Last September I happened to pass through York on my way to Cornwall. Most of you will surely sense, without even a glance at a map of the United Kingdom, a hint of folly in such a statement. Cornwall via York? From Italy? Well, yes, and I had my reasons. Namely, the chance to participate in a wonderful event hosted by the Folklore Society, where I presented on the topic of Italian midsummer food and drink rituals. The presentation and text are available online for consultation.
Tonight in various quarters of the city, countless people of Rome will enjoy the culinary specialty le lumache di San Giovanni, or St John’s snail stew. A tradition with origins in the ancient Roman festivities held this time of year—in honor of the goddesses Fortuna and Concordia, for example—fare la lumacata on the night of June 24 is a fascinating midsummer ritual millennia in the making. Why snails? Some will point immediately to the obvious reasons: snails are cheap, in abundance this time of year, fairly nutritious and, when prepared well, rather tasty. True enough, yet nothing this curious is ever without an intriguing backstory!
The eating of snails has long been equated with apotropaic powers, of invoking protection against evil as well as harmony between the sexes. The physiology of the snail accounts for much of the lore and beliefs attached to it. The ancient Romans saw in the snail’s horns, or le corna, a representation of negativity, discord and even evil forces, possibly given the easy analogy between the ‘eyes’ of the snail and il malocchio. During summer solstice festivities, the so-called concordia or pax banquets, Romans who ate snails believed they were thwarting misfortune, that in the ingesting of the embodiment of discord, the horns, they were in fact courting Concordia, or harmony.
(Those familiar with the gesto delle corna will note a connection here. But that’s another post entirely.)
There’s also a strong relationship between snail consumption and matters nuptial and erotic, much of which is, again, related to the snail’s appearance and behaviors. One can easily grasp the imaginative link between the phallic horns of the snail and male sexuality. Here the eating of snails still equates with protection: a man who eats the snail horns may avert infidelity, colloquially known in Italy as mettere le corna (cuckold = il cornuto). Not so obvious is the female side: the snail as a lunar symbol, associated with rebirth and regeneration, whose cyclical waxing and waning (of the corna) represents female rather than male qualities. Consuming the snail becomes an auspicious act for both sexes then, and in some rural areas is still believed to promote marital (or perhaps merely sexual?) harmony. (By the way, in the Roman dialect, the words for snail, ciumaca or ciumachella, are also affectionate slang terms for una bella ragazza, or a pretty girl.)
Centuries later, in a different cultural context, the ritualistic Roman snail-eating on June 24 evolved into a Catholic legend. According to the tale, some medieval Romans witnessed the ghost of Herodias, mother of Salome, calling together a coven of witches in the Lateran fields on St John’s Eve (also known as the Night of the Witches). Seeking the saint’s intervention, they took to eating snails in the piazza, clearly having inherited their ancestors’ belief in the snail’s protective powers. Over time, the location (St John Lateran Basilica) became indelibly connected to le lumache di San Giovanni, with Romans coming to the church square every June 24 to enjoy a pot of snails cooked in tomato, garlic, and herbs at local osterie. This is also where snail vendors in the 19th century set up their stands:
Francesco Duscio tells us in his book La Romanesca that part of the magic of San Giovanni was the power of reconciliation a pot of snail stew offered, that friends, lovers, or relatives who had fought in the previous year achieved, in the literal devouring of their accumulated resentments—the snail horns—harmony and mutual forgiveness.
Buon San Giovanni and Buona Lumacata!
Schüttelbrot is a traditional bread of South Tyrol flavored with caraway seeds, coriander, fennel or aniseed, typically served with speck and cheese as an afternoon snack. This savory, crisp flatbread takes its name from the shaping method: after the dough rounds are rolled out and transferred to a baking sheet, the Bäckermeister literally shakes them into shape (schütteln = to shake). The unique flatness of this bread, called pane scosso in Italian, allows for easy storage in a slotted wooden shelf (pictured below), which together with the crisp, fast-drying texture ensures a long shelf-life—the perfect bread for farmers and peasants in the Alpine winter. Though usually around ten inches in diameter, Schüttelbrot can also be made in small, cracker-like rounds (pictured above).
The ‘Hugo’ (or Ugo, as our h-sound-challenged Italian friends pronounce it), sometimes called Hugo Spritz or Alpine Spritz, originated in the northern Italian region Alto-Adige, an area intimately familiar with herbal use in both culinary and medicinal matters, and one where the elderberry plant thrives in summer. From the genus Sambucus, elderberry is a hardy, fast-growing flowering bush widespread throughout Italy and Europe. Sambucus nigra—European elderberry or simply Sambuco in Italian, among other names—bears edible-once-cooked berries used in making jams and sauces; while from their small white flowers a delicious, delicate cordial is obtained—this syrup being the star ingredient in the Hugo Spritz, which I had the fortune to learn about and taste last night at fabulous Borgo San Lorenzo wine bar and restaurant Passaguai, thanks to the knowledge and generosity of a lovely new acquaintance. As she explained, elderflower cordial is not to be confused with (that bottled nastiness known as) Sambuca, similar only in name to sciroppo di Sambuco. To demonstrate her point, she ordered up a Hugo for us to taste (yay!):
As with so many Italian specialties, a touch of rivalry characterizes Hugo’s birth-story, particularly intriguing given that the two barmen in contention for inventor credit both hail from South Tyrol, and neither seems ready to renounce his claim on Hugo. Was it Roland Gruber who, while working in a wine bar in Naturns near Bolzano created the Hugo some 10 years ago? Very possibly, yet apparently Gruber named the Hugo without any particular reason, a fluky bit of inadvertence I find a little dubious, frankly. There’s also some debate as to whether Gruber originally used elderflower or another type of herb cordial. Could it have been Filippo Debertol of the Val di Fassa area, who has said he started mixing elderflower cordial with wine, seltzer, and mint around the same time? Debertol’s story would seem to hold up better under scrutiny: young Debertol named the drink after an elderly gentleman who would visit the family’s Alpine cabin, always bringing with him a gift of his own homemade elderflower syrup. The old man’s name? Hugo, of course.
(An aside: While researching today, I came across a discussion (in Italian) on Wikipedia from late 2013, in which Debertol’s attempts to modify the Italian entry for Hugo (cocktail) were repeatedly removed, with the explanation ‘your changes reflect something completely different from what the sources indicate, and for this reason I have restored the prior text.’ See below)
Italians love their food (and drink) debates, and this one is not going away any time soon, I imagine. No matter. The important thing is someone invented this delightful concoction, which I highly recommend adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.
6 cl Prosecco
6 cl seltzer
3 cl elderflower cordial
fresh mint leaves
Put ice in the glass. Pour in the Prosecco and cordial, followed by the seltzer. Stir gently. Garnish with fresh mint and a lemon slice (optional).
Boznersauce is a springtime specialty from Bolzano in Alto-Adige, the Italian province that together with Trentino forms one of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Trentino-Alto-Adige. Annexed from Austria by the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War I, Alto-Adige—Südtirol in German or South Tyrol to English speakers—has retained its culturally Austrian identity in the decades since, despite an aggressive Fascist-era ‘Italianization’ program and a significant influx of Italians in the post-WWII period. Officially part of Italy for nearly a century, today Alto-Adige is still comprised predominantly of native German speakers, though Italian and German are both official languages.
The intersection of Italian and Germanic influences in South Tyrol characterizes many aspects of local culture, including cuisine. Further shaped by Viennese and Hungarian traditions, Alto-Adige’s culinary scene has earned a reputation in recent years as a gastronomic mecca, with 23 Michelin stars as of 2016. Interestingly, many non-Italian dishes, items like speck, würstel, strudel, and knödel, have entered the Italian national food canon via Alto-Adige.
The people of the Bolzano area enjoy this hollandaise-like sauce, whose name means ‘of Bozen’ (German for Bolzano), alongside fresh asparagus during Easter Sunday lunch.
2 bunches green or white asparagus
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water
For the sauce:
4 eggs, hard-boiled
100 ml ‘light’ olive oil or seed oil of choice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
3 Tbsp beef broth
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt
To make the Boznersauce, start by boiling the eggs for 8 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Heat the broth and keep warm.
When cool enough to handle, peel the eggs. Slice them in half and remove the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl and setting the whites aside. Add the vinegar, mustard, broth, salt and pepper to the yolks. Whisk until creamy (a few lumps are fine). Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking continuously until you have a thick, smooth cream. Add the minced parsley and combine. Chop the egg white to a medium-fine mixture. Add to the egg cream and combine. Set aside at room temp while you make the asparagus.
Bring the water and wine to a simmer. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and cook in the simmering water for 5 minutes and remove promptly. Arrange the asparagus on serving dishes and place generous scoops of the Boznersauce over them. Dust with the chopped chive.
Agatha of Sicily is an early Christian martyr and one of the most highly venerated virgin saints in Catholicism, especially so in Catania (and Palermo), where a festival in her honor takes place in the days leading up to and culminating on February 5, her feast day. Agatha celebrations include elaborate rites and processions, lights, costumes and chants. And feasting, of course. Today, one of the common treats made in honor of Saint Agatha are minne di sant’agata—pretty, oddly anatomically correct cakes shaped and decorated to looked like breasts, Agatha’s attribute, as her various tortures included having her breasts cut off.
(Has anyone else noticed a grim pattern of recreating a tortured saint’s attributes in foodstuffs? Consider as well the fluffy, saffrony lussekatter, whose raisin decorations represent Saint Lucy’s gouged-out eyes…)
Thankfully, the narrative of this particular recipe is less harrowing. One of the many stories about the saint recounts an episode involving olives: fleeing the soldiers of Quinctianus—the Roman proconsul who, failing to win the young virgin’s affections, had her tortured, sent to a brothel, and burnt at the stake—Agatha stopped to tie her shoe (yes, tie her shoe!). While she knelt, a wild olive tree sprouted up before her. The tree concealed Agatha from her pursuers and is said to have provided her with some needed nourishment. Southern Italians remember this miraculous, temporary reprieve bestowed on Agatha with these olivette di sant’agata.
200 grams blanched almonds
200 grams sugar
1 tablespoon rum
2-3 drops green food coloring
extra sugar for coating
Grind the almonds with 100 grams of the sugar in a food processor until you have a fine flour. Set aside.
In a saucepan, heat the remaining 100 grams of sugar with a couple tablespoons of water, stirring frequently, until you have a smooth syrup. Test by dropping a tiny bit onto a plate and then tilting the plate. The syrup is ready if it runs slightly down the plate and then sticks.
Remove the syrup from the heat. Add the green food coloring to the syrup and combine. Next add the ground almond mixture to the syrup along with the rum and combine well (this could take a few minutes). Transfer the mixture to a glass bowl. When cool enough to touch (but still warm), knead until you have a uniform, slightly sticky paste. Form olive shapes and roll in sugar. I used sugar that I’d colored slightly (optional), by adding a drop of coloring to the sugar and grinding briefly in a spice grinder. Leave the olives out to dry for a couple hours before serving.
The recipe can be halved or doubled.
Today, the feast day of Saint Martin, coincides (more or less) with the arrival of vino novello in Italy, the less fussy cousin of Beaujolais nouveau. Throughout Catholic Europe, Martin is associated with the harvest’s first wine and attendant revelries (à la Bruegel, pictured above). In Italy, the Martin-vino link is cemented in the popular saying A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino; while in France he is credited with introducing and cultivating Chenin blanc in the area around Tours.
Traditional foods linked to this feast day include roast goose, beef from freshly-slaughtered, fattened cattle (‘Martinmas beef’), and various types of pastries and cookies, often shaped in the form of Martin on horseback and featuring his attributes, a cloak and a sword. This feast day is not as widely celebrated in Italy as in France and other European countries, with the exception of Venice, where San Martino is an important cultural event, a day on which children romp about banging pots and pans, singing for treats from strangers, praising the generous in honor of Martin’s charity, and cursing the miserly.
Generosity and giving, abundance and feasting, helping the poor, exchanging treats and gifts, bonfires and lanterns are all connected to Saint Martin’s feast day. For Catholics, Martinmas marks the beginning of Advent and is traditionally followed by fasting; as such, it’s a counterpart to Carnival and Fat Tuesday, another day of feasting and celebration immediately followed by Lent. In agrarian societies, it was the day agricultural work concluded—hence the celebrations— and farmhands and sharecroppers would move on for the winter season, or perhaps attend market fairs to look for work in the interim. In both religious and secular manifestations, Saint Martin’s day represents a liminal period of seasonal, physical, and liturgical transitions, marked by the kind of feasting and merry-making that so often accompanies rituals of change or passage.
Towards the end of Julia Moskin’s recent article in The New York Times on Ischian cooking traditions, Enoteca la Stadera owner Ivo Iacono’s mention of an old family recipe caught my notice:
One of his childhood favorites was a dish called figliata — a word meaning “litter,” as in puppies — made of eggs, basil, cheese and stale bread. “When you had another child,” he said, “you could just add another egg.”
Up until that moment, reading this article had me in a familiar emotional state, one best described as a mixture of interest, appreciation, and a Schadenfreude-esque delight at any hint, however minor, of dilettantism. To be clear, the article is very good: aptly descriptive, engaging, informative. Why wouldn’t it be? Moskin is a pro food reporter and accomplished cookbook writer/editor. She highlights Iacono’s activities as a restaurateur and outlines Ischia’s intriguing history while staying astutely focused on the real star of the story—Ischia’s food, specifically long-practiced cooking methods that make use of the island’s natural heat sources (hot springs, sand). In truth, I felt only a wee bit superior when reading her explanations for the unversed—such as ‘Ischia (pronounced ISS-kee-ah)…’ or ‘a popular lunch dish called caponata,’ and the like. The truly gratifying moment, though, I’m not ashamed to admit (perhaps I should be) came when I realized Moskin had all but overlooked what for me is the most intriguing part of the story: the family recipe Iacono calls figliata (from figlio/figlia = son/daughter).
I could find no information on this dish. There’s no mention of figliata in any of my cookbooks, not even the unfailingly comprehensive La Cucina Italiana encyclopedia. (While searching the web I did discover something called pizza figliata, a sweet pastry reminiscent of strudel that’s popular in Campania.) I asked around, resisting a temptation to contact Iacono directly for a quote. Niente. So, based on Iacono’s description, I reasoned that figliata must basically amount to a kind of panzanella with boiled eggs. This is what I came up with:
400 grams of stale Tuscan bread (a stale ciabatta would work)
1 handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
fresh chopped chives (optional)
3-4 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp white vinegar
salt & pepper
Soak the bread in cold water for about 20 minutes. Strain and squeeze out all the excess water, then crumble the now-soft bread into a large bowl. Boil or steam the eggs for about 7 minutes, then cool, peel and roughly chop them. Add the eggs and basil to the bread and combine. Now add the oil and vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and blend well. Garnish with more fresh basil and some chopped chive (my addition, optional).
Add one egg for each additional child, per Signor Ivo Iacono.
The days surrounding the summer solstice abound with legends, divinations and rituals involving water, plants, and fire. Throughout mostly rural areas of Europe, the night between June 23 and June 24, the feast day of St John the Baptist (his nativity) is marked by festivals and bonfires, flaming wheels rolling down mountainsides, ritualistic smoke purification of livestock, the burning of aromatic herbs to ward off evil and promote physical health, and more. Perhaps no day on the calendar juxtaposes ancient pagan rites with Catholic tradition as beguilingly as June 24, as both a Church feast day and the day on which Midsummer is observed. Here in Italy, at the center of this heady concoction of symbolism and ritual, witches and fairies, nature spirits and Christian saints, herbal remedies, purifying ablutions, potions and even the malocchio, is the curious secular tradition of gathering still-green walnuts to make the liquor known as nocino.
On the eve of St John, herbs are believed to possess especially strong healing powers (many aromatics are, in fact, harvested this time of year, having just flowered, with aromas at their most intense—surely no coincidence). Herbs and aromatics to gather on St John’s eve include St John’s wort (obviously), wormwood, verbena/vervain, elderberry, lavender, mint, rosemary, garlic and onion. Even fruits such as red currant and hawthorn berries are believed to protect against evil, if gathered on this day.
Some of these plants, when used in the preparation of a special brew known as l’acqua di San Giovanni, or St John’s water or dew, are thought to bring not only physical benefits but also spiritual salvation and protection bestowed from the saint himself—but only if you follow a peculiar and precise ritual: the water is made by placing lavender leaves and flowers, St John’s wort, calamint/nepeta, rue/ruta, rosemary and more (too many variations to list, in truth) in a basin full of water, which is then left overnight, outside the house, to absorb the curative and protective powers transmitted via the saint, or the dew, or the moonlight, or the heightened cosmic forces, generally. The following morning, women who wash with this water will improve their looks and ward off disease (who knew!?). Variations result in different apotropaic qualities; the addition of wormwood, for instance, will protect against the evil eye.
One similar custom involves gathering dew directly from trees and plants on this night, with the resulting distillation purported to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and keep illness at bay; while another version, perhaps devised for the lazier among us, calls for leaving a cloth out overnight, the moisture from which is then wrung out in the morning. Even more practical (this is the method I’d use) is simply placing a glass in a hole in the ground and letting the precious St John’s dew drizzle in, which, again, seems designed for the less industrious types, yet in its simplicity suggests something rather fascinating: that even without the addition of herbs and flowers, any dew gathered on this morning contains magical properties.
Many St John-related rituals center on mating, nuptials, and marital harmony, given this night’s age-old association with male-female balance and harmony. In one version, a young, yet-to-wed woman places three fava beans—one intact, one peeled, and one broken—under her pillow before going to sleep on June 23. During the night she selects one without looking and learns her fate: the intact bean signifies riches, a good match; the half bean portends a mediocre destiny; and the peeled bean, a bad omen altogether. In another, the eating of snails, specifically their tentacles, on St John’s day grants men protection from misfortune and in particular from being made a cuckold: the snail tentacle, which resembles a horn, le corna, represents a kind of edible amulet against what’s known in Italian as mettere le corna, a not-so-nice idiom for infidelity.
Of all today’s quirky traditions, the gathering of walnuts to make nocino, also considered therapeutic, is likely the most familiar (and observed) in Italy. But it’s not without its own offbeat backstory. A centuries-old legend maintains that witches would gather on this night around an ancient walnut tree in Benevento; in fact, one interpretation of these many rituals meant to protect and ward off evil forces relates to this tale—that on this night so rife with other-worldly influence, one was particularly susceptible to acts of witchery and must take protective measures against those journeying to the coven in Benevento. (St John’s Eve is also commonly referred to as La Notte delle Streghe, or Night of the Witches). Moreover, walnuts have long been linked to both medicinal and magical practices, going back to the Druids. To make a proper nocino, the unripe fruits, thus imbued with healing powers, must be picked—you guessed it—on this and only this night, by a virgin maiden, barefoot and dressed in white, using only her hands or wooden tools. She must climb the walnut tree after the moon rises to gather an uneven number of fruits.
Interested? Check out Judy Witts Francini’s recipe for nocino.
Home restaurants, similar to supper/dining clubs and underground/pop-up restaurants, have been taking off in Italy in recent years. While regulated by the Italian government, home restaurants are remarkably uncomplicated to set up here, at least for now. Home restaurateurs currently operate like freelancers; their profits may not exceed the yearly allowance for this earnings category (about 5,000 euros), yet no special permit or license is required. All you need is a kitchen, a means to promote your business and take reservations, and, of course, cooking skills impressive enough to draw paying customers to your home. The movement so far appears fuelled in large part by consumer demand for reasonably-priced, quality dining out options. Not unlike the sagra then, in a way home restaurants reflect that so Italian belief in food—good, tasty, inexpensive food—as a birthright. Although, one Italian media source did refer to them as typical ‘hipster’ nonsense. That made me laugh.
With at least a decade’s head start on Italy, the alternative restaurant movements in the U.S. and U.K., on the other hand, are today driven more by the desire of aspiring (or sometimes veteran) chefs to create and experiment in a restriction-free venue, while garnering a following of diners seeking novel, cutting-edge eating experiences. At times these rave-reminiscent food events beget an aura of exclusivity, as attested to by their secret or unconventional locations (think sleek renovated warehouses and chic flats over homely dining rooms) as well as the figure on the final check—and in this respect differ quite a lot from their Italian counterparts, generally. The press has described customers willing to overcome the obstacles required to dine at pop-ups and undergrounds as adventurous, novelty-seeking, avant-garde, and so on. Personally, I smell a touch of pretentiousness in the whole business, yet to be fair should withhold judgement until I’ve had a chance to attend one. No doubt they are a great opportunity for gifted chefs.
Back to the boot. Making headlines this week is a wonderful story about Leonilda Tomasinelli, who is launching her own home restaurant in Genoa’s Albaro neighborhood tomorrow, which also happens to be her 96th birthday. Born in 1919, ‘Nonna Leo’ was called upon to cook for the family from a very young age (she is the oldest of five sisters). It’s safe to say this gal’s got skills, in short. Her menu will feature Ligurian specialties such as le seppie con i piselli (a savory stew-like soup of squid and peas), lo stoccafisso accomodato (a kind of fish stew), la panissa (hard to describe—like cubes of cooked chickpea flour dough), il tocco alla genovese (a meat ragù), focaccia di Recco (cheese-stuffed focaccia), la farinata (chickpea flour flatbread), and la torta Sacripantina (a cream-filled soft cake). Nonna Leo makes her own pasta, naturally, and uses an old-fashioned mortar and pestle to make her pesto and walnut sauce.
Reservations can be made on Nonna Leo’s website. And here she is talking about why she opened her home restaurant: namely, because we no longer eat or cook like we used to in days past, she says. Everything is premade. Pasta, sauces, bread, soups, et cetera are no longer prepared as they should be—except at home. While holding a 19th-century cookbook of Ligurian cuisine that belonged her grandmother, Nonna Leo says she wants to leave these recipes and traditions to her grandchildren so they will live on. Viva Nonna Leo!