On January 6th at noon, spectators can watch a very special procession at the clock tower in Piazza San Marco when the fifteenth century mechanical statues of the Re Magi make their annual circuit of the Madonna and Child. Epiphany is still very much celebrated in Italy, with children receiving a stocking of gifts from “La Befana”, a witchy old lady who zooms about on a broomstick delivering sweets to good boys and girls and lumps of coal to bad- though nowadays the carbone has been substituted for tooth-wrenching black candy.
In the lead at the Befana Regatta
As celebrated in Venice, Twelfth Night, the Feast of Kings, recalls some of the most ancient aspects of the January solstice, predating even Roman traditions. Appropriately for a city which was historically more connected with the East than the West, their foundation is the rites of Zoroastrianism, the ancient religion of Persia, from whence the Wise Men set off in Christian tradition to visit Jesus in Bethlehem. The Gospel of St Matthew describes them as “magi”, from the Persian “moy” magicians rather than “kings” (Italian plays safe by using both terms) and numerous sources claim they were followers of Zoroaster, worshippers of sacred fire. On Sant’Erasmo in the lagoon, and throughout the Veneto, bonfires are lit for the Epiphany as propitiatory symbols against good weather and harvests for the coming year and neighbours wish each other “Bread and wine” (pane e vino). In the Roman calendar, Epiphany was the end of Saturnalia, during which the goddess Diana had flown over the fields, scattering good seeds for the crops of the deserving. Morphed into the Befana, she is burnt in effigy on the Epiphany fires as a symbol of good riddance to any bad luck lingering from the last year, whilst the Venetians put their own spin on the reveals of status traditionally permitted on Twelfth Night. Whilst the peasants were hoping for plentiful harvests, the patricians held cross-dressing parties where the strict sumptuary laws were reversed. Unlike Carnival, which is all about disguise, men flaunted themselves in the latest female fashions whilst the ladies dressed as gondoliers, sailors and fishermen. The parties grew so wild that they were officially sanctioned by the church, but an attenuated version of the practice has survived in the Regata delle Befane, a short race in which 50 (male) members of Venice’s rowing clubs compete over a course from San Tomas on the Grand Canal to the Rialto Bridge, dressed in skirts, shawls and bonnets. A giant stocking is attached to the bridge for the occasion.
Meanwhile, the calle of the city are busy with bustling priests and truculent altar boys, Nikes sticking out under their surplices, blessing the houses in their parish for the new year and chalking the doors as a sign of purification, a ritual which comes full circle to the Zoroastrian belief in the sacred white ash which marked the homes of devotees.
With all that going on, it’s not surprising that most Venetians celebrate Epiphany with nothing more complicated than the pane e vino- translated as mulled wine and pinza, a polenta cake studded with dried fruit which resembles the rich Twelfth Night cakes, complete with lucky bean, found all over Europe. Frankly though, the last thing we feel like at the moment is yet more sticky fruitcake (there are still a few dusty panettone hanging resentfully about in the Sugar Street kitchen). However, the pinza recipe below is densely satisfying without being cloying, whilst the chestnut soup is perfect for coming in from the cold after watching the Befana streak across the sky.
CHESNUT, PARSNIP, PANCETTA and crispy CAVOLO NERO
Anna writes… This is a recipe given to me by my mum, given to her by someone else, that I have slightly modified but if it is as cold where you are as it is where I am, the origins of the soup can be discussed afterwards.
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
3 parsnips, chopped
1 stick of celery, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
250gr pancetta/chorizo diced
200gr Chesnuts (scored, roasted and peeled)
1.2lt stock (meat or vegetable)
1/4tsp of chili pepper
1tsp of cumin
6 leaves of Cavolo Nero, roughly torn
Fry the pancetta gently so that the oil is released, 3-4mins. Remove the pancetta with a slotted spoon and put to one side. Prepare the onion, garlic, celery carrot and parsnip. Add them in the same pan as the pancetta fat, stir briefly and then leave covered over low-medium heat for 10 minutes. Once softened add the chili, paprika, cumin, salt and pepper. Stir this before adding the chestnuts and stock, cover for another 35 minutes.
In the meantime preheat the oven to 160c fan. Drizzle the cavolo nero with olive oil and a generous pinch of salt. Put on a baking tray in the oven for 10 minutes, until crispy. Before serving, reheat the pancetta or chorizo, and sprinkle on top of the soup along with the kale and a drizzle of olive oil.
Anna writes- My first memory of Pinza is from my first few days of moving to Venice. It was winter and there was/is a bakery near where I used to live. The kind of bakery that is not trying to add glitter and marzipan to everything and steers clear of words like ‘delight’ ‘delicacy’ or ‘divine’ (thank goodness). Simple and reliable with soft light and a peaceful interior it has served bread to the same clients for generations. In the window alongside Venetian versions of iced buns and dry biscuits, a set custard-looking slice, dense with dried fruit with a caramel brown exterior caught my eye. This was far more appealing to someone who doesn’t have a particularly sweet tooth, is not a fan of fruit cake but relies a lot on texture. It has since become my epitome of comfort, alongside tea (instead of the traditional mulled wine) which is a rarity in Italian cuisine.
The origins, as with so many other traditional recipes rely on using up leftovers, so it felt particularly out of spirit to go to the supermarket for a few ingredients. However, I hope the alterations are not so great that they cannot be forgiven, I can assure you that the taste is worth it.
Time total: 2hrs
Baking time: 1hr25 mins
Serves: 20 slices
350gr stale bread
200gr self-raising flour
1 egg lightly beaten
2 tsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp pine nuts
1 tsp cinnamon
3tbsp of brandy or Cointreau
60gr figs or prunes
1 apple peeled and diced
1 pear peeled and diced
1 lemon (or orange) zest
Method: Preheat oven to 170c fan. Prepare 20x30cm baking tray with baking paper.
Heat milk and sugar gently until the sugar dissolves. Tare stale bread into a large bowl and cover with warmed milk (option to add a few cardamom pods). Leave to sit for 30 mins.
Add Cointreau or brandy to the dried fruits and leave to steep. Once the time has passed add flour into the milk and bread mix stirring well, add the diced apples and pears, cinnamon and fennel seeds. Followed by the steeped dried fruit (with liquid) and lemon (or orange zest). Stir in beaten egg and mix well. Pour mixture into a lined baking tray and sprinkle with brown sugar and butter.
Bake for 1hr 20 mins but if the top looks like it is getting too brown, cover with some tin foil and continue baking. The cake should be setting but it will not be ‘solid’ until left overnight to cool. Can be served warm or cold and will last several days, travels very well.