flour, salt and pepper and mix until the dough comes together. Change to a dough hook and knead until firm and silky, for around 3 minutes.

First rise. Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, 1¼ to 1½ hours.

Filling. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface. Without punching it down or kneading it, pat gently with your palms into a 35 cm/14 inch circle. Pat the raisins dry and toss with 2-3 Tbls flour. Work them and the walnuts into the dough in 2 additions.

Bread dough with sweet filling

Shaping and second rise. Cut the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a round, tucking the ends of the loaf in and trying to keep the raisins and walnuts under the taut surface of the skin. Set each loaf on a lightly floured peel or on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover with towels and let rise again until doubled, around 1 hour and 10 mins.

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Fruit and nut stuffed dough before rising.

Baking. Heat the oven to 220° C fan forced. With a razor or sharp serrated knife, slash the dough with 2 horizontal and 2 vertical cuts. Brush the loaves with the egg yolk, then bake for 5 mins, then reduce the heat to 200 F and bake for 30-40 minutes more.

Also see these little sweet biscuits for the dead.  https://almostitalian.wordpress.com/2016/10/25/fave-dolci-biscuits-for-the-dead/

 

Fave Dei Morti, Biscuits for The Dead

If you’re not Siciliani or Greek, you’re probably wondering what fave or broadbeans have to do with biscuits and the dead. Fave beans are the emblematic dish of death,

“The ancient Greeks saw the black spot on the petals of the broad bean plant as the stain of death and used the beans in funeral ceremonies but refused to eat them. Pythagoras thought that their hollow stems reached down into the earth to connect the living with the dead, and that therefore fave contain the souls of those who have died. The Romans honoured their connection with death but cooked and served the beans as the most sacred dish at funeral banquets.” ¹

Fava( broadbeans) flowering late in my garden.
Fava( broadbean) flowering late in my garden. They look beautiful and a little spooky too.

The day of the dead, I Morti, is celebrated in Sicily on November 2 with Fave dei Morti, little sweet biscuits formed to look like broadbeans,  as well as other sweets such as ossi da morto, bones of the dead, and sweets shaped like human figures. For many Siciliani, a tablecloth is laid out on the family tomb, complete with chrysanthemums, the flowers of the dead, and the family gathers for a picnic. This may sound rather morbid until you consider that on the day of the dead, I Morti, ancestors and relatives sneak back into the living world, back through that fissure in time, to be with the living again.

Fave dei Morti
Fave dei Morti

Given this fine Italian tradition ( not to mention its connection with similar Celtic practices), I went in search of a few customary and very simple recipes, from Siena to Sicily, to leave a few sweet things on the table or the grave, come November 1 and 2.

Fave  Dei Morti

These tiny, crunchy biscuits are easy to whip up and are wonderful dunked in something strong. Despite their simplicity, they taste festive and are very moreish. I need to make another batch for the otherworldly ‘visitors’ on November 1.

  • 100 gr almond meal ( or almonds finely ground to a powder)
  • 100 gr sugar
  • grated zest of 1/2 lemon
  • 1 egg
  • 1 Tbls rum
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
  • 70 gr unbleached plain flour ( AP flour)

Place the ground almonds in a bowl with the sugar, lemon zest, egg and rum. Mix until well blended. Add the spices and flour and stir until the dough is well blended.

Divide the dough into four pieces. Flour a work surface very lightly and roll each piece into a log the width of a finger. Cut into 4 cm ( 1/12 inch) pieces and place them on a baking paper lined tray. Flatten each piece slightly.

Heat oven to 175ºC and bake until barely browned, around 16 minutes. Makes around 40 pieces. Dust with icing sugar and store well in a tin.

Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.
Fave dei Morti on the mantlepiece for the dead.

¹ Celebrating Italy, The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed through its Feasts, Festivals, and Sumptuous Foods. Carol Field. 1990

Tomato Passata Day – Once a Week!

The idealised version of Tomato Day (tomato passata or purée making day) generally occurs in Melbourne some time between mid February and early March. In recent years it has become a staged event, promoted by celebrities who may or may not have Italian heritage, and who may have dubious reasons for popularising it, or by farmers markets and community groups with more noble motives. Traditionally, the day has been heralded by large hand painted signs along the arterial roads of the less fashionable suburbs of Melbourne, often in front of abandoned warehouses or petrol stations. The signs read:

              Pomodori per Salsa or Si Vende Pomodori e Uva 

or ‘tomatoes for sauce or tomatoes and grapes sold here’. Large boxes of tomatoes, usually sourced from commercial tomato farms, arrive at these places in late summer. Perhaps we could call them tomato pop up shops? Gli Italo- Australiani have always bought tomatoes in 20 kilo boxes for their annual passata or tomato puree making day but as Melbourne’s Italian born demographic ages and slowly dies out, the tradition now relies on the younger generation and others interested in home preserving.

Passata Day - again.
Passata Day – once a week!

This event came sharply into focus for many young Australians, especially those of Italian heritage, with the release of the film Looking for Alibrandi, one of my favourite Australian movies, which won the Australian Film Institute award for the best film in 2000. Following its success, the book on which the film is based, by Melina Marchetti, was studied in English in most schools, and the film was included in the year 12 Italian optional study on Emigrazione Italiana in Australia. Check out the opening scene from the movie:

If only I could have a tomato day once every summer. When you grow your own tomatoes, the crops will decide when, and how often, you make passata di pomodori.  Roma tomatoes or other varieties of plum tomatoes, like San Marzano, are the preferred tomatoes for bottling (canning) as they have thick skin, few seeds and can safely sit around on benches, developing more intensity of colour and flavour, for at least a week. When I get around 5 kilo of deep red coloured tomatoes, usually once a week during January and February, it’s Passata Day again!

Tomatoes, slit, covered in boiling water.
Tomatoes covered in boiling water for less than a minute.

The tomato passata recipe should be kept simple. I use only tomatoes and a basil leaf. It is not a recipe as such, but a method. Gather all your equipment before hand and seduce a friend into helping.

Dry the tomatoes on a tea towel so they lose the water from their hot bath.

For pureeing the tomatoes, I use a hand cranked mouli with the finest attachment. It’s hard work turning that handle! I am dreaming of a small, electric version and am putting in an early request so that Father Christmas or La Befana or someone impersonating either will buy me one next year. In the meantime, very good results can be obtained with a mouli.

The extracted puree and mouli in action.

The Method and Equipment.

  • tomatoes (I usually process between 3 and 5 kilo at a time)
  • fresh basil leaves
  • passata jars and lids, sterilised
  • mouli
  • some large bowls
  • a jug
  • tea towels- to drain the wet tomatoes and to place under the bowl and mouli to stabilise.

Gather your tomatoes and wash them. Cut a cross in the skin with a sharp knife (it helps loosen the skin) and remove any stalks. Boil up kettles of water, add the tomatoes to a large bowl and cover with boiling water for 1 minute or less, then scoop them out of their bath and dry on a tea towel. You may need to do this step in batches, so have more boiling water ready to add to your bowl and tomatoes.

After draining, cut them in half and put them in a mouli with a disc on the finest setting and puree, which removes all the skin and seeds. Sit the mouli over a bowl of the same size to catch the puree.

Pour the puree into a jug then pour into sterilised jars. Add a small basil leaf to the jar, and leave a 3 cm gap from the lid.

When all the jars are filled and capped, fill a large preserving pan with water (as tall or taller than the jars or bottles). You may add a folded teatowel to the base of the pan to stop the bottles rattling around- I usually don’t bother with this. Add the jars to the cold water, bring to the boil, boil for 30 minutes, then leave in the water bath for a day. You may hear the caps pop indicating a good seal.

Five bottles of passata from 3.5 kilos of tomaties
Five bottles of passata from 3.5 kilo of tomatoes

Store in a cool dark place for up to 3 years but they probably won’t last that long. Add to pasta sauces, casseroles, and soups during winter.

First Batch- 3 1/2 kilo gave 5 bottles.

Used tomato passata bottles can be found in op shops (thrift stores) or can be purchased new. In the past, tomato passata was made and cooked in beer bottles but this practice is slowly dying out too. New lids are also sold in many Italian kitchen ware shops in packets of 20.

spare lids can be purchased.
spare lids can be purchased.

Good links on this theme:

Do you make Tomato Passata for the year? Did you learn this from your Nonna or Nonno? And have you seen the film Looking for Alibrandi?

Thankyou Romans

The Roman alphabet, first developed by the Etruscans and further refined by the Romans, is the foundation of many modern-day languages.

letters
Roman Script found on a wall in Spello, Umbria.

It is interesting to note that the modern Italian Alphabet consists of 21 letters, with J, K, W, X and Y not present. These ‘missing’ sounds are easily formed by joining letters together, for example, a ‘j’ sound is formed by adding the vowel ‘i’ or ‘e’ after a ‘g’, as in Buongiorno. A ‘k’ is formed by adding an ‘i’ or ‘e’ after a ‘ch’, as in the girl’s name Chiara. More can be found here.

If you don’t live in Italy and want to learn the language, a good starting point is the alphabet and the way it is pronounced. The Italian word, analfabeta means illiterate. Naturally.