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.
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.
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.
Torta di San Biagio
400 g flour
80 g cold butter
80 g caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, scraped
120 ml dry white wine
300 g blanched almonds
100 g caster sugar
100 g dark chocolate
1 lemon, grated rind
beaten egg plus milk (for glazing)
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.
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.
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
salt and pepper
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.