Today is the feast day of St Nicholas of Tolentino (San Nicola da Tolentino), Augustinian monk and confessor, known as the Patron of Holy Souls. He was born c. 1246 at Sant’Angelo in Pontano in what was then the March of Ancona. He was the son of parents who had been childless into middle age. They made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Nicholas of Myra for his intercession, and when his mother became pregnant they named their son after the saint. At the age of 16 Nicholas became an Augustinian novice at the monastery in Sant’Angelo having been inspired by the teachings of the abbot. In his youth he spent time in a number of different monasteries coming under the influence of the hermits of Brettino who were extremely devout in their vows of poverty and charity. He was ordained in 1270 at the age of 25, and soon became known for his preaching and teaching. Having had several visions of angels reciting “to Tolentino” to him, in 1274 he accepted this as a divine sign to move to that city, where he lived the rest of his life.
In Tolentino his superiors entrusted him with the daily feeding of the poor at the monastery gates, but at times he was so free with the friary’s provisions that the procurator begged the superior to check his generosity. Once, when weak after a long fast, he received a vision of the Virgin Mary along with St Augustine and St Monica who told him to eat some bread marked with a cross and dipped in water. Upon doing so he was immediately stronger. He started distributing these rolls to the ailing, while praying to Mary. This is the origin of the Augustinian custom of blessing and distributing Saint Nicholas Bread. In some locations this custom continues down to the present day. Also in some locations his feast day is a major celebration and special molded sugar cookies bearing his image are baked.
In Tolentino, Nicholas worked as a peacemaker in a city torn by strife between the Guelfs and Ghibellines who, in the conflict for control of Italy, supported the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively. He ministered to his flock, helped the poor, and visited prisoners. During his life, Nicholas is said to have received visions, including images of Purgatory, which friends ascribed to his lengthy fasts. Prayer for the souls in purgatory was the outstanding characteristic of his spirituality. Because of this, Nicholas was proclaimed patron of the souls in Purgatory, in 1884 by Leo XIII. Towards the end of his life he became ill, suffering greatly, but still continued the mortifications that had been part of his holy life. Nicholas died on September 10, 1305.
There are many tales and legends that relate to Nicholas which you may take for what they are. One says that the devil once beat him with a stick, which was then displayed for years in his church. In another, Nicholas, a vegetarian, was served a roasted fowl over which he made the sign of the cross, and it flew out a window. Nine passengers on a ship going down at sea once asked Nicholas’ aid and he appeared in the sky, wearing the black Augustinian habit, radiating golden light, holding a lily in his left hand, and with his right hand he quelled the storm.
According to the Peruvian chronicler Antonio de la Calancha, it was St. Nicholas of Tolentino who made possible a permanent Spanish settlement in the rigorous, high-altitude climate of Potosi in Bolivia. He reported that all children born to Spanish colonists there died in childbirth or soon thereafter, until a father dedicated his unborn child to St. Nicholas of Tolentino (because his own parents asked for saintly intervention to have a child). The colonist’s son, born on Christmas Eve, 1598, survived to healthy adulthood, and many later parents followed the example of naming their sons Nicolás.
Nicholas was canonized by Pope Eugene IV(also an Augustinian) in 1446. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized. His remains are preserved at the Shrine of Saint Nicholas in the Basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino in the city of Tolentino, province of Macerata in Marche.
A number of churches and oratories are dedicated to him, including San Nicolò da Tolentino in Venice, San Nicola da Tolentino agli Orti Sallustiani in Rome, and Saint Nicholas of Tolentino in The Bronx, New York. In the Philippines, the 16th century Church of San Nicolas de Tolentino in Banton, Romblon, was built in honor of him and his feast day is celebrated as the annual Biniray festival, commemorating the devotion of the island’s Catholic inhabitants to St. Nicholas during the Muslim raids in the 16th century.
St Nicholas bread is not really a specific type of bread, but rather the name given to bread distributed in the saint’s name. So providing a recipe is not really pertinent. Instead I thought I would include a recipe for lasagna, known as vincisgrassi, which is famous in the region around Tolentino. Generally people tend to think of lasagna as one dish – pasta sheets with layers of ground beef, sauce, and cheese that is baked. But the varieties possible are legion. I’ve always been fond of making lasagna with mixed shellfish in a cream sauce. Once you open your mind and get creative worlds await you. Vincisgrassi is notable in two separate ways. First the filling is a luscious mix of prosciutto and porcini or wild mushrooms. If the amount of prosciutto means taking out a second mortgage for you, use any good Italian ham. Porcini are best, but when I was living in Italy I could quite often get wild mushrooms at the local grocer’s and they are superb in this dish. Use any mushrooms you can find. Dried porcini work well. Simply reconstitute them in warm water and incorporate the liquid in with the sauce. Second, the pasta is made with vin santo which is a dessert wine found in many regions of Italy. You can buy it online if you cannot find it locally. Or you can substitute Marsala.
For the pasta
2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups semolina flour
¼ cup virgin olive oil
¼ cup vin santo (or Marsala)
pinch of salt
For the filling
1lb/ 450g porcini or wild mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 cups/ 500ml double cream
2 cups/ 500ml chicken stock
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, chopped
10oz/300g prosciutto, shredded (or Italian ham chopped fine)
5 oz/150g parmesan, grated
butter for greasing
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil.
You prepare the pasta in the usual way. Combine the flours and salt and build a mound of them on your work surface. Punch down a hole in the center of the mound (I always like to think of this as being a replica of the crater of Vesuvius).
Beat together the oil, vin santo, and eggs, and pour the mixture into the crater.
First with a fork, and then with your hands, mix the flour and egg mixture by pushing flour from the top and sides into the crater. Gauge the amount of flour needed by rolling the dough into a ball and kneading by hand as soon as it is workable. Work in only as much as is needed to make a smooth, elastic dough.
I generally continue the kneading process by running the dough repeatedly through a wide setting on my pasta maker, doubling it over and repeating until the dough is even and silky. Then run it through finer and finer settings until you reach the second to last. Cut the pasta into strips or sheets to fit your baking pan.
Boil the pasta for one minute only (working in batches if necessary), and immediately plunge it in an ice water bath. Pat off excess water with paper towels, and keep the sheets separate.
For the filling (which can be made ahead of time), put the cream, stock, and bay leaf in a large skillet, bring to a simmer, then reduce by half.
Put 2 tbsp olive oil in a large pan over high heat, add the mushrooms and sauté until browned. Stir in the parsley and prosciutto, take from the heat and let cool.
Remove the bay leaf from the sauce, pour into a blender, add the egg and blend until smooth.
Brush a baking dish (about 8/12in/20 x 30cm) with butter. Place a layer of pasta in the bottom. Ladle cream on to the pasta, then sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Scatter with mushroom mix, add more pasta. Continue layering pasta with cream, cheese and mushroom, finishing with pasta topped with cream and cheese plus a few mushrooms. It should be about 4 layers.
Pre-heat the oven to 350F/180C
Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbling, turning up the heat at the end to brown if necessary.