Last September I happened to pass through York on my way to Cornwall. Most of you will surely sense, without even a glance at a map of the United Kingdom, a hint of folly in such a statement. Cornwall via York? From Italy? Well, yes, and I had my reasons. Namely, the chance to participate in a wonderful event hosted by the Folklore Society, where I presented on the topic of Italian midsummer food and drink rituals. The presentation and text are available online for consultation.
Tonight in various quarters of the city, countless people of Rome will enjoy the culinary specialty le lumache di San Giovanni, or St John’s snail stew. A tradition with origins in the ancient Roman festivities held this time of year—in honor of the goddesses Fortuna and Concordia, for example—fare la lumacata on the night of June 24 is a fascinating midsummer ritual millennia in the making. Why snails? Some will point immediately to the obvious reasons: snails are cheap, in abundance this time of year, fairly nutritious and, when prepared well, rather tasty. True enough, yet nothing this curious is ever without an intriguing backstory!
The eating of snails has long been equated with apotropaic powers, of invoking protection against evil as well as harmony between the sexes. The physiology of the snail accounts for much of the lore and beliefs attached to it. The ancient Romans saw in the snail’s horns, or le corna, a representation of negativity, discord and even evil forces, possibly given the easy analogy between the ‘eyes’ of the snail and il malocchio. During summer solstice festivities, the so-called concordia or pax banquets, Romans who ate snails believed they were thwarting misfortune, that in the ingesting of the embodiment of discord, the horns, they were in fact courting Concordia, or harmony.
(Those familiar with the gesto delle corna will note a connection here. But that’s another post entirely.)
There’s also a strong relationship between snail consumption and matters nuptial and erotic, much of which is, again, related to the snail’s appearance and behaviors. One can easily grasp the imaginative link between the phallic horns of the snail and male sexuality. Here the eating of snails still equates with protection: a man who eats the snail horns may avert infidelity, colloquially known in Italy as mettere le corna (cuckold = il cornuto). Not so obvious is the female side: the snail as a lunar symbol, associated with rebirth and regeneration, whose cyclical waxing and waning (of the corna) represents female rather than male qualities. Consuming the snail becomes an auspicious act for both sexes then, and in some rural areas is still believed to promote marital (or perhaps merely sexual?) harmony. (By the way, in the Roman dialect, the words for snail, ciumaca or ciumachella, are also affectionate slang terms for una bella ragazza, or a pretty girl.)
Centuries later, in a different cultural context, the ritualistic Roman snail-eating on June 24 evolved into a Catholic legend. According to the tale, some medieval Romans witnessed the ghost of Herodias, mother of Salome, calling together a coven of witches in the Lateran fields on St John’s Eve (also known as the Night of the Witches). Seeking the saint’s intervention, they took to eating snails in the piazza, clearly having inherited their ancestors’ belief in the snail’s protective powers. Over time, the location (St John Lateran Basilica) became indelibly connected to le lumache di San Giovanni, with Romans coming to the church square every June 24 to enjoy a pot of snails cooked in tomato, garlic, and herbs at local osterie. This is also where snail vendors in the 19th century set up their stands:
Francesco Duscio tells us in his book La Romanesca that part of the magic of San Giovanni was the power of reconciliation a pot of snail stew offered, that friends, lovers, or relatives who had fought in the previous year achieved, in the literal devouring of their accumulated resentments—the snail horns—harmony and mutual forgiveness.
Buon San Giovanni and Buona Lumacata!
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.