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.

Gorse Flower Cordial at Cupid Woods

homemade gorse flower cordial, bottled

Gorse is a thorny evergreen shrub that thrives on Cornwall’s windswept moors, bathing vast stretches of the Cornish landscape in cheery yellow for much of the year. Also known as furze or whin, gorse plays an important role in area eco-systems, providing dense, protective cover for nesting birds. This abundant, resilient plant has been used traditionally for an array of purposes, from livestock fodder to dye-making and besoms, as a pest repellent for crops and even the ultimate clothes line (once latched on to its sharp, strong thorns, fabrics are not easily blown away from gorse!). Long associated with fire, gorse is propagated through burning, and represents as well a significant wildfire risk. Time ago gorse crofts were a vital source of firewood for Cornish peasants, its high flammability rendering it a valuable fuel.

Come the start-of-summer ritual observances around May Day, gorse appears alongside other May flowers in bundles attached to doorposts to ward off evil, thieves, or ill-wishers, and in Cornwall particularly locals who tie a sprig of gorse to their front door might receive treats from friends and neighbors. To some the national flower of Cornwall and for ages linked to Saint Piran, the 6th-century figure popularly recognized as patron saint of Cornwall (and patron of tinners), gorse represents one of those bridges between symbolic and practical I find so fascinating, connecting folkways, cultural identity, and the natural world through its many uses and associations.

With their not-overly-floral composition and rich flavor reminiscent of coconut and vanilla, gorse flowers are used to intriguing effect in perfumes and wines. On my recent return visit to Cornwall, in fact, I had the chance to taste a homemade cordial made from gorse flowers, thanks to the generosity and creativity of a lovely new friend. Jo Cooper is a highly talented cook, possessing aplomb and expertise I’ve never encountered in one self-taught. After a morning spent picking up Newlyn crab, Cornish cheeses and duck eggs, locally grown asparagus and other supplies, she took me to Cupid Woods near Carbis Bay (today known as Cubit Woods), where she oversees a very worth-your-time project called Heart of the Woods. An expert forager as well, Jo guided me on a walk through that sublimely peaceful patch of land to gather garlic flowers, lime tree leaves, navelwort and more, after which we returned to her deftly built pit fire to enjoy a most memorable meal, born of her imagination:

The work Jo currently does at Heart of the Woods includes organizing and leading volunteer-based outdoor group classes and fun activities to educate children on nature and wildlife. She is, in her own words, ‘eager to connect children with nature and foster an enthusiasm for the woodland environment and its future care.’ (This together with her cooking skills qualifies her as a total bad-ass.) It was a brilliant day, filled with things that made me fall in love with Cornwall last year—natural beauty, wonderful food, really cool people.

Gathering gorse flowers can be a dangerous undertaking. Some wear gloves, but as Jo noted before I wandered off to pick a few, the best method is simply to pull the flower buds towards you to avoid being pricked by gorse’s small yet ferocious spines. I fared well enough. No bleeding at least.

Here is Jo’s recipe for gorse flower cordial:

Ingredients

½ liter water
100 grams sugar
2 large handfuls gorse flowers

Instructions

Place the flowers in a large bowl. Bring the sugar and water to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the flowers. Let steep 24 hours, then filter and bottle. This version will keep for 3 to 4 months. Increasing the amount of sugar to as much as 300 grams will result in a syrup-like cordial that keeps for a year. The cordial makes a nice cocktail, served on ice with tonic water.

culture bites

Variations of a popular saying in Cornwall and elsewhere in the U.K. reflect the plant’s prolific bloom throughout most of the year: kissing’s out of fashion when the gorse is out of blossom and when the gorse is not in flower, kissing’s out of fashion, among others.  Kiss the year long, in other words

Gorse is commonly called ginestrone in Italian.  According to a Sicilian legend, the noise of a burning gorse bush in the garden of Gethsemane attracted the attention of the Roman soldiers who captured Jesus Christ. Thus the plant was cursed to always crackle and hiss when burnt.  

Cicely Mary Barker’s illustration of gorse

The ‘Crunchy Artichoke’ at Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba

the (crunchy) artichoke of your dreams

Easter is always a time of feasting and friends, yet Easter 2017 will go down as a personal record on both counts, thanks to some wonderful new people in my life and the chance to discover some of the extraordinary food, wine, and traditions of Umbria. This eno-gastron-amica weekend extravaganza, as I’m calling it, had my heart bursting, my waistline bulging, and my culinary curiosity on overdrive. Too many for a comprehensive list, the flavors and stories I encountered across that idyllic swathe of Italian landscape stretching from Perugia past Assisi and on towards Montefalco included Vernaccia di Cannarra and a funfetti cake called ciaramicola, made specially by a local pastry chef for Easter breakfast; Sagrantino and Grecchetto (enough said); the chance witnessing of a quirky tradition involving locals of all ages cracking eggs in the Montefalco piazza as part of an ancient local tournament of sorts (stay tuned); a gorgeous, sinfully creamy pâté (nonna’s cherished recipe, naturally); and an Umbrian Easter specialty called torta di pasqua that about changed my life (imagine the fluffy, soft sponge of a pandoro but savory and filled with cheese!). Oh, and then there was the whole ‘Christmas at Easter’ thing, a feast, well….precisely as its name suggests! Complete with Christmas pudding and secret santa.

Though not easy to label any one of the dishes I tasted in Umbria as the ‘best’, an indisputable contender was an intriguing and lovely-to-behold starter served at the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba in Assisi. The carciofo croccante, or crunchy artichoke, caught my and my friend’s attention as we sat outside in the tiny piazza where once a small yet thriving vegetable market was held, now reduced to a lone vegetable vendor named Novella, known and by all accounts beloved by locals (I wanted her to adopt me).

Novella, vegetable vendor in Assisi’s Piazzetta dell’Erba

The solemn Good Friday procession making its way along the nearby medieval thoroughfare had dominated my attention until the moment that artichoke arrived. At the first bite, I knew it was something to consider more closely (and taste again), so the next day we returned to the Osteria, where chef Matteo Bini kindly took a few minutes from his busy day to tell me about this dish.  As its name promises, this artichoke is, firstly, crunchy. But then, like any masterful texture combination must do, it moves from an outer crunchiness to the tenderness of an artichoke cooked to perfection in the alla romana fashion: seasoned and steamed, in this case with the addition of capers and garlic. It is then filled with a potato mash flavored with anchovy, wrapped in filo dough, baked until the dough turns crunchy and delicate, and served on creamy pecorino fondue with pretty aromatic petals and herbs.

Nothing pleases me like young Italians succeeding in the world of food.  With this one delightful dish—which achieves that rare and brilliant balance of superb flavor combination, pleasing texture contrasts, esthetic flair and artistry—Chef Matteo, together with wife Francesca, brother Daniele, and the Osteria della Piazzetta dell’Erba team, managed to catch and hold my attention. I will certainly be returning for my third (and possibly fourth!) carciofo croccante.

osteria in the little ‘greens square’

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:

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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!

Chef Andreas Schwienbacher: Dreaming Big, with Flair and Focus, in Alto-Adige

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Andreas Schwienbacher, 24, Head Chef at the 5-Star Alpenpalace

Tucked away in the northernmost part of Italy in the Valle Aurina (Ahrntal in German), the Alpenpalace Deluxe Hotel and Spa Resort is a dreamy, elegant locale that manages an at-once über-luxurious and family-like ambiance. Here in this paradise for lovers of all things Alpine—outdoor activities galore, fascinating architecture, customs, and history, and pristine everything—I had an opportunity to chat with Andreas Schwienbacher, the talented head chef of the resort’s restaurant.

Originally from Lana near Bolzano, 24-four-year-old Schwienbacher is the youngest head chef in a 5-star hotel in the Alto-Adige regionno small accomplishment and one he is justifiably proud of. Having dreamed of becoming a chef since age 14, Andreas worked in various restaurants and hotels around the world, including nearby Austria and far-flung Australia, before taking on his role at the resort. Like many chefs, Andreas gives much credit to his experience working in the kitchens of a Michelin-starred restaurant, perhaps even more so than his training.  

Talking with a professional chef is always enlightening, and tends to challenge if not upset altogether many of one’s homespun cooking preconceptions. A few minutes chatting with this focused, attentive, serious-minded young man was no exception. Some topics covered included molecular gastronomy spheres; the use of kaolin to create, among other things, edible ‘stones’ (small boiled potatoes coated in the clay-like, neutral-tasting substance); plates adorned with non-comestible items like pebbles and pine cones, to evoke the forest and natural splendor of the area; and beef (the very best must be imported from outside Italy, an inconvenient truth to we of the buy local mindset, but one I’ve heard attested to more than once by pro chefs).

The young chef’s dreams and future plans? To create an intimate, 5-table gourmet dining experience (a restaurant within a restaurant, if you will, opening soon). And to earn 15 Gault & Millau points one day. Ambitious? Have a look at a sampling of creations by this extraordinary culinary talent, and then decide.

A three-butter starter: chervil, truffle, French:

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A prosciutto ‘rose’ wrapped around a black-olive sphere, with summer herbs and flowers, a crunchy prosciutto crumble, and decorative touches from the forest:

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Beef tenderloin with baby carrots, a crumble of hazelnuts, butter and flour, a kaolin-coated new potato ‘stone’, and exquisite jus:

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Detail showing the (sometimes forest-themed) creativity and whimsy the chef puts into his dishes:

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Close-up of the truffle butter. Because truffle butter deserves a close-up!:

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Head Chef Andreas Schwienbacher (right) with Chef Garde Manger Michael Sartor

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Another look at that stunning prosciutto ‘rose’:

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And I’ll leave you with a pretty view, in case you still need convincing:

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

a view of the Alpenpalace grounds

 

Schüttelbrot, South Tyrol’s ‘Shaken’ Bread

mini Schüttelbrot

mini Schüttelbrot

Schüttelbrot is a traditional bread of South Tyrol flavored with caraway seeds, coriander, fennel or aniseed, typically served with speck and cheese as an afternoon snack. This savory, crisp flatbread takes its name from the shaping method: after the dough rounds are rolled out and transferred to a baking sheet, the Bäckermeister literally shakes them into shape (schütteln = to shake). The unique flatness of this bread, called pane scosso in Italian, allows for easy storage in a slotted wooden shelf (pictured below), which together with the crisp, fast-drying texture ensures a long shelf-life—the perfect bread for farmers and peasants in the Alpine winter. Though usually around ten inches in diameter, Schüttelbrot can also be made in small, cracker-like rounds (pictured above).

Schüttelbrot storage

Meet Hugo, The Alpine Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

mystery child Hugo the Spritz

The ‘Hugo’ (or Ugo, as our h-sound-challenged Italian friends pronounce it), sometimes called Hugo Spritz or Alpine Spritz, originated in the northern Italian region Alto-Adige, an area intimately familiar with herbal use in both culinary and medicinal matters, and one where the elderberry plant thrives in summer. From the genus Sambucus, elderberry is a hardy, fast-growing flowering bush widespread throughout Italy and Europe. Sambucus nigra—European elderberry or simply Sambuco in Italian, among other namesbears edible-once-cooked berries used in making jams and sauces; while from their small white flowers a delicious, delicate cordial is obtained—this syrup being the star ingredient in the Hugo Spritz, which I had the fortune to learn about and taste last night at fabulous Borgo San Lorenzo wine bar and restaurant Passaguai, thanks to the knowledge and generosity of a lovely new acquaintance. As she explained, elderflower cordial is not to be confused with (that bottled nastiness known as) Sambuca, similar only in name to sciroppo di Sambuco. To demonstrate her point, she ordered up a Hugo for us to taste (yay!):

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As with so many Italian specialties, a touch of rivalry characterizes Hugo’s birth-story, particularly intriguing given that the two barmen in contention for inventor credit both hail from South Tyrol, and neither seems ready to renounce his claim on Hugo. Was it Roland Gruber who, while working in a wine bar in Naturns near Bolzano created the Hugo some 10 years ago? Very possibly, yet apparently Gruber named the Hugo without any particular reason, a fluky bit of inadvertence I find a little dubious, frankly. There’s also some debate as to whether Gruber originally used elderflower or another type of herb cordial. Could it have been Filippo Debertol of the Val di Fassa area, who has said he started mixing elderflower cordial with wine, seltzer, and mint around the same time? Debertol’s story would seem to hold up better under scrutiny: young Debertol named the drink after an elderly gentleman who would visit the family’s Alpine cabin, always bringing with him a gift of his own homemade elderflower syrup. The old man’s name? Hugo, of course.

(An aside: While researching today, I came across a discussion (in Italian) on Wikipedia from late 2013, in which Debertol’s attempts to modify the Italian entry for Hugo (cocktail) were repeatedly removed, with the explanation ‘your changes reflect something completely different from what the sources indicate, and for this reason I have restored the prior text.’ See below)

Wiki

Italians love their food (and drink) debates, and this one is not going away any time soon, I imagine. No matter. The important thing is someone invented this delightful concoction, which I highly recommend adding to your summer cocktail repertoire.

hugo3

Ingredients per drink

6 cl Prosecco
6 cl seltzer
3 cl elderflower cordial
fresh mint leaves

Instructions

Put ice in the glass. Pour in the Prosecco and cordial, followed by the seltzer. Stir gently. Garnish with fresh mint and a lemon slice (optional).

a bottle of elderflower cordial

a bottle of elderflower cordial

Asparagus With Boznersauce, A ‘Sauce from Bolzano’

'salsa bolzanina'

‘salsa bolzanina’

Boznersauce is a springtime specialty from Bolzano in Alto-Adige, the Italian province that together with Trentino forms one of Italy’s five autonomous regions, Trentino-Alto-Adige. Annexed from Austria by the Kingdom of Italy at the end of World War I, Alto-Adige—Südtirol in German or South Tyrol to English speakers—has retained its culturally Austrian identity in the decades since, despite an aggressive Fascist-era ‘Italianization’ program and a significant influx of Italians in the post-WWII period. Officially part of Italy for nearly a century, today Alto-Adige is still comprised predominantly of native German speakers, though Italian and German are both official languages.

The intersection of Italian and Germanic influences in South Tyrol characterizes many aspects of local culture, including cuisine. Further shaped by Viennese and Hungarian traditions, Alto-Adige’s culinary scene has earned a reputation in recent years as a gastronomic mecca, with 23 Michelin stars as of 2016. Interestingly, many non-Italian dishes, items like speck, würstel, strudel, and knödel, have entered the Italian national food canon via Alto-Adige.

The people of the Bolzano area enjoy this hollandaise-like sauce, whose name means ‘of Bozen’ (German for Bolzano), alongside fresh asparagus during Easter Sunday lunch.

Ingredients for 4

2 bunches green or white asparagus
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water

For the sauce:
4 eggs, hard-boiled
100 ml ‘light’ olive oil or seed oil of choice
1 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp mustard
1 Tbsp fresh parsley, minced
1-2 Tbsp fresh chives, chopped
3 Tbsp beef broth
¼ tsp white pepper
½ tsp salt

Instructions

To make the Boznersauce, start by boiling the eggs for 8 minutes and remove from the water immediately. Heat the broth and keep warm.

When cool enough to handle, peel the eggs. Slice them in half and remove the yolks, placing the yolks in a bowl and setting the whites aside. Add the vinegar, mustard, broth, salt and pepper to the yolks. Whisk until creamy (a few lumps are fine). Slowly drizzle in the oil while whisking continuously until you have a thick, smooth cream. Add the minced parsley and combine. Chop the egg white to a medium-fine mixture. Add to the egg cream and combine. Set aside at room temp while you make the asparagus.

Bring the water and wine to a simmer. Snap the tough ends off the asparagus and cook in the simmering water for 5 minutes and remove promptly. Arrange the asparagus on serving dishes and place generous scoops of the Boznersauce over them. Dust with the chopped chive.

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