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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.

Pan di Ramerino: Rosemary & Raisin Buns for Holy Thursday

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

pan di ramerino at a Florentine bakery

While walking through Florence this morning, I happened to catch a snippet of conversation in front of a local bakery: ‘Yes, actually, the priest was here this morning to bless the bread’. Pausing, I noticed the tray of soft, round buns flecked with zibbibo raisins and rosemary sprigs, and remembered—today is Holy Thursday. And in the Florentine tradition, come the morning of giovedì santo, parish priests visit area bakeries to bless the just-baked rosemary bread known as pan di ramerino (ramerino is rosemary in the Tuscan dialect).

More or less the Italian version of the hot cross bun, pan di ramerino is around throughout much of the year, yet remains highly associated with Holy Thursday in particular. While contemporary pan di ramerino has surely evolved from its medieval prototype—consider the addition of sugar, for instance—the ingredients used traditionally to make pan di ramerino continue to account for its symbolic appearance at this point in the liturgical cycle. Beyond the obvious cross design, the rosemary and rosemary oil recall the aromatic oils applied to the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, much like the traditional Roman focaccia with fennel seeds, also prepared this time of year. Then, the simple addition of milk and eggs to pan di ramerino renders the buns soft and light, transforming the bread from one that would otherwise have been ‘lean’ to one fitting the close of the Lenten fast and the transition to the festal Easter period.

'Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns'

‘Today, Holy Thursday: Blessed Rosemary Buns’

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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Le Lumache di San Giovanni: Roman Stewed Snails for the Summer Solstice

10251947_10202869805018650_413816505403205119_n 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:

vendita-di-lumache-per-la-festa-di-san-giovanni-roma

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!

Saint Agatha’s Olives

olivette di Sant'Agata

olivette di Sant’Agata

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.

Ingredients

200 grams blanched almonds
200 grams sugar
1 tablespoon rum
2-3 drops green food coloring
water
extra sugar for coating

Instructions

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.

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.

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.

La Polentata delle Ceneri

Enrico Pazzagli, 'Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, early 1800s'

Detail of Enrico Pazzagli’s ‘Watercolor Depicting One of the First Polentate, Early 1800s’ **

Polentata’ is probably best translated as polenta festival or fair, and many towns around Italy today are hosting some sort of polenta-centered event. Why today? Polenta has long been associated with Ash Wednesday and the Lenten period on account of its ‘lean’ quality—it’s a peasant dish, if you will, part of the cucina povera. If you make polenta the way I do—usually not without a dollop of cream or butter, maybe cheese, and typically alongside a nice roast meat of some kind and shameful amounts of gravy—you might find this hard to swallow. In any case, symbolically if not in practice in all of our kitchens, a serving of polenta on Ash Wednesday marks the close of the ‘fat days’ and the onset of Lenten customs such as fasting, penance, atonement.

Here in Borgo San Lorenzo, locals have been organizing a polentata on Ash Wednesday every year since 1800. It’s one of the longest-running folk events in the Mugello, with a celebrated backstory that’s hard not to get a little enthusiastic about.  In 1799, following the French invasion of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, a battle to push out French troops took place in the streets of Borgo (much of the Mugello and Casentino areas were influenced at that time by the resistance movement Viva Maria, centered in Arezzo, where resistance fighters took back their city after Napoleon invaded). After the ‘furious battle in the streets around the Borgo San Lorenzo castle’ had ended, and the dead had been buried, local housewives and peasant women set about cooking huge potfuls of polenta to feed the stricken survivors.

The following year the polentata took place on Ash Wednesday, becoming known as ‘la polentata delle ceneri’ (cenere = ash), and has been held every year since in the town’s Piazza Garibaldi. According to Aldo Giovannini, a local writer and journalist who has published numerous books on the Mugello and possesses an archive of over 90,000 images of our territory, the polentata was kept a simple affair, free of the concerns of social class—a testament to la libertà.

** The watercolor is by Enrico Pazzagli, a local artist who creates  beautiful works of Mugello landscapes, scenes, towns, and more.

 

Saint Blaise’s Panettone

breakfast panettone

panettone for breakfast? count me in.

On February 3, the Feast of San Biagio (Saint Blaise in English), the people of Milan practice a peculiar custom—eating leftover panettone cake for breakfast. It’s a tradition very likely born, at least in part, of timing—for many Catholics, the Christmas festivities come to an official end on Candlemas, February 2—but also of the saint’s legendary association with bread, which he used to save a boy choking on a fish bone. San Biagio is, in fact, the protector against throat ailments and choking (on February 3 the Blessing of the Throats is celebrated). According to this Milanese tradition, eating panettone first thing on the morning of February 3 will safeguard the throat against illness or problems.

Could this panettone di San Biagio business be an excuse to break open that final remaining panettone we’ve all hidden away in the pantry after the holidays? Fine by me.

culture bite

The image below is an Eataly Milan store advert for panettone, featuring a saying in Milanese about the blessings of the saint and a note that the panetun cakes have been especially prepared for the occasion.

'Saint Blaise blesses the throat and nose'

‘Saint Blaise blesses the throat and nose’

Lussekatter: Saffron Buns for Lucia, the Bearer of Light

cats' tails, saint's eyes

cat-tail-shaped, saffron-flavored, raisin-dotted soft buns for Lucy

Across the numerous, often ambiguous stories of Lucia, the virgin saint who rejected her suitor and gave her dowry to the poor, the one constant is her association with light. Although Sicilian and celebrated in Italy, Lucia is arguably most revered in Scandinavian countries, where today young women dressed in white will sing Lucia songs and carry candles in her honor, evoking ancient, heart-of-winter rites meant to illuminate the year’s longest nights. In folkloristic terms, Lucia makes up part of the company of figures with whom Saint Nicholaus cavorts, such the Krampus, the red-tongued devilish punisher of bad children, and La Befana, the gift-bearing ‘good witch’ who flies the world over on the eve of the Epiphany. Interestingly, Lucia shares qualities with both: depending on the version of the story, Lucia sometimes rides a broom (like La Befana); while in some Swedish traditions, young people dressed as Lucia go about scrounging for schnapps, not unlike their far-creepier counterparts in the Krampus procession.

These buns, called Lussekatter (meaning ‘Lucy cats’) are the treat to have on Lucia Day. Raisins placed in the curls are meant to recall eyes, as Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and the eyes are her attribute (she was blinded before being executed). This does not exactly explain how this cat-tail-shaped, saffron-flavored, raisin-dotted soft bun equates with Lucia’s feast day though, does it? Well, maybe with a little more research (and why not a trip to Sweden next December, eh?), illumination will come in time for next year’s Santa Lucia.

The recipe comes courtesy of Joe Pastry. I used mascarpone in place of quark, a soft fermented cheese commonly used in baking throughout much of Europe but not available in Italy.

Buona Santa Lucia!