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La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy

John William Waterhouse

La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy

Presented at the Eleventh Legendary Weekend of the Folklore Society
‘Food & Drink in Legend and Tradition’ Conference
4 September, 2016, York

For ages people the world over have perceived the period around the summer solstice as a time of heightened cosmic power and influences both beneficial and sinister over the natural world. Summer solstice rituals intended to either harness positive potential or ward off evil began to shift in the early Christian period from pagan or cosmos-focused to a more Christianized, or church-sanctioned, if you will, tradition of observance focused on Saint John the Baptist, whose nativity was established as 24 June in the Gospel of Luke. Rarely if ever shedding their pagan influences, the practices in Italy and other parts of Europe surrounding this crucial period of the cosmic cycle grew evermore linked to Saint John with the passing centurieshis powers of protection and healing and his association with the waning sun in particular. Saint John’s eve and Saint John’s day also represent a period of the year highly associated with bonding, reconciliation, and marital and societal harmony.

Alongside today’s long-established Catholic and fairly conventional secular and civic observances of the feast of Saint John lives another set of rites. Many Italians, to whom this night is known as both La notte di San Giovanni, or Saint John’s eve, and la notte delle streghe, night of the witches or witches’ eve, carry out practices intended to invoke the saint’s protection from a range of illsfrom disease and physical shortcomings to spells, the evil eye, and even bad love matchesyet are in fact practicing certain vestigial pagan, summer solstice rites.  

This afternoon I will focus on two Italian San Giovanni traditions: the 23 June preparation of the walnut-based liqueur known as nocino, and the 24 June custom of eating snails, starting with an explanation of the herb and flower-based infusion called l’acqua di San GiovanniSaint John’s ‘water’ or ‘elixir’as this reputedly magical and therapeutic mixture is highly connected to the customs observed on 23 and 24 June.

First, a bit on John’s backstory as it relates to the summer solstice and his feast day.

John the Baptist is one of few Christian figures whose nativity is strictly linked to the birth of Christ, and the only saint recognized in the liturgical year on both the day of his birth and the day of his death (the only other figures with this recognition being Christ and Mary).  The establishment of John’s nativity in the Gospel of Luke as precisely six months prior to Christ’s birtheach equally spaced from the following month’s calends (July and January, respectively)begins John’s association with the summer solstice, which in the popular traditions of the time would have been observed anytime between 19 and 25 June. Subsequently, the waning sun becomes symbolically linked to John as well: early iconography of the saint, in fact, includes an image of the sun resting low on the horizon. Moreover, some of John’s most remembered words suggest a further connection to the post-summer solstice period in which the sun wanes and the length of the day decrease for the following six months. Religious historian Nenino Valentini describes this transition as such (my translation):

“Some of the more significant celebrations of the Latin Church seemed unable to conceal the ancient and still vivid echoes of pre-Christian traditions; this same identification of the Baptist with the June solstice sun just beginning its decline, for example, betrays aspects of great symbolic value that, despite having different origins, took hold in the Christian sensibility. And in this seemingly weak notion, one however fully assimilated into popular tradition, there has been an attempt to find justification of the declining sun as associated with [the Baptist], according to the following episode narrated by John the Evangelist:  “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Further linking John to this idea is one of his epithets, “weeping” or “crying” John, which finds its counterpart in John the Evangelist’s opposite epithet, “laughing” John. John the Evangelist’s feast day falls squarely in the winter solstice period, on 27 December, and this notion of the so-called “two Johns” as figures representing opposite ends of the cosmic-cum-liturgical year has been interpreted by some as a Christianized revision of the function of the Roman god Janus, god of passageways and portals, beginnings and endings, whose two faces look simultaneously to the past and the future and represent respectively the two solstice ‘doors’: Janua Coeli and Janua Inferni. Some historians point to the similarity in names as well:  Janus-John (English) and Giano-Giovanni (Italian). Seeming to further support the Janus-John connection is the occasional representation in Christian art of the two Johns side by side.

Among the many associations Saint John’s eve has inherited from its pagan forerunners is that of this night’s immense potential for bonding and making pacts. In the comparatico tradition in rural Sardinia and Sicily, strongly connected to the power of fire to illuminate, revive, and purify, individuals choose a companion with whom they wish to form a lifelong bond. Holding or tying their hands together, the two leap over a ceremonial Saint John’s bonfire on the night of the 23rd to cement this bond. Considered unbreakable, stronger even than blood ties, the comparatico, which translates to something like god-parent or blood-brother, was understood as a “spiritual bond, not officially recognized by the Church, which in the rural mentality recalled the exemplary bond that occurred between John and Jesus Christ through  baptism on the banks of the Jordan; this evangelical notion of the comparatico, which could be formed between persons of opposite sex, resulted in a kind of indestructible relationship on a spiritual level, evidently transcending all other familial relations.” (Valentini; my translation). In a significant alternative version of the comparatico rite,  two individuals link hands under running water on Saint John’s eve and recite the Apostles’ Creed.

The powers that facilitate this making of life-bonds on Saint John’s eve extend to the realm of romantic love and matrimony, rendering this shortest night of the year a potent time for love and lovers. One theory suggests that the tradition of marrying at midsummer derives from practical and evolutionary reasons, in that mating at midsummer meant births in spring, giving delicate infants born into a dark and primitive world a greater chance of survival. Author and Sardinian culture expert Claudia Zedda has described the powers of this night as such: “It is the reckless, arduous, passionate union of this night, so violent because it is so anticipated, between the desire-inflamed Sun and pale Moon of love, which gives rise to the creation of these beneficial energies” (Zedda; my translation). Perhaps the best known modern reference to midsummer as a night of lovers’ reconciliation comes to us from Shakespeare. Not coincidentally, then, it is on this night that women and men seek, in their respective ways, to court harmony and reconciliation in their love relationships.

One especially fascinating midsummer ritual in Italy brings together John’s curative and protective powers, his manifest association with water as the vehicle of Christian rebirth, and matters nuptial in naturein particular with regard to the female concern of appearing healthy and desirable before potential mates. On the night of 23 June, women throughout Italian rural areas set out into the fields to gather flowers and herbs, which are then used to prepare the therapeutic and beautifying potion known as Saint John’s water (sometimes called Saint John’s elixir).

The concoction’s star ingredient is, not surprisingly, Saint John’s wort, or l’erba di san giovanni, a plant fundamental to traditional-herbal medicine whose sun-colored flowers bloom briefly around the summer solstice. Numerous other flowers and flowering herbs are used to make Saint John’s water,  each with their own specific assigned function. Countless personalized variations exist, a notable example being the addition of wormwood to protect against il malocchio, or the evil eye.

To prepare Saint John’s water, the gathered herbs and flowers are placed in a bowl of water and left outside on the night of 23 June. In Sardinian dialect this act is called selenai, from the verb selenare, a fascinating and difficult-to-translate word derived from the name of the moon goddess Selene, and meaning something like “to absorb the moon’s light”. Yet alongside this clearly pagan concept of the origins of the night’s beneficial powers is the equally affirmed notion that Saint John himself delivers physical protection and even spiritual salvation, specifically through the elemental agent knowns as Saint John’s dew, or la guazza di san giovanniliterally the dew covering the natural world on the morning of 24 June.

Saint John’s dew is considered so potent on this morning that it alone is sometimes collected directly from leaves, flowers, grasses, and so on, and without the addition of any herbs or flowers is made into a distillation believed to foster hair growth, improve fertility, cure skin afflictions, and prevent illness generally. In some versions of the dew-collecting ritual, a cloth is left out overnight to absorb the dew, which is simply wrung out into a container in the morning; or a glass or bowl is placed in a hole in the ground to let the dew drizzle in. These unmethodical alternative versions of the rite may seem almost lazy in their practice, yet actually underscore the peak potency of the magical, protective, and beneficial elements of the cosmos and/or Saint omnipresent on this night.

To conclude the rite, on the morning of 24 June women will wash their faces with the dew or water, with the hope of rejuvenating their skin and warding off skin ailments, and overall improving their physical attractiveness.  In some parts of Sardinia, before applying the water, women will examine the arrangement of the herbs and flowers, seeking to divine their future spouse.

As touched on prior, the night of the summer solstice is not only a night of great potential for good, whether in the form of healing, spiritual salvation, bonding, or harmonyit is also a night on which evil forces are believed to manifest just as powerfully as their beneficial counterparts. In fact, Saint John’s water rituals are sometimes interpreted as protective measures specific to this very night.  A particular medieval Italian legend accounts in large part for this, a discussion of which will lead us the first food item to be explored as part of Saint John’s eve traditionsthe walnut liqueur nocino.

The legend of the Witches of Benevento tells of an annual witches coven around an ancient and sacred walnut tree in Benevento (Campania, 50 kilometres from Naples). According to the legend, witches desiring to harvest the abundant cosmic forces of this night would fly from every corner of Europe to reach the tree, where they would convene with and worship the devil. Countless versions of this tale exist, with some few historical anecdotes attesting to its origins. It’s also worth noting that cults dedicated to Isis and Hecate existed in the area in the Roman period; also documented is the felling of a grand walnut tree by order of the 7th-century bishop Barbatus, who cited certain ‘questionable forms’ of worship still in practice near the tree. Centuries later, the witchcraft trial of Matteuccia de Francesco in 1428 further cemented the link between witches and the Benevento walnut tree (witch trials took place at a walnut tree and evidence discovered there in later centuries included bones of a woman). With the preachings of Saint Bernardino of Siena and the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum (Hammer of the Witches) that same century, the following three centuries brought an ongoing witch-hunt fervor to the Benevento area (Romanazzi).

Why the walnut tree? Tree worshipping cults were known to exist in pagan Italy, and in fact in the Benevento area other types of trees were also worshipped, yet the intriguing symbolism of the walnut encourages an almost mystical view of the nut. Its shape suggests infinity, longevity, hidden wisdom. To the druids they were magical and medicinal. (Nocino is, in fact, likely a version of a walnut-based drink that originated in Great Britain with the Picts and eventually made its way to the Italian peninsula via the Celts.) The ancient Greeks and Romans associated the walnut with fertility, and served the nut at wedding banquets (Cooper). Other more practical aspects of the walnut might account for its special status as wellhighly nutritious, the walnut has long been considered what today we might call a super food, rendered even more precious by the relatively little effort needed to maintain walnut trees and harvest the nuts. Valentini describes the walnut as “The power of new life intimately closed within the shell that can certainly be identified with the essence of creative expression; as a picture of life and abundance, the fruit springs from this cornucopia in possession of the goddess of fertility”. Interestingly, an opposite view of the walnut tree as a bringer of ill or evil exists alongside these ideas, with some Italian proverbs warning of the dangers of planting a walnut tree too close to home, or falling asleep underneath one.

Today, gathering walnuts on the evening of 23 June to make nocino is a fairly common practice in Italy. Of course, few Italians follow the original harvesting rite, according to which female virgins, barefoot and dressed in white, climb the walnut tree after dark on the night of the 23rd to gather an uneven number of walnuts, careful not to touch the fruit with any material besides wood. The walnuts are then left outside overnight to absorb those same cosmic and/or saintly forces believed to imbue all other plants, fruits, nuts and waters with beneficial properties. The still-green walnuts are then sliced into quarters, covered in alcohol, and left outside in the sunlight for a little over two months (sometimes longer). In some traditions, the year’s nocino batch is opened and tasted on November 1, All Saints Day.

While nocino is both produced industrially and made in private homes throughout Italy, the liqueur has a special link to the city of Modena in Emilia-Romagna, where a non-profit association of modern day witches called the Ordine del Nocino Modenese works to promote the cultural history of nocino, including offering nocino tasting classes and competitions. The association leadership has no membership limitations, but only women may join the official order, given they a) know how to make nocino, and b) are willing to take off their shoes for la notte delle streghe and climb a walnut tree.

Now let’s talk about snails.

 

Perceptions of Saint John’s eve as a night in which harmony and balance may be restored come to us in part from an ancient Roman festival that took place at midsummer dedicated to Concordia, goddess of harmony. During the so-called Concordia banquets, Romans would gather together to feast on pots of stewed snails, an animal which in the Roman ideology represented various negative life aspects. A predominant theory as to why the poor lowly snail came to stand for things like discord and ill-will relates to its anatomy: the ‘eyes’ of the snail recall the age-old curse known as the evil eye, or malocchio in Italian. Romans believed that in the ingestion of the thing representing discord they were in essence courting accord, for which reason it was important to consume snails with one’s friends and one’s enemies. To eat snails with anyone with whom you’d had any kind of disagreement during the previous yearwhether a lover’s quarrel, a fight with your in-laws, a business deal gone badmeant to literally digest, hence dissolve, any negativity between individuals. In this context then, the eating of snails was a means to foster reconciliation and restore harmony, both marital and societal.

The many symbolic meanings and interpretations associated with this ostensibly low and simple creature are rather astounding. Related to the snails anatomy, the horns in particular, is not only the above-noted connection to the evil eye, but also the evil eye’s cosmic counter-agentthe apotropaic sign of the horns. The snail’s horns symbolize male sexuality as well, an obvious enough association; in parts of Sardinia Saint John’s eve was also linked to rural phallic cults (Zedda), and moreover amulets in the shape of male genitals are among those believed to protect against the evil eye. The snail’s slow, voluptuousness manner of moving together with other of its bio functionsits waxing and waning motions within the shell, considered lunar or feminine, and even the substances it oozes wherever it treadsare all characteristics lending themselves to easy sexuality-focused interpretations.

A fascinating yet lesser known anecdote speaks of an additional benefit to males who eat snails on Saint John’s day: namely, protection against a wife’s infidelity. Simply put, the eating of the snail’s horns, called le corna in Italian, functions like a kind of sympathetic magic, a protective act against being cuckoldedcalled, in Italian, mettere le corna.

The snail-eating tradition among Romans was in later centuries to become centralized in the piazza in front of Saint John Lateran Basilicaa shift that clearly links the pagan Concordia-focused snail eating ritual with the Catholic celebration of Saint John. Roman practices on la notte delle streghe included flocking to Saint John’s square to seek the saint’s protection from witches making their way to a nearby coven. In this Roman version of the night of the witches, the witches in question were summoned by the damned spirits of Salome and Herodias, responsible for the beheading of the saint. The tradition of eating snails in this same piazza on 24 June continues today.

In the two photos below we see a lumacata, or snail festival, from the 1950s, one in particular (left) interesting in how its overall symbolic composition can be interpreted in terms relative to this tradition. The middle-aged man holding the pot of snails seems almost gluttonous, slightly lascivious even, in his comportment (sexual component), while on either side of him stands a man and woman, both looking equally cheerful (balance, harmony between the sexes). In the Roman dialect, by the way, the word for lumaca is ciumaca, which is also a slang word for ‘pretty girl.’  Lastly, this Roman proverb speaks rather indisputably to the link between eating snails and courting:  “Regazze da bacià e ciumache da magnà non ponno mai sazià” (Roughly, One can never have enough girls to kiss or snails to eat.)  

Next, the popularization of certain aspects of this feast day can be seen in the first image (below), a Facebook post promoting a Florentine gelato shop’s ‘Saint John’s elixir-flavored’ ice cream, next to which we have a poster for a ‘witch’s eve’ party, where lumache di san giovanni will be served.  

And here are two posters for snail festivals. I’d like to point out the proverb printed on the secondit translates roughly to “this feast day is heralded (or announced) by the summer solstice/old herbs are burned, new herbs are gathered”as it speaks to yet another Saint John’s Eve tradition, namely the ritualistic burning of the herbs gathered the year prior.

Below is an intriguing poster for a Saint John’s eve party in which the theme of reconciliation is clearly represented in the image of the handshake.

Lastly, three examples of how the traditions of this feast day are being explored and shared by contemporary Italy-based food bloggers and in various social media outlets: snail stew, nocino, and Saint John’s water.

(questions and discussion)

Bibliography

Cardini, Franco. Il Libro delle Feste: IL Cerchio Sacro dell’Anno. Il Cerchio Srl, 1998.
Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Thames & Hudson, 1978.
Di Leo, Maria Adele, Feste Popolari di Sicilia. Newton & Compton Editori, 1997.
Duscio, Francesco. La Romanesca: Cucina Popolare e Tradizione Romana. Fuoco Edizioni, 2014.
Falassi, Alessandro. Folklore Toscano. Edizioni Nuovo corriere senese, 1980.
Falassi, Alessandro. Italian Folklore: An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1985.
Frazer, James George, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. V 11 Third Edition accessed May 19 2016 at archive.org 2009 digitized version.
Kieckhefer, Richard. Magic in the Middle Ages. Cambridge U Press, 1989.
Lapucci, Carlo. Le Leggende della Terra Toscana. Sarnus, 2011.
Lindahl, C., McNamara, J., Lindow, J. eds. Medieval Folklore: A Guide to Myths, Legends, Beliefs, and Customs. Oxford U Press, 2002.
Lorini, Tebaldo. La Magia dell’Erba Voglio: Erbe e Fiori nelle Tradizioni Mugellane. Stabilimento Tipografico Toccafondi, 1988.
Romanazzi, Andrea. Guida alle Streghe in Italia. Venexia, 2014.
Spalding, Henry. A Treasury of Italian Folklore. Jonathan David/ Bookthrift, 1980.
Thiselton-Dyer, Thomas Firminger. The Mythic & Magickal Folklore of Plants. Samhain Song Press, 2008 (Originally published 1889 as The Folklore of Plants).
Valentini, Anita. I “Fochi” di San Giovanni: La Festa del Patrono a Firenze. Firenze, 2006.
Valentini, Nerino. Il Nocino. L’Elisir di San Giovanni. Sometti, 2010.
Zedda, Claudia. Est Antigoriu, 2012
Zedda, Claudia. La Magia di San Giovanni. Accessed June 24, 2016 at www.claudiazedda.it
Segreti e Virtù delle Piante Medicinali. Reader’s Digest S.p.A. Milan, 1979.

La Notte di San Giovanni: Midsummer Food & Drink Rituals in Italy

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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.

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Saint Martin’s Feast Day

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‘The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day’

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.

Mugello Marvels: Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Andrea Guidotti in front of his fabulous bottega, Vino in Tavola

Mugello Marvels explores the flavors and traditions of the Mugello region of northeast Tuscany, with an emphasis on local chefs, restaurants, food fairs, and events.

I’m happy to launch this new category, Mugello Marvels, with a post dedicated to what is arguably my favorite spot in all the Mugello. Vino in Tavola is a convivial Italian bottega-style shop and deli located in the heart of Borgo San Lorenzo, a place locals frequent come the lunch hour to enjoy a panino and a glass of wine at the cozy counter. It’s also popular at the aperitivo hour.

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

crostini e vino, a perfect snack

Others come here to fill up hefty vessels with choice vino sfuso (think wine on tap), carefully selected by shop owner and connoisseur of tasty stuff, Andrea Guidotti, or to browse the selection of gourmet products, many of which are rarely if ever found in Italian markets. Which leads me to a digression…

I’ve written elsewhere about the lack of culinary diversity in Italy. Now, before you Italophiles start hollering about regional differences, note that I’m not talking about the various distinct traditions from region to region within Italy. I mean, rather, international cuisine and the foodways of others, about which Italians can be mighty suspicious and even disdainful. You folks reading this from America or the UK might not realize just how much you take for granted when shopping for, say, a specific type of cheese, since your favorite market no doubt offers not only a good selection of French and Italian cheeses but also those made in your own and other countries. Finding a good French chevrè or English cheddar in Italy is akin to a treasure hunt. Seriously, to judge by the paltry selection at large Italian supermarket chains, you’d think Brie was the only cheese France had to offer—a generic, underwhelming Brie at that.

I come from a country where even the most unexceptional of food stores will have an entire aisle dedicated to products from around the world.  Where I now live, those items, few and second-rate, are found tucked away in a sad, meter-wide section labeled ‘ethnic’ foods: a jar of Pace brand salsa, some rice noodles, perhaps Worcestershire sauce, a can of Uncle Ben’s beans. In some larger Italian cities, so-called ethnic foods stores do offer more in the way of variety, but at exorbitant prices and erratic availability. Sure, I can get cilantro or lemongrass, if I’m willing to travel two hours to visit one of these negozi etnici. Maybe I’ll pick up a rock-hard avocado that’s travelled from South Africa or Israel, if I don’t mind spending about 3 euros (the avocado is completely misunderstood in Italy). Closer to home, I could get lucky at our local grocery store, if I’m able to persuade the gal stocking shelves that a powder made from dried garlic is not a figment of my foreign imagination. An anecdote: once a French woman on holiday  stopped me at the supermarket: ‘Where is the salted butter?’ she asked. When I answered that it was very hard to come by—both of us eyeing the thirty-some brands of unremarkable Italian-made unsalted butter—she thought surely we’d not understood each other. C’est bizarre! A nearby Italian woman chimed in, suggesting a shop that might have salted butter—in another town.

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Plaisir au Chablis from Burgundy and Le Brebiou from the French Pyrenees

Living in this land of culinary insularity has meant mastering, or at least getting comfortable with, the art of the work-around—growing cilantro and other ‘exotic’ herbs and making buttermilk and drying and grinding garlic for powder—which might seem resourceful but is really a time-sucking drag. Sometimes you need an ingredient that doesn’t require weeks of advance planning, you know? This brings me back to Vino in Tavola.

I wouldn’t call Vino in Tavola an ethnic store. Yet the selection of rare and international items Andrea stocks makes it truly unique among shops. He cultivates relationships with trusted wine-makers and producers well beyond Tuscany, and the results of his research and efforts can be seen in every square inch of his meticulously-kept, quaint, friendly place of business. Browsing the shelves and chatting with Andrea about newly arrived items is always a pleasure.  Especially the cheeses.

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gruyère, raw goat’s milk robiola, and English cheddar – heaven!

Vino in Tavola is also great for gifts. You can put together a lovely holiday basket here, choosing from among the excellent Italian and French wines, artisanal beers, and liquors.

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Italian and French wines and champagnes

And here’s a sampling of other items you’ll find at Vino in Tavola:

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Escargots in Borgo San Lorenzo? Wonder of wonders!

colatura di Cetara

colatura di Cetara, the dreamy, anchovy-based sauce recalling garum of ancient Roman cuisine

spezie

spezie

a few 'ethnic' items

‘ethnic’ rice varieties

uncommon snack foods

uncommon snack foods

'nduja from Spilinga - aka the real deal

‘nduja from Spilinga – aka the real deal

I always feel a bit of a thrill when I walk through the doors at Vino in Tavola, wondering what new, tasty item will have arrived on Andrea’s shelves since my last visit. Sometimes I leave the shop with ideas for the blog, such as this post on the ‘purgatory beans’ of Gradoli, which I learned about thanks to a little bag of these storied white beans I spotted at Vino in Tavola. And I always leave with a bottle of wine or two, some butter—French and salted—and a smile.

Vino in Tavola
Piazza Dante, 22
Borgo San Lorenzo (FI)
tel: 055 845 5212
info@vinointavola.com

St John’s Eve: Herbal Remedies & Ancient Rituals to Mark Midsummer

John William Waterhouse

Waterhouse, John William. Gather Ye Rosebuds While Ye May. 1909.

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.

Alla Gricia: A Sauce With Many Stories

alla gricia with strozzapreti (don’t tell the purists!)

Alla gricia, considered by many the antecedent to all’amatriciana and alla carbonara, is a pasta sauce from Lazio made with three ingredients: guanciale, pecorino romano, and black pepper. Get your hands on quality versions of these items, and you can’t go wrong. The recipe follows below. In the meantime, some history.

Here are but a few theories about the origins of alla gricia: Is this the sauce that folks from Amatrice who immigrated to Rome modified with the addition of tomato, resulting in the now-famous all’amatriciana? For some, yes. Or could it be that the sauce comes from Grisciano, a small town in the Accumoli district not far from Amatrice? The locals would have us believe so.

The predominant theory, however, points to the word gricio, a Roman term for bread-makers used in the 15th century. I Grici came to Rome from the Swiss Canton of Grisons, or Cantone de’ Grigioni in Italian. (The canton, in turn, takes its name from the Lega Grigia, or Grey League, one of three 14th-century leagues that formed the canton whose members were known for wearing simple clothing, grey in color). In Rome, the word griscium also referred to the uniform worn by members of the arte bianca, the bakers’ guild—specifically to the coat, also grey, they wore over their clothes to shield against flour. In time, the term gricio acquired a negative meaning, something akin to oaf, hick, or rube—a shabby man, in short. Bakers apparently had a reputation in Rome for being poor dressers, with or without their trademark griscium. They wore pants that hit above the ankle, an unforgivable fashion faux pas that gave rise to the Roman ‘er carzone a la gricia’ (I’m guessing ‘gricia pants’?) and the Neapolitan ‘zompafuossi’ pants, which must be what we’d call ‘highwaters’ in English.

Though short on style, the Grici were unquestionably skilled bread-makers, and they maintained a stronghold on the Roman arte bianca for some time. By the 19th century, the term gricio acquired a broader meaning, used to refer to immigrants from German and Swiss regions generally, and even those from northern Lombardy. Having by this time expanded into other fields, such as the minor guild of the oliandoli—oil vendors who also dealt in all manner of kitchenware, food sundries, and provisions—the Grici saw their reputation in Rome degenerate further. Already considered crude mountain people, and resented for their independent, frugal ways, the Grici also gave credit in the form of small though very precise loans, and as meticulous creditors had the habit of nailing up credit slips in their shops. They kept later hours than members of other guilds, to collect the petty debts owed them; and a charcoal stove present in the bottega allowed them to cook and eat their meals without closing up shop. Perhaps this saying in Roman dialect best sums up the common view of the Grici: ‘Er Griciosi nun fosse rafacano sarebbe puro bbono.’ Roughly,This Gricio, he’d be all right if he weren’t such a miser.’

Back to the pasta sauce. Though I’ve not been able to substantiate this, I think alla gricia must be at least partly a result of the reputed Gricio parsimony.  Requiring as it does only small quantities of select ingredients to create a superb flavor, alla gricia certainly yields maximum returns.

Pasta alla Gricia

Use 80-100 grams of short rod pasta or 80 grams of long pasta per serving (purists will say either rigatoni or spaghetti, strictly).  For the sauce, I estimate a small handful, about 1/2 cup, of sliced guanciale per serving and about 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano. Start the pasta water, and salt it lightly as the sauce ingredients are very salty already.  Slice the rind away from the guanciale and then slice it into 1-centimeter thick slices lengthwise, then into smaller strips. Cook on very low heat, stirring occasionally, until the fat has melted and turned transparent. Grind in a good amount black pepper and add a ladle-full of the pasta cooking water. When the pasta is ready, scoop it out and combine well with the sauce and add in the grated cheese.

This video from Giallo Zafferano, in Italian but easy to follow, is a good visual aid, especially on how to slice the guanciale. Interestingly, here Sonia Peronaci recounts yet another theory about the origin of this sauce. According to Peronaci, alla gricia predates the arrival of tomatoes in Europe (which is most certainly true), but in her version it was invented by shepherds in the Lazio region.

Another Gastro Gaffe? Chef Carlo Cracco’s Scandalous Sugo all’Amatriciana

spaghetti all'amatriciana

all’amatriciana, sans garlic

Here we go again. Just weeks after a Star brand television commercial stirred a heated debate with its portrayal of a Sicilian housewife adding a bouillon cube to the classic dish caponata, Italians are once more up in arms over another publicized violation of a beloved dish—this time, the pasta sauce known as sugo all’amatriciana. At the heart of the heresy is Carlo Cracco, an accomplished Italian chef and restaurateur whose steely-eyed manner wreaks fear and trembling on MasterChef Italia contestants. This week, during a guest appearance on the popular (really horrible, actually) television show C’è Posta Per Te, Cracco stated that he adds aglio in camicia, or unpeeled garlic, to his amatriciana sauce.

The reaction? Well, for starters, a Google News search for ‘Carlo Cracco’ yielded over 120 articles in the Italian media today. And as one Italian journalist cheekily put it, Cracco is sure to be roasted for this ‘MasterChoc’ (choc being the Italianized form of the English loan word shock). Particularly piqued are the people of Amatrice, the town in northern Lazio from which the dish gets its name. The mayor of Amatrice—that’s right, the mayor—has, in addition to inviting Cracco to Amatrice to ‘learn’ how to make the true sugo all’amatriciana, responded by publishing the only ingredients sanctioned in his town’s namesake sauce on the main page of the city’s official website: guanciale, pecorino cheese, white wine, San Marzano tomatoes, black pepper and chilli pepper. Sans garlic, fool.

What’s more, don’t go thinking you can toss just any old pasta in an amatriciana sauce (I mean, do you have a death wish or something?) Spaghetti. Only spaghetti. It says so right on the sign for Amatrice, for Pete’s sake!—

Spaghetti City

Spaghetti City

A Caponata Controversy, or How to Piss Off a Sicilian

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

making my own mischief: caponata with prawns

You gotta love Italians. For a population at times so indifferent to its societal troubles (political corruption, tax evasion, pension reform, pollution, to name a few), they are oddly disposed to rather vocal, even organized indignation when it comes to their food.

A commercial for Star brand dadi, or what we’d call bouillon cubes, is being lambasted these days as an ‘insult to Sicilian cuisine.’ The spot features a Sicilian woman at her stove alongside Tiziana Stefanelli, winner of the second MasterChef Italia, and as the two cheerily proceed with making a Sicilian classic, caponata, one of them adds a (gasp!) Star dado—the source of all the recent uproar. With the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi visible through a background window, the setting is unmistakably Palermo, although many have been quick to point out the housewife speaks nothing like a palermitano (wanting to disassociate, no doubt). Like salt on a wound, she then recites the slogan, Se non c’è il dado non c’è caponata, e se non c’è caponata non c’è famiglia (roughly: ‘Without a bouillon cube there’s no caponata, and without caponata there’s no family’). People are totally freaking out.

The outcry on the web includes a Facebook page called La caponata Siciliana non va profanata (‘Sicilian caponata must not be desecrated’), an outlet for indignant Italians to voice their stance that using a dado in a caponata is both insulting and unnecessary. Some are calling for the commercial to be cancelled. As well, the Star brand’s Facebook page has been filled with critical comments regarding the commercial, while on Twitter the hashtag #savecaponata is getting a fair amount of play.

Protests have come as well in the form of letters to Star’s customer service department, and in several posts on sites and blogs dedicated to Sicilian cooking, with apt doses of wit and brio. I counted at least five bloggers using the adopted slogan alla faccia del dado Star (‘In your face, Star bouillon’). Too many media outlets to count are covering the controversy.

In a post titled Giù le mani dalla mia caponata (‘Hands off my caponata’), journalist and Palermo native Giusi Battaglia, in addition to criticizing Stefanelli for having ‘colluded’ with Star, had this to say (my translation): ‘If there is one thing we Sicilians can be proud of, it is our centuries-long gastronomic culture. A bouillon cube in caponata is like Lucifer in heaven. Period.’ Battaglia says she contacted Stefanelli, citing the latter’s duty to decline such a request from a multinational, calling the whole business ‘dirty’ and detrimental to her credibility. Stefanelli’s response? ‘My husband is Sicilian. I know how to make caponata. The bouillon cube helps to bring all the flavors together, especially for amateur cooks.’

Meanwhile, the Star group’s response has been simple: ‘In this spot we are showing one interpretation of the recipe, one which can be personalized, as with the addition of other ingredients.’ Actually, caponata does vary throughout southern Italy. Some versions include artichokes, others fish, or peeled whole tomatoes instead of tomato sauce, and so on. Yours truly recently made a version of caponota with prawns. So, in theory, Star’s defense is sensible. Recipes change. Variations abound.

But no one’s having it. The frenzy over this spirited dado debate—which at its core seems to me not about adding or varying an ingredient but rather the lowly bouillon cube itself, widely considered a culinary shortcut of poseurs and dilettantes—continues to gain steam and yield evermore imaginative responses. The folks at StrEat Palermo recently posted a video in which they explain how the bouillon cube can be used in another Palermo specialty, pani câ meusa, a sandwich made from veal organs. It’s pretty funny. Still others are advocating for reason and good sense, summed up by a comment I saw recurring across various media: Hasn’t Sicily got other things to worry about?

An Island Wonder: Tradition & Innovation at Ventotene’s ‘Il Giardino’ Restaurant

a tour de force

a tour de force

There are so many reasons to visit the tiny Italian island Ventotene. To convince you, I could talk about the island’s fascinating history—of the tufa-carved port that served the structure known today as Villa Giulia, Emperor Augustus’s luxurious vacation villa that would become his daughter, Julia’s, place of exile. I could post pictures of the endlessly stunning seascapes, or recount my experiences with some of the island’s uber-friendly locals (fewer than 900 in off-season).  If you’re anything like me, however, the one aspect of a place sure to hook your interest will be its food. And on this count, Ventotene will not disappoint.

Recently I met the two skilled and charming cooks at Il Giardino, Candida and Christian.

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Cooks Candida and Christian of Il Giardino Restaurant

Christian is from Ecuador and has lived in Italy for 13 years. He moved to Ventotene after living six years in Rome, during which time he was chef assistant to Giovanni Passerini at Uno e Bino, an acclaimed establishment in Rome’s San Lorenzo quarter that closed about five years ago (Passerini went on to start Rino in Paris). Today Christian works alongside the restaurant founders, Candida and Giovanni, who opened Il Giardino over thirty years ago, and their children.

In the kitchen, Candida’s extensive cooking experience and knowledge of the island—its abundance, its limitations—pair perfectly with Christian’s flair, innovation, and hard-won expertise, resulting in dishes that are at once harmonious, delectable, and beautiful to behold. Per Giovanni’s vision, Il Giardino strives to use only products available on Ventotene. This means no or very little meat. As Candida explains, birds are protected on Ventotene, a migratory stopover; so birds are ‘off the menu’. There are no livestock farms here, and while the cooks could pick up some pre-packaged meats delivered from the mainland to the island grocer, doing so would not be in line with the restaurant’s philosophy. There is no game to hunt on Ventotene, save the occasional rabbit, which local hunters might sell to Candida from time to time. Yet outside sporadic windfalls of this kind, the menu at Il Giardino is based exclusively on fish and seafood—selected each morning at the port by Giovanni himself—and vegetables grown on the island, fairly bountiful: onion, tomato, zucchini, eggplant, peas, artichokes, lentils, potatoes, and more.

Working within the limitations of this island life must surely be a challenge, and no doubt lesser cooks would falter. These two have absolutely flourished. Have a look at the two astonishing dishes Christian kindly prepared for me, using local, fresh ingredients favored by the restaurant.

Carpaccio of Marinated Ricciola Fish

The ricciola, marinated in extra virgin olive oil and sea salt, is served with an orange emulsion, fresh fennel, bean sprouts, and capers. You will be forever dubious of cooked fish after tasting this melt-in-your-mouth delicacy.

vento5

Fried Zucchini Flowers with Tomato Confit & Capers

The flower is stuffed with ricotta and pecorino and fried to perfection. But what renders this dish a tour de force is Christian’s trademark confit, made by oven-cooking Pachino tomatoes low and slow (100 °C for 3 hours) with clove, lemon zest, and powdered sugar.

Ventotene is reachable by ferry from the town Formia, located on the Gulf of Gaeta and roughly halfway between Rome and Naples. In summer the island bursts with visitors, and the season peaks with ten days of festivities leading up to September 20, feast day of the island’s patron saint, Candida. When I arrived on Ventotene, the celebrations had concluded by just a few days, and the atmosphere was thrilling and blustery yet calm, with few tourists in sight. Just the odd sea view or two to whet your appetite (I couldn’t resist!):

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

the view from tiny Ventotene of even tinier Santo Stefano

Fava Beans & Favism

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

pasta shells with fava beans & pecorino cheese

If you’ve never heard of it, favism, or favismo in Italian, sounds suspiciously like a food legend or superstition. In fact, favism is a real hereditary disease resulting from a defect of the gene that regulates glucose-6-phosphate, defined by Merriam-Webster as ‘a condition especially of males of Mediterranean descent that is marked by the development of hemolytic anemia upon consumption of broad beans or inhalation of broad bean pollen and is caused by a usually inherited deficiency of glucose-6-phosphate.’

Most people live with favism symptom-free, yet when it does manifest, the disease can lead to, among other things, serious kidney problems. The term favism is a bit of a misnomer, since not all people affected with glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency—the technical name, commonly abbreviated as G6PD deficiency—will manifest symptoms after consuming fava beans or being exposed to pollens. Women can carry this genetic defect and pass it to male offspring.

About 400 million people worldwide have G6PD deficiency, predominantly in Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Mediterranean. Rates of favism are high in Sardinia, also known for its high rate of centenarians. Interestingly, a recent study by the University of Sassari suggests a connection between G6PD deficiency and longevity: scientists observed that the lack of the G6PD enzyme was twice as common in Sardinian centenarians, leading them to theorize a relationship between a so-called ‘longevity gene’ and the genetic defect that causes this particular deficiency. (Sardinia is one of the world’s five blue zones—areas with the highest documented rates of longevity—along with Costa Rica; Okinawa, Japan; the Greek island Ikaría; and Loma Linda, California.) So perhaps there’s a silver lining to favism.

For the rest of us, fava beans are a tasty and versatile legume, rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals*. Some of the many ways to eat fava beans are raw with pecorino cheese, cooked lightly and tossed with pasta and pecorino (pictured above), or processed into a pesto-like paste to spread on crostini with other vegetables, cheese, or grilled prawns, as pictured here:

fava2

*Fava beans contain isoflavones, which are considered both good (as antioxidants) and potentially bad (as phytoestrogens). Whether isoflavones should be moderated in the diet is debatable, as some clinical studies have shown these substances to have beneficial therapeutic and disease prevention qualities, while others suggest they should be avoided for the same reasons one would avoid consuming any synthetic hormone. Fava beans are included, for instance, in The New Mayo Clinic Cookbook as a ‘healthy’ food, while the Mayo Clinic website also notes: ‘Studies on phytoestrogens—whether from food or supplements—haven’t shown a convincing and consistent effect on hot flashes or other menopausal symptoms. Some experts speculate that phytoestrogens could increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with the effectiveness of tamoxifen in women with breast cancer.’ Most current discussions of the potential risks associated with phytoestrogens center on soybeans and derivative products, such as milk and oils.