Dec 242016
 

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Today is the Feast of the Seven Fishes in some parts of the Italian-American community. It is a Christmas Eve celebration, although it’s not called by this name in Italy and is not a “feast” in the strict sense of “church holy day” but, rather, a blowout meal. Strictly speaking, Christmas Eve is a vigil or fasting day, and the abundance of seafood reflects the Catholic tradition of abstinence from red meat until the actual feast of Christmas Day itself. Today in the Italian-American community Seven Fishes is a meal that typically consists of seven different seafood dishes. It originates from (mostly) Southern Italy, where it is known simply as La Vigilia (short for Vigilia di Natale).

The long tradition of eating seafood on Christmas Eve dates from the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence from meat on Wednesdays, Fridays and (in the Latin Church) Saturdays, as well as during Lent and on the eve of specific holy days. The thing is that this supposed fast often transformed into an absolute feast of fish – especially in the Middle Ages, and beyond. Nowadays Christmas Eve dinner in Catholic countries in general can be an extremely lavish meal. In Argentina, for example, it is the main Christmas meal sprawling from about 10 pm to 4 am or longer. In Italy in general it is the time to (sometimes) go to Midnight mass, but always involves a special meal without meat. In Mantua, where I am now, the highlight is tortelli di zucca (with butter and sage) and maybe fish.

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It is unclear when the term “Feast of the Seven Fishes” was popularized. The meal may actually include seven, eight, or even nine specific fishes that are considered traditional. However, some Italian-American families have been known to celebrate with nine, eleven or thirteen different seafood dishes. “Seven” fishes as a fixed concept or name is unknown in Italy itself. In some of the oldest Italian-American families there was no count of the number of fish dishes. Dinner began with whiting in lemon, followed by some version of clams or mussels in spaghetti, baccalà, and onward to any number of other fish dishes without number. Seven is a nice lucky number, though.

The most famous dish for Southern Italians is baccalà (salted cod fish). The custom of celebrating with a simple fish such as baccalà reflects customs in what were historically greatly impoverished regions of Southern Italy, as well as seasonal factors. Fried smelts, calamari and other types of seafood have been incorporated into the Christmas Eve dinner over the years.

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Salt cod goes on sale in Italy well before Christmas. It keeps forever, so you can buy it well in advance.  You also need to begin preparation at least 3 days in advance. It must be soaked for 3 days or more to remove the salt and soften the flesh. This recipe is for baked baccalà which is less common than the normal method of simmering, but I prefer it.

Baked Baccalà

Ingredients

1 ¼ lb dried salt cod
2 large potatoes, sliced in thin rounds
1 yellow onion, sliced thinly
3 tbsp butter, chopped
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
crushed hot pepper (optional)
freshly ground black pepper

Instructions

Soak the baccalà in cold water for at least 3 days prior to cooking.

Preheat your oven to 375˚F.

Rinse the cod for a last time; dry it well and cut it into small pieces. In a shallow casserole dish, toss the potato rounds and onion slices with the butter and olive oil. Add the baccalà and gently toss. Season with crushed red and black peppers. Cover the casserole with foil and place into the oven.

Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the potatoes are tender. Add a bit of water, about 2 tablespoons, if needed, during cooking; continue to stir while cooking, but gently to avoid breaking the fish. Season with salt, if needed.

Serve drizzled with extra virgin olive oil.

Aug 152016
 

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Today is the Feast of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven in the Catholic Church, often shortened to the Assumption, or the Assumption of Mary. In the Orthodox Church it is called the Falling Asleep of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Both Western and Eastern rites assert that the Virgin Mary did not die (as such),  but was taken directly into Heaven at the end of her earthly life. For the most part, Protestant traditions do not accept this theology because it has no Biblical basis. In Italy, where I am now, this date is also Ferragosto, a major public holiday supposedly rooted in Roman Imperial times, although the historical links are a bit dodgy. August is a good time for an annual day off, so beaches and tourist spots are always mobbed. Because I live in a major tourist spot, I can expect the worst.

The Catholic Church now teaches as dogma that the Virgin Mary “having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.” This doctrine was dogmatically defined by Pope Pius XII on 1st November 1 (All Souls), 1950 in the apostolic constitution Munificentissimus Deus by exercising papal infallibility. The Eastern Orthodox Church doctrine of the Dormition of the Theotokos (the falling asleep of Mary) is more or less the same as the Assumption, avoiding the idea of the physical death of Mary, but has not been dogmatically defined. In Munificentissimus Deus (item 39) Pope Pius XII pointed to the Book of Genesis (3:15) as scriptural support for the dogma of the Assumption in terms of Mary’s victory over sin and death as also reflected in 1 Corinthians 15:54: “then shall come to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory.”

Although the Assumption (Latin: assumptio, “a taking”) was only relatively recently defined as infallible dogma by the Catholic Church, and in spite of a statement by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in 377 that no one knew whether Mary had died or not, apocryphal accounts of the assumption of Mary into heaven have circulated since at least the 4th century. The Catholic Church itself interprets chapter 12 of the Book of Revelation as referring to it. The earliest known narrative is the so-called Liber Requiei Mariae (The Book of Mary’s Repose), which survives intact only in an Ethiopic translation. Probably composed by the 4th century, this narrative may be as early as the 3rd century. Also quite early are the very different traditions of the “Six Books” or Dormition narratives.

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Teaching of the Assumption of Mary became widespread across the Christian world, having been celebrated as early as the 5th century and having been established in the East by Emperor Maurice around 600. It was celebrated in the West under Pope Sergius I in the 8th century and Pope Leo IV then confirmed the feast as official. Theological debate about the Assumption continued, following the Reformation, peaking in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined it as dogma for the Catholic Church.

If you’ve paid any attention to my previous posts on feast days and the like, you’ll know what I think about all of this already. The Church has an endless need to tie up loose ends logically. Jesus died and was resurrected. Then what? What became of the risen Lord? Obviously he did not just hang around. Luke clears this mystery up in Acts 1:9-11. Jesus ascended into heaven. As I have said many times before, Luke likes to clean up things – Why was Jesus from Nazareth when the Hebrew prophets indicated the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem of the House of David?  Are followers of John the Baptist Christians? Etc. etc. Luke provides the “answers” by making stuff up – maybe out of whole cloth or from previous sources. Unfortunately for the early church, Luke is silent on Mary’s fate.

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Let me be crystal clear. As an ordained Christian pastor and (erstwhile) theologian, I take a certain amount of Christian dogma on faith, but I don’t accept Biblical narratives as history without serious reservations. If you want my thoughts on belief and Christianity this is a good place to start: https://www.amazon.com/Thinking-Christian-Essays-Prod-Believer-ebook/dp/B01DGJ2OIM/ref=sr_1_5?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1471240630&sr=1-5  Luke, to my mind, is a horrible distraction. He was trained in the Greek philosophical tradition, and doesn’t like loose ends. For me, faith and logic do not have to be consistent. Logic and science are not always right. A certain amount of logical or scientific inconsistency is fine as far as I am concerned. Luke was more rigid. Unfortunately he had nothing to say about the end of Mary’s life, so the Church applied logic. Bad idea.

The veneration of Mary goes back a long way, and has led to some awfully dubious doctrines. The gospels tell us that Jesus had brothers. Did Mary have sex after Jesus was born? Horror !!! She must have been a perpetual virgin in order to be sinless. And . . . to be sinless, and give birth as a virgin to a sinless baby, she must have been born of a virgin (Immaculate Conception). Furthermore, she must have stayed a virgin to maintain her sinlessness, so these brothers must have been cousins (so twist the Greek a little to imply that when the gospels said “brother” this included biological cousins). That’s where logic gets you. Rather ironically, the Greek Orthodox church doesn’t like Aristotle much and the battles between East and West in the Middle Ages often pitted Catholics asserting theological points by using Aristotelian logic, and the Greeks laughing in their faces. The Greek answer to any question beginning, “How do you account for . . . ?” is “It’s a mystery.” End of story. I like it.

So . . . I think that the Assumption is one more case of the church tying up loose ends. But I’m all for holidays. Ferragosto in Italy falls on 15 August and is only by coincidence the same day as the Assumption of Mary. The Feriae Augusti (“Festivals of the Emperor Augustus”) were introduced by the emperor Augustus in 18 BCE. This was an addition to earlier ancient Roman festivals which fell in the same month, such as the Vinalia rustica or the Consualia, which celebrated the harvest and the end of a long period of intense agricultural labor. The Feriae Augusti, in addition to its propaganda function, linked the various August festivals to provide a longer period of rest, called Augustali, which was felt necessary after the hard labor of the previous weeks.

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During these celebrations, horse races were organized across the Empire, and beasts of burden (including oxen, donkeys and mules), were released from their work duties and decorated with flowers. Settling on 15th August as the main day is a modern tradition. During the Roman festival, workers formally greeted their masters who in return would give them a present. The custom became so strongly rooted that in the Renaissance it was made compulsory in the Papal States.

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The popular modern tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under the Fascist regime. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the regime mounted hundreds of popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organizations of various corporations, including the establishment of the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”, which were available at heavily discounted prices. The initiative gave the opportunity for people with little money to visit Italian cities or to reach seaside and mountain resorts. The offer was limited to 13, 14 and 15 August, and had two options: the “One-Day Trip”, within a radius of 50-100 km, and the “Three-Day Trip” within a radius of about 100–200 km.

Obviously Italian festival food has to be the fare of the day. I haven’t been out yet, but when I do I expect to see people scarfing down local specialties such as tortelli di zucca, torta Sbrisolona, and the like along with gallons of gelato and granita. Last night I made a festive dinner that was sort of Italian – all cold dishes because of the heat.

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The dessert was my own creation taking off from tiramisu. I began by baking a stracciatella cake – a moist vanilla sponge cake with chocolate chips. Whilst it was cooling I made a tiramisu custard. Some people use raw eggs, but I prefer to cook mine.

Put 4 egg yolks and half a cup of sugar in the top of a double boiler. Bring the water in the bottom to a steady simmer, and make sure that the water does not touch the top part of the boiler. Whisk the sugar and egg yolk mixture vigorously for around 8 minutes. It will expand to a froth and cook. (Hint: you are not making scrambled eggs). Remove from the heat and fold in 1 pound (½ kg) of mascarpone. In a separate bowl whisk 1 cup of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold the mascarpone-egg mix into the cream. Then fold in about a ½ pound (¼ kg) of mixed frozen berries (you can use raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, or what ever you want).  Set aside.

Slice the stracciatella reasonably thin – less than ½ inch (1.25 cm). Line the base of a loaf pan with the cake slices. Spread in half of the custard. Add another layer of stracciatella slices. Top with the remaining custard, and chill in the refrigerator overnight.

Before serving top with a layer of berries, then whipped cream, then shaved dark chocolate.

 

Apr 142016
 

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Today there are many minor celebrations worldwide. I will talk about three of them together – under the rubric Cuckoo Day – because they are minimally related. Let’s start with the feast day, the feast of SS Tiburtius, Valerian and Maximus, martyrs in Rome.  Tiburtius, Valerian, and Maximus are three Christian martyrs who were buried on 14 April of some unspecified year in the Catacombs of Praetextatus on the Via Appia near Rome. The Acts of Saint Cecilia represent Valerian as her husband, Tiburtius as his brother, and Maximus as a soldier or official who was martyred with the other two. But this work is generally considered not to be historical.

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They were traditionally honored with a joint feast day on 14 April, as shown in the Tridentine Calendar. The 1969 revision of the General Roman Calendar removed this celebration, since the only thing really known about them is the historical fact of their burial in the Catacombs of Praetextatus. However, it allowed them to be honored in local calendars.

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All three were given parts in the legend of St Cecilia http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-cecilia/  and honored in Rome from an early date. The Roman Martyrology says that Tiburtius and the others suffered under Roman Emperor Alexander Severus, who ruled from 222 – 235. (Valerian is also known as Valerianus.)

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An old English saying says: “The  cuckoo sings from St Tiburtius’s Day to St John’s day [June 24]”. Hence today is sometimes celebrated as Cuckoo Day in England Although strongly identified with St Tiburtius’s Day, Cuckoo Day may better be described as a moveable feast dependent upon the variability of Nature.  The common cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, overwinters in Africa and returns to the UK in Spring, but the arrival date varies.  Several communities in England, notably Marsden in Yorkshire, have cuckoo fairs in April to welcome spring. Marsden Cuckoo Festival takes place each year on a designated Saturday in April near to 14 April.

Legend has it that the people of Marsden were aware that when the cuckoo arrived, so did the Spring and sunshine. They tried to keep Spring forever, by building a tower around the cuckoo. Unfortunately, as the last stones were about to be laid, the cuckoo flew away. As the legend says, it “were nobbut just wun course too low.”

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I remember as a schoolboy in England, newly arrived from Australia, walking to school down a wooded country lane and hearing a clear and unmistakable coooo koooo from a tree to my right. “No,” I thought, “that’s somebody hiding and making that sound.” It was so clear and obvious. The first cuckoo of Spring, and my first ever cuckoo.

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The common cuckoo is well known for laying its eggs in the nests of other birds. The cuckoo hatches first and tosses out the other eggs so that the poor “mother” is left to raise the cuckoo instead of its own chicks.

From Shakespeare’s time on, “cuckoo’s nest” has been used as a euphemism for a woman’s “private parts,” as represented in this traditional song:


The tune was used in the South Midlands for a morris dance in some villages. In the group I used to dance for it is customary when we get together for a feast for the eldest bachelor to begin the singing after dinner with his rendition of the song.

So we migrate to Black Day. This is an Asian celebration begun in South Korea but now spreading to other parts of Asia. Black Day is the third in a trinity of celebrations on the 14th of the month. First is 14 February celebrated worldwide as Valentine’s Day (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-valentine/ ), then 14 March or White Day (http://www.bookofdaystales.com/white-day/ ), begun in Japan as a marketing ploy; a day to reciprocate gifts given on Valentine’s Day. South Korean businesses then followed with Black Day on 14 April, a day for single people to lament/celebrate their status.  Those who didn’t give or receive gifts on Valentine’s Day or White Day, can get together and eat jajang myeon (jja jang myeong), Korean-Chinese noodles with black bean sauce to commiserate their singledom.

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Jajangmyeon (자장면; 짜장면; jjajangmyeon) is a Korean Chinese dish of special noodles dish topped with a thick sauce made of chunjang (a salty black soybean paste), diced pork and vegetables, and sometimes also seafood. Jajang (alternately spelled jjajang), the name of the sauce when heated, is the Korean pronunciation of the Chinese characters 炸醬, which literally means ” deep fried sauce.” Myeon (also spelled myun) means “noodle”, which is represented by the Chinese character 麵.

The dish originated from zhajiangmian (炸醬麵, literally “fried sauce noodles”) in China’s Shandong region.  Zhajiangmian was adapted in Korea to fit the Korean palate. Jajangmyeon is legendarily traced back to the Joseon Dynasty. When the Joseon opened the Incheon port, many Chinese people from the Shandong region moved to a town in Incheon, which is now known as Incheon China Town. These people started Chinese restaurants and adapted the traditional Shandong food zhajiangmian in a way that Korean people could enjoy. Originally jajangmyeon was a cheap dish that the working class enjoyed and was more akin to Shandong region’s zhajiangmian than the current day Korean jajamyeon. After the Korean War, Korean chunjang was invented. Korean chunjang has caramel added to give it a sweet taste. After this jajangmyeon became a completely different dish from zhajiangmian. The pronunciation of the dish’s name is nearly identical to that of its Korean counterpart. But Korean jajangmyeon differs from Chinese zhajiangmian, as Korean jjajangmyeon uses black Korean chunjang including caramel, and onions.

Jajangmyeon uses thick noodles made from white wheat flour. The noodles, which are made entirely by hand and not by machines, are called sutamyeon (수타면; 手打麵) are praised in South Korea as an essential ingredient of good jajangmyeon. While in Beijing cuisine, yellow soybean paste (黃醬) is used, in Tianjin and other parts of China tianmianjiang (甜麵醬), hoisin sauce (海鮮醬), or broad (fava) bean sauce (荳瓣醬) may be used in place of the yellow soybean paste. However, In Korea, the sauce is made with a dark soybean paste. This paste, which is made from roasted soybeans and caramel, is called chunjang (literally “spring paste”, hangul: 춘장; Chinese: 春醬) when unheated, while the heated sauce (containing vegetables and meat or seafood) is called jjajang (literally “fried sauce”). Chunjang is stir-fried with diced onions, ground meat (either beef or pork) or chopped seafood, and other ingredients. The meat stock is added to reduce the salty taste, and potato starch or cornstarch is added to give the sauce a thick consistency. The sauce is served hot over noodles, sometimes with sliced raw cucumbers. The same sauce is also used to make jajangbap (rice served with the sauce) and jajangtteokbokki (tteokbokki made with the sauce instead of the usual spicy sauce).

Jajangmyeon is usually served with a small amount of danmuji (단무지). Danmuji are made of radish, specifically daikon. The dish is often served with a small amount of sliced raw onions, seasoned with rice vinegar, accompanied with a little chunjang sauce. The diner eats the noodles with danmuji and onions dipped in chunjang sauce.

I am ostensibly single these days. Actually I am a widower and choose to live alone, but I fit in the broad class of people who did not get a gift on Valentine’s Day or White Day. So I will make black food. By chance I found cuttlefish ink in the supermarket yesterday, so I am going to make a black risotto – common favorite in coastal Croatia. If you can get hold of black bean paste you can make a simulacrum of jjajangmyeon or its Chinese equivalent. When I lived in Yunnan I made pork with black bean paste and noodles all the time as a quick evening meal. This site will guide you through the process of making classic jjajangmyeon  with step-by-step pictures and a video http://www.maangchi.com/recipe/jjajangmyun

If this does not appeal, you can minimally celebrate with the Faroese who by custom never eat eggs on this day, which marks the end of winter. Tradition says that anyone who does will suffer boils for rest of year !!!

Feb 032016
 

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Today is the feast of Saint Blaise, a saint who had an enormous following in the Middle Ages and is still venerated in a great number of places (under various names) throughout the world. Very little is known about the historical man. Reputedly he was bishop of Sebastea in historical Armenia (modern Sivas, Turkey) in the 4th century, but nothing written about him has survived any earlier than the 8th century. This is typical:

Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth, was a doctor in Sebaste in Armenia, the city of his birth, who exercised his art with miraculous ability, good-will, and piety. When the bishop of the city died, he was chosen to succeed him, with the acclamation of all the people. His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, having arrived in Sebastia at the order of the emperor Licinius to kill the Christians, arrested the bishop. As he was being led to jail, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him.

The two main elements of this tale have led to him being associated with throat ailments and with wool combing.

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The cult of St Blaise was very popular in the 11th and 12th centuries as is attested in numerous shrines and villages dedicated to his name – primarily in Spanish speaking countries (san Blas) as well as in Italy (san Biagio) and Croatia (Sveti Vlaho). Likewise, the Blessing of the Throats ritual was, and is, common worldwide on the feast of St Blaise. Crossed candles are themselves blessed on Candlemas (Feb 2), then lit on St Blaise and pressed to the throats of those who wish, accompanied by one of several special prayers of intercession.

Given the importance of the throat in the veneration of St Blaise, it’s not surprising that special dishes are associated with this day. Here’s a couple.

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There is a small village called san Biagio a few kilometers southeast of Mantua, where I live now, and a few of my students live there and look forward to celebrations on the day. Of particular importance is torta di san biagio – a chocolate and nut pie encased in a special pastry that uses white wine in place of eggs. I am told that these pies have been made in Mantua for 450 years. In some parts of Mantua they make gigantic pies (3 meters across) to feed the whole community.

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Torta di San Biagio

Ingredients

Pastry

400 g flour
80 g cold butter
80 g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, scraped
120 ml dry white wine

Filling

300 g blanched almonds
100 g caster sugar
2 eggs
100 g dark chocolate
1 lemon, grated rind

beaten egg plus milk (for glazing)

Instructions

Preheat the oven to 160°C.

Make the pastry by processing the butter and flour in a food processer to make a sandy mixture (or do this with your hands if you can). Pour the mix on to your counter top. Make the mound into a hollow volcano. Pour the wine into the hollow, a little at a time and combine it with the flour and butter mix. Then add the vanilla seeds. Knead to form a compact dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 20 minutes.

Chop the almonds in a food processor. Coarsely chop the chocolate and add it plus the sugar and lemon zest. Turn into a mixing bowl and add the eggs. Beat all the ingredients together thoroughly.

Roll out the pastry to about ½ cm thick. Line a pie dish with the pastry, trimming and saving the excess. Fill the pastry in the dish with the chocolate filling, smoothing it down flat.

Roll the pastry trimmings again, cut into strips, and make a lattice on top of the pie (to form lozenges), as shown in the photo. Brush the top with a little beaten egg wash.

Bake for 45 minutes, or until the crust is golden.

Note: the pastry will keep in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days, or can be frozen.

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St Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik. There on this day they make šporki makaruli (dirty macaroni). If you are health conscious use vegetable oil instead of the pork fat.

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Šporki Makaruli

800 g finely diced beef (or veal)
100 g pork fat
500 g onions, peeled and diced
40 g tinned tomatoes, chopped
1 cup red wine
parsley, garlic, powdered cinnamon, powdered cloves (to taste)
1 bay leaf
500 g macaroni
goat cheese
salt and pepper

Instructions

Sauté the onions over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet until they are soft. Add the meat and brown gently. Add the tomatoes with their liquid and the wine. Bring to a slow simmer. Add all the seasonings to taste. Cook uncovered for about 1 to 2 hours – depending on the quality of the meat. If the cooking liquid reduces too much add a little stock to moisten.

Cook the pasta in boiling salted water. Drain and place in a deep serving dish. Pour the meat mixture over the pasta and toss thoroughly. Ladle into serving bowls and top with crumbled goat cheese.