Jan 062020

In Italian tradition, La Befana is an old woman who delivers gifts and/or sweets to children throughout Italy on the eve of Epiphany to be opened on the morning of Epiphany (today).  This seems like a suitable way to open my “gift”of posts for 2020 (which will continue to be few and far between). The name Befana is likely some corruption of dialect for Epiphany, but you will also read the usual rubbish about it, and the custom, being a survival of some long-lost “pagan”tradition.   I am not going to spill any more ink in that direction.

In popular folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good, or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. In many poorer parts of Italy and in particular rural Sicily, a stick in a stocking was placed instead of coal. Being a good housekeeper, many say she will sweep the floor before she leaves. To some the sweeping meant the sweeping away of the problems of the year. The child’s family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food, often regional or local, for the Befana. She is usually portrayed as a hag riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children’s houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend has it that Befana was approached by the biblical magi (Three Wise Men) a few days before the birth of the Infant Jesus. They asked for directions to where he, as they had seen his star in the sky, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village, with the most pleasant home. The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.

Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone as La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her resulting grief caused her to become mad/crazy. Upon hearing news of Jesus being born, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Another commonly heard Christian legend of La Befana starts at the time of the birth of baby Jesus. In this version, Befana spent her days cleaning and sweeping. One day the magi came to her door in search of the baby Jesus. However, Befana turned them away because she was too busy cleaning. Feeling guilty, she eventually decides to find Jesus on her own by following a bright light in the sky which she believes points the way. She brings along a bag filled with baked goods and gifts for Jesus, and a broom to help the new mother clean. Unfortunately despite her best efforts she never finds him. According to this telling, Befana is still searching after all these centuries for the new born messiah. On the eve of the Epiphany, Befana comes to every house where there is a child and leaves a gift. Although she has been unsuccessful in her search, she still leaves gifts for good young children because the Christ Child can be found in all children.

Popular tradition tells that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick, as she doesn’t wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds.

Befana was never a widespread tradition among the whole Italian people, having originated in Rome and having become well known and practiced by the rest of the population during the 20th century, and is now a national icon. In the regions of the Marches, Umbria and Latium, her figure is associated with the Papal States, where Epiphany held the most importance. Urbania is thought to be her official home. Every year there is a big festival held to celebrate the holiday. About 30,000 to 50,000 people attend the festivities. Hundreds of Befanas are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children.

Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of “coal” in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring) along with treats, since every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.

There are poems about Befana, which are known in slightly different versions throughout Italy. Here is one of the versions:

    La Befana vien di notte
    Con le scarpe tutte rotte
    Col vestito alla romana
    Viva, Viva La Befana!

    Befana comes by night
    With her shoes all tattered and torn
    She comes dressed in the Roman way
    Long live the Befana!

Since Befana is originally a Roman tradition, a Roman recipe is in order.  My fav is trippa alla Romana, but I have already given a recipe (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/st-peters-basilica/ ) so I’ll turn to spaghetti all carbonara which is also fundamentally Roman, and a great way to dish pasta.

Sep 042016


Argentina has celebrated this day as Immigrant’s Day (Día del inmigrante) since 1949 when Juan Perón declared it a national holiday to honor the country’s immigrant heritage.  I want to pay particular attention to this holiday this year because this year, especially, the status of immigrants has come into stark relief in the Brexit referendum in the UK, in Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric, and in national politics throughout Europe and Australia. I am particularly sensitive to this topic because I have lived as an immigrant for almost all of my life.

I was born in Buenos Aires of British parents, so legally I am a natural-born citizen of two nations, Argentina and the United Kingdom, and I carry passports from both. I have spent very little of my life in either country. I grew up in Australia, where I was known as a “migrant” (more usually “pommie bastard”), and worked at a university in New York for almost my entire professional career. Now I live as an immigrant in Italy, having been one in China most recently. Being an immigrant comes naturally to me. Even though I am a citizen of the UK I feel like an immigrant when I visit. Argentina is my home.

I don’t get treated as a foreigner in many countries as long as I don’t open my mouth. When I am going about my business in Mantua, strangers (usually tourists) sometimes come up to me on the street to ask directions, thinking that I am Italian. In China it’s a different story, of course. English-speaking white people of European extraction living abroad like to refer to themselves as “ex-pats” because the term “immigrant” carries a stigma, and tends to conjure up people of color or of non-European heritage. But let’s be honest and call a spade a spade; if you are not living in the country in which you are a natural-born citizen, YOU ARE AN IMMIGRANT.


The nations of the Americas are all nations of immigrants. Argentina happens to be proud of that fact, and uses this day to celebrate its immigrant heritage. To be fair, that heritage has been somewhat checkered. Presidents in the 19th century (particularly Sarmiento) sometimes had racist immigration policies, and slavery was normal for much of the 18th century into the 19th – even though it was gradually phased out after independence in 1812, but then followed by systematic discrimination and covert policies of genocide.  The African-Argentine population has declined from a peak of 30% or higher in some regions in the 19th century to a mere 0.37% in the 2010 census.


Since its unification as a country, Argentine rulers intended the country to welcome immigration. Article 25 of the 1853 Constitution reads (in translation):

The Federal Government will encourage European immigration, and it will not restrict, limit or burden with any taxes the entrance into Argentine territory of foreigners who come with the goal of working the land, improving the industries and teach the sciences and the arts.

The Preamble of the Constitution dictates a number of goals (justice, peace, defense, welfare and liberty) that apply “to all people in the world who wish to dwell on Argentine soil.” The Constitution incorporates, along with other influences, the thought of Juan Bautista Alberdi, who expressed his opinion on the matter in succinct terms: “to rule is to populate.”


The legal and organizational precedents of today’s National Migrations Office (Dirección Nacional de Migraciones) can be found in 1825, when Rivadavia created an Immigration Commission. After the Commission was dissolved, the government of Rosas continued to support immigration. Urquiza, under whose sponsorship the Constitution was drawn, encouraged the establishment of agricultural colonies in the Littoral (western Mesopotamia and north-eastern Pampas).

The first law dealing with immigration policies was Law 817 of Immigration and Colonization, of 1876. The General Immigration Office was created in 1898, together with the Hotel de Inmigrantes (Immigrants’ Hotel), in Buenos Aires. The liberal rulers of the late 19th century saw immigration as the chance to bring people from supposedly more civilized, enlightened countries into a sparsely populated land, thus diminishing the influence of aboriginal elements and turning Argentina into a modern society with a dynamic economy. So we have to admit that immigration had racist overtones which continue to this day. The indigenous populations, especially in the North, have suffered decades of oppression. The Qom are the worst example.

In 1902, a Law of Residence (Ley de Residencia) was passed, mandating the expulsion of foreigners who “compromise national security or disturb public order,” and, in 1910, a Law of Social Defense (Ley de Defensa Social) explicitly named ideologies deemed to have such effects. These laws were a reaction by the ruling elite against imported ideas such as labor unionism, anarchism and other forms of popular organization.

The modern National Migrations Office was created by decree on February 4, 1949, under the Technical Secretariat of the Presidency, in order to deal with the new post-war immigration scenario. Perón is infamous for welcoming former Nazis from Germany but he made two things explicit. 1. They were to live in peace and harmony, especially with Jews. He would not tolerate any kind of anti-Semitism. 2. He would not protect them if they were sought and captured by other nations seeking them for legal reasons.

Massive and continued immigration has been experienced all over Argentina (except for the Northwest), made up overwhelmingly of Europeans (90%). Neuquén and Corrientes provinces, however, have had a much smaller European influx but a large South American immigration, mainly from Chile and Brazil, respectively. The Chaco region (in the North) has had a moderate influx from Bolivia and Paraguay as well.

The majority of immigrants, since the 19th century, have come mostly from Italy and Spain. Also notable were Jewish immigrants escaping persecution, giving Argentina the highest Jewish population in Latin America, and the 7th in all the world. The total population of Argentina rose from 4 million in 1895 to 7.9 million in 1914, and to 15.8 million in 1947; during this time the country was settled by 1.5 million Spaniards and 1.4 million Italians, as well as Poles, Russians, French, Germans and Austrians (more than 100,000 each), plus large numbers of Portuguese, Greeks, Ukrainians, Croats, Czechs, Irish, British, Dutch, Scandinavians, as well as people from other European and Middle Eastern countries, prominently Syria and Lebanon. Argentine immigration records also mention immigrants from Australia, South Africa and the United States.

The latest census puts the number of immigrants currently in Argentina at 6.6 million who, thus, constitute around 15% of the population, making Argentina the country with the highest percentage of immigrants in the world. Nowadays there are significant numbers coming from Asia, especially China and Korea, settling mostly in enclaves in Buenos Aires, but notable for their ownership of convenience stores (called “chinos”) throughout the city. There’s a degree of xenophobia about the Chinese, but no one complains about being able to buy a bottle of wine or a pack of cigarettes at 1 am at the local chino.

So here’s my little rant. You’ll find a few pockets of xenophobia in Argentina, of course, but, generally speaking, it is a country of immigrants that welcomes new immigrants all the time, and where they become part of the culture. Ironically, I am not an immigrant in Argentina, although my Spanish has a weird accent and I’ve spent little time there as an adult. Soy Argentino y soy orgulloso. Vivan los inmigrantes!!!


Today is celebrated with a huge festival in Oberá in Misiones province where the Parque de las Naciones celebrates just about every ethnic heritage imaginable. Permanent exhibits include a “village” consisting of house styles from a variety of cultures contributed by those nations.

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On my visit there 4 years ago I noticed that there was no British house in evidence – courtesy of mixed feelings that stem currently from the Malvinas War, but which have a long history due to various efforts by the British to invade Argentina in the 19th century. There is also a large hall displaying national costume from numerous countries, and during the immigrant festival there is a gigantic arena of stalls selling food from around the world.

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You’ll find every cuisine under the sun in restaurants in Buenos Aires. Indian is becoming increasingly popular although you have to really insist to get anything resembling a chile pepper in your dish because Argentinos cannot tolerate anything spicy. Sushi is a big hit, along with Japanese noodles. I’ve also stumbled on Malay and Greek restaurants.

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The one thing you have to hunt for in Buenos Aires’ restaurants is home cooking – what you might think of as local food. You can find it abundantly in the provinces, but not in the city. What you will find is pizza and pasta to drown in.

How do you want to celebrate immigrants today then? I know it’s craven of me not to give a recipe, but I’d suggest trying out the immigrant restaurant of your choice. Turkish is popular in Mantua, so I could give that a try for lunch, although I know that it will be nothing like Turkish food. For you, it’s all going to depend on where you live and which ethnicity is considered an immigrant population in your area.


Aug 302016


Today is the birthday (1907) Leonor Fini, Argentine surrealist painter, designer, illustrator, and author, known for her depictions of powerful women. In English she is sometimes called “The Forgotten Bohemian.” She is not forgotten in Argentina.

Fini was born in Buenos Aires, to an Italian mother and Argentine father (of Italian descent). Her parents divorced when she was very young and her mother moved back to Italy.  She was raised in Trieste, her mother’s home city. Custody battles often involved Fini and her mother in sudden flights and disguises. She moved to Milan at the age of 17, and then to Paris, in either 1931 or 1932. There, she became acquainted with Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico, who inspired much of her work. She also came to know Paul Éluard, Max Ernst, Georges Bataille, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Pablo Picasso, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Salvador Dalí. She traveled Europe by car with Mandiargues and Cartier-Bresson where she was photographed nude in a swimming pool by Cartier-Bresson. The photograph of Fini sold in 2007 for $305,000 – the highest price paid at auction for one of his works to that date.


Fini had no formal artistic training. Her first major exhibition was in 1939 in New York at Julian Levy’s Gallery. She was considered part of a pre-war generation of Parisian artists, and outlived most of her artist peers. Surrealist artists in France became very interested in her once she began setting herself up as an artist, and came to know her as important in the movement. She is mentioned in most comprehensive works about surrealism, although some leave her out (she did not consider herself to be a surrealist). In 1949 Frederick Ashton choreographed a ballet conceptualized by Fini, “Le Rêve de Leonor” (“Leonor’s Dream”) with music by Benjamin Britten. In London, she exhibited at the Kaplan gallery in 1960 and at the Hanover Gallery in 1967. In the summer of 1986 there was a retrospective at the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris that drew in more than 5,000 people a day. It featured over 260 works in a variety of media. As a tribute to the many artistic and creative avenues that her career took throughout her lifetime, there were 100+ watercolors and drawings, around 80 theater/costume designs, and about 70 paintings, 5 masks, etc. Many of her paintings featured women in positions of power; an example of this is the painting La Bout du Monde where a female figure is submerged in water up to her breasts with human and animal skulls surrounding her. Madonna used the imagery in her video, “Bedtime Story” in 2006. In the spring of 1987 she had an exhibition at London’s Editions Graphique’s gallery. Fini was also featured in an exhibition entitled “Women, Surrealism, and Self-representation” at the San Francisco Modern Museum of Art in 1999.


She painted portraits of Jean Genet, Anna Magnani, Jacques Audiberti, Alida Valli, Jean Schlumberger (jewelry designer) and Suzanne Flon as well as many other celebrities and wealthy visitors to Paris. While working for Elsa Schiaparelli she designed the flacon for the perfume, “Shocking”, which became the top selling perfume for the House of Schiaparelli.


She designed costumes and decorations for theater, ballet and opera, including the first ballet performed by Roland Petit’s Ballet de Paris, “Les Demoiselles de la nuit”, featuring a young Margot Fonteyn. This was a payment of gratitude for Fini’s having been instrumental in finding the funding for the new ballet company. She also designed the costumes for two films, Renato Castellani’s Romeo and Juliet (1954) and John Huston’s A Walk with Love and Death (1968), which starred 18-year-old Anjelica Huston and Moshe Dayan’s son, Assaf.


In the 1970s, she wrote three novels, Rogomelec, Moumour, Contes pour enfants velu and Oneiropompe. Her friends included Jean Cocteau, Giorgio de Chirico, and Alberto Moravia, Fabrizio Clerici and most of the other artists and writers living in or visiting Paris. She illustrated many works by the great authors and poets, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Shakespeare, as well as texts by new writers. She was very generous with her illustrations and donated many drawings to writers to help them get published. She is, perhaps, best known for her graphic illustrations for Histoire d’O.


Fini once said:

Marriage never appealed to me, I’ve never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked.

She was, however, married once, for a brief period, to Fedrico Veneziani. They were divorced after she met the Italian Count, Stanislao Lepri, who abandoned his diplomatic career shortly after meeting Fini and lived with her thereafter. She met the Polish writer Konstanty Jeleński, known as Kot in Rome in January 1952. She was delighted to discover that he was the illegitimate half-brother of Sforzino Sforza, who had been one of her lovers. Kot joined Fini and Lepri in their Paris apartment in October 1952 and the three remained inseparable until their deaths. She later employed an assistant to join the household, which he described as “a little bit of prison and a lot of theatre.” One of his jobs was to look after her Persian cats. Over the years she acquired about 23 of them. They shared her bed and, at mealtimes, were allowed to roam the dining-table selecting what they wanted to eat.


Fini died in her apartment in Paris in 1996. By that time her star had fallen, largely because the French art world has always been deeply misogynistic. Dali described her work as “Better than most, perhaps. But talent is in the balls.” If you want a good tour of her art and life, go here: http://www.messynessychic.com/2015/06/09/the-forgotten-bohemian-queen-of-the-paris-art-world-leonor-fini/

I have spoken many times of the huge influence that Italian immigrants have had on Argentine culture and cuisine. It’s maybe a bit of a stretch to think of Fini as an Italian Argentine given that she spent almost all of her life in Europe. Many people think of me the same way. Like Fini, I was born in Buenos Aires, but have spent most of my life in other countries. The thing is that when I returned, many decades later, I knew I was HOME. So I’ll give a recipe for a very common Argentine dish of Italian descent – fainá – a skillet-baked flatbread made with chickpea flour. Fainá can be eaten as a side dish, with toppings, or on top of pizza. Argentinos have no trouble overdoing things.




1½ cups chickpea flour
2 cups warm water
5 tbsp olive oil
salt and pepper


Combine the chickpea flour and water in a bowl and stir well until thoroughly mixed. Set aside covered at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Foam will form on the top. Skim off the foam and whisk in 3 tablespoons of olive oil and salt to taste.

Preheat the oven to 500°F/260°C.

Heat a 10 inch cast-iron skillet over high heat until it is smoking hot. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and swirl it around over the heat to cover the surfaces of the skillet.

Pour in the chickpea batter in one go, and immediately place the skillet in the oven. Bake for about 30 minutes. It should be golden all over. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper. Serve in wedges.

Jun 142016


Today is the anniversary of the Battle of Marengo fought in 1800, a decisive and momentous battle in what are now known as the Napoleonic Wars. I rarely “celebrate” battles in this blog because I am fundamentally opposed to war, and I am not going to dwell on the actual details of the battle. But Marengo had widespread consequences throughout Europe. Furthermore, the battle spawned the name of a much celebrated dish – Chicken Marengo – although the history of the recipe and its precise form is disputed to this day.

The battle of Marengo was fought between French and Austrian forces near the city of Alessandria, in Piedmont in northern Italy (roughly midway between Milan and Genoa). The French overcame General Michael von Melas’ surprise attack near the end of the day, driving the Austrians out of Italy, and enhancing Napoleon’s political position in Paris as First Consul of France in the wake of his coup d’état the previous November.


Surprised by the Austrian advance toward Genoa in mid-April 1800, Bonaparte had hastily led his army over the Alps in mid-May and reached Milan on 2 June. After cutting Melas’ line of communications by crossing the river Po and defeating Feldmarschallleutnant  Peter Karl Ott von Bátorkéz at Montebello on 9 June, the French closed in on the Austrian army, which had massed in Alessandria. Deceived by a local double agent, Bonaparte dispatched large forces to the north and south, but the Austrians launched a surprise attack on 14 June against the main French army under General Louis Alexandre Berthier.

Initially, their two assaults across the Fontanone stream near Marengo village were repelled, and General Jean Lannes reinforced the French right. Bonaparte realized the true position and issued orders at 11:00 am to recall the detachment under Général de Division Louis Desaix, while moving his reserve forward. On the Austrian left, Ott’s column had taken Castel Ceriolo, and its advance guard moved south to attack Lannes’ flank. Melas renewed the main assault and the Austrians broke the central French position. By 2:30 pm the French were withdrawing and Austrian dragoons seized the Marengo farm. Bonaparte had by then arrived with the reserve, but Berthier’s troops began to fall back on the main vine belts. Knowing Desaix was approaching, Bonaparte was anxious about a column of Ott’s soldiers marching from the north, so he deployed his Consular Guard infantry to delay it. The French then withdrew steadily eastward toward San Giuliano Vecchio as the Austrians formed a column to follow them in line with Ott’s advance in the northern sector.


Desaix’s arrival around 5:30 pm stabilized the French position as the 9th Light Infantry Regiment delayed the Austrian advance down the main road and the rest of the army re-formed north of Cascina Grossa. As the pursuing Austrian troops arrived, a mix of musketry and artillery fire concealed the surprise attack of Général de Brigade François Étienne de Kellermann’s cavalry, which threw the Austrian pursuit into disordered flight back into Alessandria, with about 14,000 killed, wounded, or captured. The French casualties were considerably fewer, but included Desaix. The whole French line chased after the Austrians to seal a victory of major political consequences because it secured Bonaparte’s grip on power after the coup. It would be followed by a propaganda campaign, which sought to rewrite the story of the battle three times during Napoleon’s rule. As a small aside, “propaganda” is an English loan word from Italian (ultimately from Latin), with an original meaning of to “propagate” or “spread around” (and not pejorative originally). It was a huge victory for Napoleon, but he sought to make it into a triumph of brilliant strategy – enhancing his status as a general and leader – instead of a series of lucky mistakes and potential blunders that ended up in his favor. Napoleon came close to losing earlier in the day.

Napoleon sought to ensure that his victory would not be forgotten, so, besides the propaganda campaign, he entrusted General Chasseloup with the construction of a pyramid on the site of the battle. On 5 May 1805, a ceremony took place on the field of Marengo. Napoleon, dressed in the uniform he wore on 14 June 1800, together with Empress Joséphine seated on a throne placed under a tent, oversaw a military parade. Then, Chasseloup gave Napoleon the founding stone, on which was inscribed: “Napoleon, Emperor of the French and King of Italy, to the manes of the defenders of the fatherland who perished on the day of Marengo.” This pyramid was actually part of a very ambitious project meant to glorify Bonaparte’s conquests in Italy. The field of Marengo was supposed to become the site of a “city of Victories” whose boulevards, named after Italian battles, would converge to the pyramid. In the event, the project was abandoned in 1815 and the stones recovered by local farmers. The column erected in 1801 was also removed, but restored in 1922.


There is now a museum dedicated to the battle on the outskirts of Alessandria. Re-enactments are organized there every year on the second Sunday in June to commemorate the event. I was quite surprised when I first taught the history of the French Revolution in Italian schools to discover that Napoleon is considered a hero by many Italians because he drove the Austrians out of northern Italy and, in a sense, paved the way for the unification of Italy, half a century later. Marengo was the name of a greyish-brown color used for fabric produced in the vicinity before the battle, and a coat of that color became Napoleon’s signature color in common battle portrayals. He also named his battle horse and several warships in honor of the victory. The power of propaganda.


The battle of Marengo also gave its name to the classic dish, Chicken Marengo, whose origins are encapsulated in an entirely fictitious legend. According to the legend, the dish was first made after Napoleon defeated the Austrian army at Marengo when his personal chef Dunand foraged in the town for ingredients (because the supply wagons were too distant) and created the dish from what he could gather. According to this legend, Napoleon enjoyed the dish so much he had it served to him after every battle, and when Durand was later better-supplied and substituted mushrooms for crayfish and added wine to the recipe, Napoleon refused to accept it, believing that a change would bring him bad luck.

Nice story, but with no merit whatsoever – even though, like so much of the folklore of “origins,” it is endlessly retold as fact. Dunand (or Dunan) did not become Napoleon’s chef until several years later, and tomatoes would not have been available at that time of year in that region, never mind crayfish. It’s much more likely that the dish was created by a French restaurant chef to honor the victory.

The recipe for Chicken Marengo varies considerably. The most distinctive, and possibly historically accurate,  consists of chicken sautéed in oil with garlic and tomato, finished with wine, and served on toast garnished with fried eggs and crayfish. Without the toast, egg, and crayfish, the dish resembles chicken à la Provençale, and that is how it is often presented nowadays.

Baron Brisse gives this recipe in 1868 in his classic cookbook:

Chicken à la Marengo.
Cut up a chicken into joints, and cook in olive oil and a little salt, put in the legs before the other pieces, as they take longer to cook. When a good colour and nearly done, add a bouquet of mixed herbs, pepper, mushrooms, and some slices of truffles; place the chicken on a dish, and add the oil drip by drop to some Italian sauce; stir the whole time. When warm, pour over the chicken, and garnish with fried eggs and sippets of fried bread. If preferred, clarified butter may be used instead of oil.

Italian Sauce.
Simmer a lump of butter as big as two eggs in a saucepan, with two tablespoonsful of chopped parsley, one tablespoonful of chopped eschalots, and the same quantity of minced mushrooms, add a bottle of white wine; reduce the sauce, and moisten with a tumblerful of velouté sauce and half a tumblerful of stock; boil over a quick fire, skim off all grease, and as soon as the sauce is thick enough, take off the fire, and keep warm in a bain-marie.

Isabella Beeton gives this recipe in 1861, suggesting that the dish had spread to England by this time but we must remember that she copied most of her recipes from other sources. Nonetheless, some form of the dish appears to have been popular by mid century.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—1 large fowl, 4 tablespoonfuls of salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1 pint of stock No. 105, or water, about 20 mushroom-buttons, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoonful of powdered sugar, a very small piece of garlic.

Mode.—Cut the fowl into 8 or 10 pieces; put them with the oil into a stewpan, and brown them over a moderate fire; dredge in the above proportion of flour; when that is browned, pour in the stock or water; let it simmer very slowly for rather more than 1/2 hour, and skim off the fat as it rises to the top; add the mushrooms; season with salt, pepper, garlic, and sugar; take out the fowl, which arrange pyramidically on the dish, with the inferior joints at the bottom. Reduce the sauce by boiling it quickly over the fire, keeping it stirred until sufficiently thick to adhere to the back of a spoon; pour over the fowl, and serve.

Time.—Altogether 50 minutes. Average cost, 3s. 6d.

Sufficient for 3 or 4 persons.

Seasonable at any time.

Mrs Beeton concludes with the much-repeated fable:

A FOWL À LA MARENGO.—The following is the origin of the well-known dish Poulet à la Marengo:—On the evening of the battle the first consul was very hungry after the agitation of the day, and a fowl was ordered with all expedition. The fowl was procured, but there was no butter at hand, and unluckily none could be found in the neighbourhood. There was oil in abundance, however; and the cook having poured a certain quantity into his skillet, put in the fowl, with a clove of garlic and other seasoning, with a little white wine, the best the country afforded; he then garnished it with mushrooms, and served it up hot. This dish proved the second conquest of the day, as the first consul found it most agreeable to his palate, and expressed his satisfaction. Ever since, a fowl à la Marengo is a favourite dish with all lovers of good cheer.

Pellegrino Artusi’s Italian recipe in his legendary Science of Cooking and the Art of Eating Well (1891) is as follows:

Take a young chicken, remove the neck and legs, and cut into large pieces at the joints. Sauté in 30 grams (about 1 ounce) of butter and one tablespoon of olive oil, seasoning with salt, pepper, and a dash of nutmeg. When the pieces have browned on both sides, skim the fat and add a level tablespoon of flour and a deciliter (about 7 fluid ounces) of wine. Add broth and cover, cooking over low heat until done. Before removing from the fire, garnish with a pinch of chopped parsley; arrange on a serving dish and squeeze half a lemon over it. The result is an appetizing dish.

What are we to make of all of this? Not much, I’m afraid, except to say that there is no canonical recipe. The idea of chicken with crayfish and wine served with an egg on fried bread appeals to me though, so here’s my version. I make no claim to this being an “authentic” recipe: there’s no such thing. Some people make something similar today using small shrimp instead of crayfish. You can use bone-in chicken pieces, but boneless breasts are easier to eat.


© Chicken Marengo


4 skinless and boneless chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
flour for dredging
¼ cup brandy
6 oz crayfish, tails, shelled
1 onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup chicken stock
½ cup dry white wine
1 tsp powdered thyme (or one fresh sprig)
1 tbsp freshly chopped parsley
salt and pepper
4 slices toast
4 eggs


Dredge the chicken breasts lightly in flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste.

Heat the olive oil in a heavy cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat, and sauté the chicken breast until golden on all sides. In the final minutes add the onions and garlic, and cook them until they are translucent but not browned.

Heat the brandy in a small pan, allowing it to flame, and then pour it over the chicken. Add the white wine, stock, thyme, and parsley, and bring to a slow simmer.  Cook until the chicken is tender (about 30 minutes), and add the crayfish tails at the end. The sauce should be somewhat thickened at this point, but can be reduced if need be.

Serve the chicken and sauce over toast and place a fried egg on top.

Serves: 4


May 022016


Today is the birthday (1660) of Alessandro Scarlatti, a Sicilian Baroque composer, especially famous for his operas and chamber cantatas. He is generally considered the founder of the Neapolitan school of opera. He was the father of two other composers, Domenico Scarlatti and Pietro Filippo Scarlatti.

Scarlatti was born in Palermo, then part of the Kingdom of Sicily. He is generally said to have been a pupil of Giacomo Carissimi in Rome, and some theorize that he had some connexion with northern Italy because his early works seem to show the influence of Stradella and Legrenzi. The production in Rome of his opera Gli Equivoci nell sembiante (1679) gained him the support of Queen Christina of Sweden (who at the time was living in Rome), and he became her maestro di cappella (choirmaster). In February 1684 he became maestro di cappella to the viceroy of Naples, perhaps through the influence of his sister, an opera singer, who might have been the mistress of an influential Neapolitan noble. In Naples he produced a long series of operas as well as music for state occasions.


In 1702 Scarlatti left Naples and did not return until the Spanish domination had been superseded by that of the Austrians. In the interval he enjoyed the patronage of Ferdinando de’ Medici, for whose private theater near Florence he composed operas, and of Cardinal Ottoboni, who made him his maestro di cappella, and procured him a similar post at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome in 1703.

After visiting Venice and Urbino in 1707, Scarlatti took up his duties in Naples again in 1708, and remained there until 1717. By this time Naples seems to have become tired of his music. The Romans, however, appreciated it better, and it was at the Teatro Capranica in Rome that he produced some of his best-known operas (Telemaco, 1718; Marco Attilio Regolò, 1719; La Griselda, 1721), as well as some well-received church music, including a mass for chorus and orchestra, composed in honor of Saint Cecilia for Cardinal Acquaviva in 1721. His last work on a large scale appears to have been the unfinished serenata for the marriage of the prince of Stigliano in 1723. He died in Naples in 1725.


Scarlatti’s music forms an important link between the early Baroque Italian vocal styles of the 17th century, with their centers in Florence, Venice and Rome, and the classical school of the 18th century. Scarlatti’s style, however, is more than a transitional element in Western music. He has tended to be forgotten by modern audiences, and many of his pieces exist in manuscript only. But I have always enjoyed his harpsichord compositions in their own right. For example:

Scarlatti composed upwards of 500 chamber-cantatas for solo voice. These represent the most intellectual type of chamber-music of their period, and it is regrettable that they have remained almost entirely in manuscript. His few remaining Masses, are generally not deemed important enough to rival those of Bach or Beethoven  So much for the experts.


Sicilian cuisine shows influences from the Italian mainland, but is definitely different from what outsiders normally perceive of as Italian food. In particular maccu, (also known as maccu di fave, and sometimes referred to as macco), is a favorite of mine even though it is now hard to find. In its most basic form, maccu is a Sicilian soup that is prepared with dried and crushed fava beans (known in Britain as broad beans) and fennel as primary ingredients. It can be very hard to find the right kind of fava beans outside of Sicily. I can get them in northern Italy, but I have never seen them elsewhere.

Before the European exploration of the Americas, fava beans and lentils were the primary legumes used in cooking in the Mediterranean. The best fava beans for maccu are hulled and split before they are dried.

Maccu is known to have been made in some form by ancient Romans but is now rare to in Sicily, although it occasionally appears on restaurant menus there. There are also several Sicialian dishes that use maccu as an ingredient, such as Bruschetta al maccú and Maccu di San Giuseppe. The maccu is traditionally dried and sliced as a preparatory step. It can then be breaded and deep fried.

Classic maccu is very easy to make if you have the right ingredients. I made it for lunch today.



Cover the right kind of split fava beans (that is, hulled) with broth in a large saucepan. Add a splash of extra virgin olive oil, along with some crushed fennel seeds and fresh fennel fronds, chopped, and simmer gently for about 2 hours. That’s all there is to it. You can mash up a few beans to thicken the broth if you like, and serve in deep bowls with crusty bread.

There are limitless variations, however. Many Sicilians add small pasta to the broth about 20 minutes before serving time. Some add tomatoes or other vegetables, such as zucchini. It’s really cook’s choice.  Just be sure that the flavors or fava beans, fennel, and olive oil predominate. This is not a generic vegetable soup.

Mar 192014


Today is the feast of Saint Joseph. It is a feast or commemoration in all the provinces of the Anglican Communion, and a feast or festival in the Lutheran Church as well as a feast in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Saint Joseph’s Day is the patronal feast day for Poland as well as for Canada, persons named Joseph, Josephine, etc., for religious institutes, schools and parishes bearing his name, and for carpenters. It is also Father’s Day in some Catholic countries, mainly Spain, Portugal, and Italy.

March 19 was dedicated to Saint Joseph in several Western calendars by the tenth century, and this custom was established in Rome by 1479. Pope St. Pius V extended its use to the entire Roman Rite by his Apostolic Constitution Quo Primum (July 14, 1570). Since 1969, Episcopal Conferences may, if they wish, transfer it to a date outside Lent.


Jesus is identified in the Gospel of Matthew 13:55 as the son of a τέκτων (tektōn) and the Gospel of Mark 6:3 states that Jesus was a tektōn himself. Tektōn has been traditionally translated into English as “carpenter,” but is a rather general word (from the same root,τέχνη, téchne, (skill), that gives us “technique,” “technical,” and “technology”) that could cover skilled producers of objects in various materials, even builders. But the specific association with woodworking is a constant in Early Christian tradition. Justin Martyr (died c. 165) wrote that Jesus made yokes and ploughs, and there are similar early references.

John Dominic Crossan in The Historical Jesus puts tektōn into a historical context more resembling an itinerant worker than an established artisan, emphasizing his marginality in a population in which a peasant who owns land could become quite prosperous. Other scholars have argued that tektōn could equally mean a highly skilled craftsman in wood or metal, perhaps running a workshop with several employees. Geza Vermes has stated that the terms ‘carpenter’ and ‘son of a carpenter’ are used in the Jewish Talmud to signify a very learned man, and he suggests that a description of Joseph as ‘naggar’ (a carpenter) could indicate that he was considered wise and highly literate in the Torah.


In Joseph’s day, Nazareth was an obscure village in Galilee, about 65 kilometers (40 mi) from Jerusalem, and barely mentioned in surviving non-Christian texts and documents. Archaeology over most of the site is made impossible by subsequent building, but from what has been excavated, and from tombs in the area around the village, it is estimated that the population was at most about 400. It was, however, only about 6 kilometers from the city of Tzippori (ancient “Sepphoris”), which was destroyed by the Romans in 4 BCE, and thereafter was expensively rebuilt. Analysis of the landscape and other evidence suggest that in Joseph’s lifetime Nazareth was to a degree dependent on Tzippori, which had an overwhelmingly Jewish population, although with many signs of Hellenization. Historians have speculated that Joseph, and later Jesus, might have traveled daily to work on the rebuilding. The large theater in the city has been suggested specifically, although this has aroused much controversy over dating and other issues. Other scholars see Joseph and Jesus as the general village craftsmen, working in wood, stone, and metal on a wide variety of jobs.

March 19 always falls during Lent, and traditionally it is a day of abstinence. This explains the widespread custom of laying out St. Joseph tables on this day to provide food for all comers, but the dishes are always meatless. Different countries have very specific customs associated with the feast as follows:


In Sicily, where St. Joseph is regarded by many as their patron, and in many Italian-American communities, thanks are given to St. Joseph (San Giuseppe) for preventing a famine in Sicily during the Middle Ages. According to legend, there was a severe drought at the time, and the people prayed for their patron saint to bring them rain. They promised that if he answered their prayers, they would prepare a large feast to honor him. The rain did come, and the people of Sicily prepared a large banquet for their patron saint. The fava bean was the crop which saved the population from starvation and is a traditional part of St. Joseph’s Day altars and traditions. Giving food to the needy is a St. Joseph’s Day custom. In some communities it is traditional to wear red clothing and eat a Neopolitan pastry known as a Zeppole (created in 1840 by Don Pasquale Pinatauro of Naples) on St. Joseph’s Day.


Upon a typical St. Joseph’s Day altar, people place flowers, limes, candles, wine, fava beans, specially prepared cakes, breads, and cookies (as well as other meatless dishes), and zeppole. Foods are traditionally served containing bread crumbs to represent sawdust since St. Joseph was a carpenter. Because the feast occurs during Lent, traditionally no meat was allowed on the celebration table. The altar usually has three tiers, to represent the trinity.


On the Sicilian island of Lipari, The St. Joseph legend is modified somewhat, and says that sailors returning from the mainland encountered a fierce storm that threatened to sink their boat. They prayed to St. Joseph for deliverance, and when they were saved, they swore to honor the saint each year on his feast day. The Lipari celebration is somewhat changed, in that meat is allowed at the feast.

Some villages like Avola used to burn wood and logs in squares on the day before St.Joseph, as thanksgiving to the Saint. In Belmonte Mezzagno this is currently still performed every year, while people ritually shout invocations to the Saint in local Sicilian dialect. This is called “A Vampa di San Giuseppe” (the Saint Joseph’s bonfire).


Spectacular celebrations are also held in Bagheria. The Saint is even celebrated twice a year, the second time being held especially for people from Bagheria who come back for summer vacation from other parts of Italy or abroad.


In Italy March 19 is also Father’s Day.




This is one of the public holidays in Malta, known as Jum San Ġużepp. People celebrate mass in the morning, and in the afternoon go for a picnic. It is a liturgical feast in particular Sunday in summer. However, the city of Rabat celebrates the traditional Maltese feast on the 19th of March, where in the evening a procession is also held with the statue of St Joseph. On this day also the city of Żejtun celebrates the day, known as Jum il-Kunsill (Zejtun Council’s Day), till 2013 was known as Jum iż-Żejtun (Zejtun’s Day). During this day a prominent person from Żejtun is given the Żejtun Honor (Ġieħ iż-Żejtun). In past years the Żejtun Parish Church has celebrated these feast days with a procession with the statue of Saint Joseph.


In Spain, the day is a version of Father’s Day. In some parts of Spain it is celebrated as Falles.


The five days and nights of Falles leading up to 19 March are a continuous party. There are a number of processions daily: historical, religious, and comedic. Crowds in the restaurants spill out into the streets. Explosions can be heard all day long and sporadically through the night. Foreigners may be surprised to see everyone from small children to elderly people throwing fireworks and noisemakers in the streets, which are littered with pyrotechnical debris. The timing of the events is fixed and they fall on the same date every year, though there has been discussion about holding some events on the weekend preceding the Falles, to take greater advantage of the tourist potential of the festival or changing the end date in years where it is due to occur in midweek.

La Despertà


Each day of Falles begins at 8:00 am with La Despertà (“the wake-up call”). Brass bands appear from the casals and begin to march down every street playing lively music. Close behind them are the fallers, throwing large firecrackers in the street as they go.

La Mascletà


The Mascletà, an explosive barrage of coordinated firecracker and fireworks displays, takes place in each neighbourhood at 2:00 pm every day of the festival; the main event is the municipal Mascletà in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament where the pyrotechnicians compete for the honor of providing the final Mascletà of the fiestas (on 19 March). At 2:00 pm the clock chimes and the Fallera Mayor (dressed in her fallera finery) will call from the balcony of City Hall, Senyor pirotècnic, pot començar la mascletà! (“Mr. Pyrotechnic, you may commence the Mascletà!”), and the Mascletà begins.

La Plantà

The day of the 15th all of the falles infantils are to be finished being constructed and later that night all of the falles majors (major Falles) are to be completed. If not, they face disqualification.

L’Ofrena de flors

In this event, the flower offering, each falla casal takes an offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of the Abandoned. This occurs all day during 17–18 March. A statue of the Virgin Mary and its large pedestal are then covered with all the flowers.

Els Castells and La Nit del Foc

On the nights of the 15, 16, 17, and 18th there are firework displays in the old riverbed in Valencia. Each night is progressively grander and the last is called La Nit del Foc (the Night of Fire).


Cabalgata del Fuego

On the final evening of Falles, at 7pm on March 19, a parade known in Spanish as the Cabalgata del Fuego (the Fire Parade) takes place along Colon street and Porta de la Mar square. This spectacular celebration of fire, the symbol of the fiesta’s spirit, is the grand finale of Falles and a colorful, noisy event featuring exhibitions of the varied rites and displays from around the world which use fire; it incorporates floats, giant mechanisms, people in costumes, rockets, gunpowder, street performances and music.

La Cremà


On the final night of Falles, around midnight on March 19, these falles are burnt as huge bonfires. This is known as La Cremà (the Burning), the climax of the whole event, and the reason why the constructions are called falles (“torches”). Traditionally, the falla in the Plaça de l’Ajuntament is burned last.

Many neighborhoods have a falla infantil (a children’s falla, smaller and without satirical themes), which is held a few metres away from the main one. This is burnt first, at 10:00 pm. The main neighborhood falles are burnt closer to midnight; the burning of the falles in the city centre often starts later. For example, in 2005, the fire brigade delayed the burning of the Egyptian funeral falla in Carrer del Convent de Jerusalem until 1:30 am, when they were sure all safety concerns were addressed.

Each falla is laden with fireworks which are lit first. The construction itself is lit either after or during the explosion of these fireworks. Falles burn quite quickly, and the heat given off is felt by all around. The heat from the larger ones often drives the crowd back a couple of metres, even though they are already behind barriers that the fire brigade has set several meters from the construction. In narrower streets, the heat scorches the surrounding buildings, and the firemen douse the façades, window blinds, street signs, etc. with their hoses to stop them catching fire or melting, from the beginning of the cremà until it cools down after several minutes.

Away from the falles, people dance in the streets, the whole city resembling an open-air dance party, except that instead of music there is the incessant (and occasionally deafening) sound of people throwing fireworks around randomly. There are stalls selling products such as the typical fried snacks porres, xurros (churros), and bunyols (doughnuts), as well as roasted chestnuts or trinkets.


The Philippines

In the Philippines, many families keep a tradition in which an old man, a young lady, and a small boy are chosen from among the poor and are dressed up as St. Joseph, the Virgin Mary, and the child Jesus, respectively. They are then seated around a table set with the family’s best silverware and china, and served a variety of courses, sometimes being literally spoon-fed by the senior members of the family, while the Novena to St. Joseph is recited at a nearby temporary altar.

United States of America


In New Orleans, Louisiana, which was a major port of entry for Sicilian immigrants during the late 19th century, the Feast of St. Joseph is a city-wide event. Both public and private St. Joseph’s altars are traditionally built. The altars are usually open to any visitor who wishes to pay homage. The food is generally distributed to charity after the altar is dismantled.

There are also parades in honor of St. Joseph and the Italian population of New Orleans which are similar to the many marching clubs and truck parades of Mardi Gras and St. Patrick’s Day. Tradition in New Orleans also holds that by burying a small statue of St. Joseph upside down in the front yard of a house, that house will sell more promptly. In addition to the above traditions, some groups of Mardi Gras Indians stage their last procession of the season on the Sunday nearest to St. Joseph’s Day otherwise known as “Super Sunday,” after which their costumes are dismantled.

Saint Joseph’s Day is also celebrated in other U.S. communities with high proportions of Italians such as New York City; Utica, NY, Syracuse, NY, Buffalo, NY, Hoboken, NJ, Jersey City, NJ; Kansas City, MO; and Chicago; Gloucester, Mass.; and Providence, Rhode Island, where observance (which takes place just after Saint Patrick’s Day) often is expressed through “the wearing of the red,” that is, wearing red clothing or accessories similar to the wearing of green on Saint Patrick’s Day. St. Joseph’s Day tables may also be found in Rockford and Elmwood Park, Illinois. Polish-Americans, especially those in the Midwest and New England, who have the name Joseph celebrate Saint Joseph’s Day (Dzien Swietego Jozefa) as an imieniny (name day). As a symbol of ethnic pride, and in solidarity with their Italian counterparts, Polish Catholic parishes often hold Saint Joseph’s Day feasts or Saint Joseph’s Tables similar to Italian ones

In the Mid-Atlantic regions, Saint Joseph’s Day is traditionally associated with the return of anadromous fish, such as striped bass, to their natal rivers, such as the Delaware. St. Joseph’s Day is also the day when the swallows are traditionally believed to return to Mission San Juan Capistrano after having flown south for the winter.


People in Sicily prepare their tavole di San Giuseppe, their ‘St Joseph’s tables’, which display the earth’s bounty and represent the householders’ gratitude for the saint’s continued protection. The foods are meant to be shared with the poor. Three disadvantaged children are invited into the home; often these three are dressed in bed sheets to represent the Holy Family and they are treated as guests of honor. Called virgineddi, they eat from the many dishes on the table, which include pastries and breads, because St Joseph is patron saint of pastry chefs and fry cooks. They always have maccu di San Giuseppe, a stew with five kinds of legumes and many other vegetables and herbs.  Borage, which provides a green element, is a perennial herb with large green leaves that grows easily in most climates and soils.  It is not usually available in markets.  Substitute other leafy greens.

Legume Soup for Saint Joseph’s, or Maccu di San ‘Gnuseppi is, says Pino Correnti in his Il Libro d’Oro della Cucina e dei Vini di Sicilia, “a ritual soup for San Giuseppe and also a custom handed down from the celebrations of the spring equinox in classical time: the housewife clears her pantry of the leftover dried legumes in the expectation of the new harvest to come.” Once in a while when I clean out my pantry I make something similar with the tail ends of packs of legumes and whatnot – always different; always delicious.


Maccu di San ‘Gnuseppi


10 ozs/300 g shelled dry fava beans
8 ozs/200 g shelled dried peas
4 ozs /100 g dried chickpeas
6 ozs/150 g dried beans
4 ozs/100 g lentils
2 bunches of borage (or spinach or chard)
¾ oz/20 g fennel seeds
1 frond (lacy top) fennel
1 medium-sized onion
2 sun-dried tomatoes
extra virgin olive Oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
croutons made by dicing day-old bread and sautéing the pieces in olive oil


Set all the legumes except the lentils, which cook quickly, to soak in lightly salted water the night before.

The next day drain them, and set all the legumes to boil in a big pot of lightly salted water, adding the onion, tomatoes, and greens, chopped, after about two hours. Continue simmering for another couple of hours, by which time it will be ready.

Check seasoning, and serve over the croutons, with a cruet of extra virgin olive oil for people to drizzle over their soup.