23 November 2014

LIFE: Giving Thanks Redux

CHIAVARI, Italy –If there is one thing I know it is that it is difficult to change the habits of a lifetime. I’m talking about Thanksgiving. For me, it’s hard to get into the spirit of Christmas until I’ve had Thanksgiving. But here in Italy, where they love holidays that fall on Thursday and extend into Friday and even Monday if they can get away with it, they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving.  It’s not that they aren’t fascinated by the idea of giving thanks for what you have, but what do they have to be thankful for they ask. For those of us looking in from the outside, we have to think they are kidding, right? They’re not. 
 
Turin, Italy, Capital of White Magic 
It’s not that they don’t think life is good, Italy is beautiful, or the food isn’t the best in the world. They actually do. But not being too happy about something is part and parcel of the Italian DNA.  If you are too happy about something, no, I take that back, if you show that you are too happy about something, you risk putting a jinx – the malocchio or Evil Eye - on the very thing you are happy about. 

The Evil Eye is best described as a curse that can be triggered by something as simple as a compliment.  For example, if someone tells you your baby is beautiful, beware! The fates have been tempted. You must immediately make the sign of the horn to protect your child from the dreaded Evil Eye.

When I first moved to Italy, a Genovese lawyer told me that if I wanted to succeed in Italy, I would have to stop smiling so much.  And not only that, but if someone asked me how I was, the answer should never be –‘great.’ A better, safer answer,” he counseled, “would be “in somma.” Which loosely translated means, “I’m doing the best I can but it’s a struggle.” Truth is, at that time “in somma” was closer to my reality than “great,” so I had no problem adopting the more “Evil Eye” proof response.
 
A Pox on Your Play
Superstition has been part of Italian life since the dawn of time.  Using your fingers to make what is called in Italy “the horns” is in reality a version of a crescent moon shape which is representative of various Moon Goddesses worshiped in days of old. Interestingly, the finger horn can also be a sign that your wife is cheating on you - evidently a cheating wife is considered one of the worse curses of all.

A few years ago, when I found out that here in Italy having a bird in the house – either as a pet or by accident – is considered bad luck, it triggered a memory of something that happened years ago. I must have been about 4 or 5 years old. I was with my Grandmother in her kitchen, watching her cook. Out of nowhere a white pigeon landed on the windowsill and walked the few inches of the window sill and came inside the kitchen.
 
Extra Added Protection 
When my Grandmother saw the bird she became visibly upset.  She stopped cooking and went out into the hallway and sat down in the chair that was always by the door. I remember her hands were in the fabric of her apron and she was squeezing them together. A nervous gesture. 

I stood next to her and waited to see what was going to happen next. Then she turned to me and said, “my brother is dead.”  That was all she said. And her brother, who was in the Italian army serving in Ethiopia, had indeed been killed in battle.  I was only a kid   so I filed it away along with all the other strange things grownups do and say and didn’t think about it again, until now. I read somewhere that the bad luck a bird in the house brings is a very old superstition, but then, aren’t they all.

Turns out there are other things, like covering your mouth when you yawn – which I always thought we did just to be polite, are also based on superstitions. The real reason we cover our mouths is so evil spirits don’t enter our bodies. After all, God gave Adam life by breathing into his mouth – so what’s to stop the Devil from trying the same trick?


Then there is that old habit of saying Bless You, when someone sneezes. That simple saying is a carry-over from the days of the Roman Empire when sneezing was a sign that you had a dreaded disease. When someone sneezed the Romans thought it best to offer up a short prayer to the king of the Gods, Jupiter. A “long may you live,” or “may you enjoy good health,” or a simple “Jupiter, help me” would usually do the trick. Whichever one you chose brought hope that Jupiter would protect you if from whatever the other person was sneezing out. For the unfortunate sneezer, the hope was that Jupiter would help them expel the disease within and keep them healthy.
 
Let's See, Heel Goes Here Then Three Turns to the Right 
Contrary to popular belief, it’s not just in southern Italian thing. In Milan they take the Evil Eye and other superstitions very seriously. The worn out nether parts of the mosaic bull, the symbol of the city of Turin, in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in downtown Milan is proof of that. Even those who claim to be non-believers can’t resist the Milanese tradition of twirling around three times on the bull’s dangling bits in the hope that it will keep the evil spirits at bay and bring them luck. So the next time you are in Milan make sure you visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and give it a twirl. You won’t have any problem finding the bull mosaic, there is always a crowd of people waiting there to take their turn.

If you are the nervous type and don’t want to wait until you get to Milan, you might want to wear a cimaruta around your neck. Some even hang this Italian charm on their babies cribs to protect them from the Evil Eye. After all, there’s no point in tempting fate. At least with the protection of a cimaruta, you’ll gain favor with the Goddess Diana, Queen of the Italian witches, and that can only be a good thing. I know I’m going to get one and hang it on my computer. Better safe than sorry, no?

You might think it strange that Milan has a mosaic that represents Turin, but there is a good reason why. Turin is Italy’s capital of black magic. There are even special tours that will take you to the city’s “black magic” hot spots. Nothing to be afraid of though, as Turin is also the capital of “white magic” and so it all balances out in the end.

So while we Americans have no problem roasting up a turkey and brazenly give thanks for all we have, the wary Italians prefer to go about their business of living large and enjoying life by pretending they are suffering through it all. So now that you know the rules, cross your fingers, touch wood and make the sign of the horn because I am going to wish you all a Very Happy Thanksgiving.

ON ANOTHER NOTE

This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks, and the badge is kind of crummy, but it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy.  I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like.  Thanks

20 November 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The Surprising Cuisine of Turin

With the sky still an early morning pink, crates of dark green artichokes, yellow pears and fragrant fennel are stacked willy nilly, cluttering the streets as fruit and vegetable vendors at Turin’s great food market, Porta Palazzo set up their market stalls for the day. Working nearby, brawny butchers in white coats and blood stained aprons pull large beef hindquarters and pork carcasses from the back of rumbling refrigerated trucks and hang them on large hooks behind their counters in the immense glass and wrought iron market building. 
 
 Porta Palazzo, City Market of Turin, Italy
But even before the butchers start to sharpen their knives or farmers stick price cards into the produce boxes, local chefs are on the prowl, menu ideas running through their minds. How many crates of Swiss chard do you have? How about these beets, will you have more tomorrow? The day’s menu depends on what they choose. The only thing certain is that the food they’ll prepare is unlike any you have ever eaten in Italy.


Just ask Turin native Chef Roberto Donna of Washington, D.C.’s four-star Galileo restaurant. He knows firsthand how creative the chefs in his hometown can be.  He’ll also tell you that with such incredibly voluptuous and seductive ingredients as white truffles, porcini mushrooms, Piedmont beef, fresh brook trout, and an abundance of game, no one is ever really surprised when first time visitors can barely keep from swooning at the dinner table.
 
Butcher Stall, Porta Palazzo Market, Turin, Italy
In part it’s the luck of the location. Turin is in the extreme northwest corner of Italy, in the province of Piedmont, away from the tourist heavy routes that favor Rome, Florence and Venice. Even in recent years as Piedmont, home of the Slow Food movement, has become a Mecca for food lovers, Turin continues to hover below the radar.


As gourmands track elusive white truffles in Alba and frolic through the vineyards of Montferrato, the tables of Turin are largely ignored. Even after the 2006 Winter Olympics brought more than a million visitors to the city, the cuisine of Turin remains a mystery not just to foreigners, but to Italians as well.

You'll Find Eveything You Need at Porta Palazzo Market
If you are lucky enough to spend time in Turin the first thing you’ll notice is Torinese cuisine is not like the food in any other part of Italy. For one, chefs tend to reach for butter and lard instead of olive oil. Olive oil has only been used in local cooking since the 1950’s, brought north by southerners who immigrated to Turin to work in the automobile industry. And more than in any other part of Italy, local dishes incorporate a variety of savory sauces. 


Another difference is that appetizers play a much larger role here than in other parts of Italy, both in the size of the portions and in their sheer creativity. In Chef Donna’s definitive cookbook, ‘Cooking in Piedmont’, he presents twenty-six recipes for appetizers including such non-appetizer sounding dishes as rabbit salad, stuffed roasted peppers, veal tongue in a spicy red sauce, a duck liver flan and spicy polenta served with fried quail eggs. 


Probably the two best known Piedmontese appetizers are bagna caoda –literally a hot bath -of oil, garlic, anchovies and butter served as a dipping sauce for winter vegetables, and fonduta (from the French fondre, to melt) a fondue of creamy Fontina cheese flavored with white truffles. Truffles are used extensively in Torinese cooking and when they are in season – between November and February – they are liberally showered over just about everything. 
  
Creamy Fontina Cheese Flavored with White Truffles
In a traditional Italian meal, appetizers are followed by a first course, usually pasta. Two of Turin’s most popular pasta dishes are tajarin, golden egg noodles served with melted butter and a shaving of white truffles, and Chef Donna’s favorite, ravioli del plin, (del plin means to pinch in Torinese dialect) often served with a reduced veal stock and a veil of grated parmesan cheese. It is interesting that the Torinese prefer fresh egg pastas, rather than pastasciutta, dried pasta, that is so popular throughout the rest of Italy.


The best rice in Italy, some say the world, grows in the wide flat lands between Milan and Turin so in addition to pasta you’ll find rich and creamy risotto, riso all piemontese, rice served with meat sauce, and riso e ceci, a rice and chick pea dish on local menus. Other non-pasta choices are chestnut flour gnocchi served with a fonduta di Castelmagno (Castelmagno is a town southwest of Turin that is famous for its cheese), or baccalĂ  (salted cod), served with saffron flavored polenta. And then, as the Italians say, Coraggio! – courage! It’s time to move on to the main course.
 
Creamy Risotto with Slivers of Truffles 
The city’s signature dish is bollito misto, a mix of boiled meats served with three sauces: bagnet verd, a parsley sauce spiced up with anchovy, garlic and olive oil; bagnet ross, crushed tomatoes, garlic and hot peppers, and saussa d’avije, a mustard sauce sweetened with honey and crushed nuts.


In the past, traditionalists insisted that bollito misto contain seven vegetables, seven types of meat, and seven types of ornamenti, i.e. tongue, tail and dangly bits, but today the more exotic dangly bits are slowly being eased out. This boiled meat dish is on the menu at least once a week in most Turin restaurants and served from a rolling stainless steel cart, each meat kept warm in its own broth filled compartment. And you don’t have to worry about what you will be served for you can ask for the meat that you want. 
  
Bollito Misto, A Torinese Favorite 
Other classic dishes include brasato al Barolo, Piedmont beef slowly braised in Barolo wine, and finanziera, a stew of cock’s crests, chicken livers, veal, peas and porcini mushrooms. In the fall and winter, you’ll find venison, roe deer (a small European deer), quail and even tagliata di renna, slices of reindeer meat, on some menu, along with beef and veal, free range poultry and freshly caught fish instead of fish farm fish. 


The food in Turin may just change the way you look at Italian food forever. In a country where no culinary rock has been left unturned, it’s nice to know there is still a small corner where you can find new taste experiences.  

Ravioli del Plin with Butter and Sage
“When I was growing up in Turin,” says Chef Donna, “my two favorite foods were ravioli del plin and the chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding called bonet. My list of favorite foods has grown since then, but ravioli del plin and bonet are still at the top.”


Here are some typical Turinese/Piedmontese dishes Chef Donna recommends first time visitors to Turin and Piedmont try.  


The Chef Recommends


Starters
 Acciughe al Verde
acciughe al verde, anchovies served with basil and parsley pesto spiked with hot peppers
vitello tonnato, razor thin slices of rare roasted veal served with a rich tuna sauce. This is most often thought of as a summer dish, but when the weather outside is frightful, the sauce is served warm.  
fonduta, made from fontina cheese from Aosta, butter, egg yolks, milk and white truffles from Alba. (only available in the winter).

Pasta
 Golden Talglierini 
taglierini al rosso d’uovo – rich egg noodles, (12 egg yolks to each pound of flour), served with butter and truffle shavings, or sometimes with a sauce of butter, oil, onions, tomatoes, and finely chopped chicken livers
raviolini del plin – tiny ravioli may be offered with a creamy cheese sauce (fonduta) or a reduced veal stock, or even served in broth. The sauce depends entirely on what they are filled with.

Main courses
 Brasato al Barolo
brasato al Barolo – the classic Piedmont beef slow cooked in rich red Barolo wine
bollito misto – a mix of boiled meats traditionally served with three piquant sauces
fritto misto – a mix of flash fried bits of meat, fish and vegetables. The mix depends on what is fresh in the marketplace 

Dessert
Everyone's Favorite, Chocolate Bonet  
bonet – the Chef’s favorite chocolate and hazelnut cream pudding.
nocciolini di Chiavasso – a tiny cookie made of toasted hazelnuts, sugar and egg whites, traditionally served with a zabaglione sauce. These cookies were originally called “noisettes”, which is the French word for nuts, but the name was changed during Mussolini’s reign in the 1930’s.
torta gianduia –  chocolate cake with chocolate and hazelnut cream filling and frosting.


ON ANOTHER NOTE


This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks, and the badge is kind of crummy, but it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy.  I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like.  Thanks.

16 November 2014

LIFE: The Shroud of Turin Returns



TURIN, Italy - The Shroud of Turin, arguably Italy’s most famous holy relic, will be on display from April 19 to June 24, 2015 at the Cathedral of Turin, in the northern Italian city of Turin.

 Turin, Italy
The Shroud was last on display in 2010 and more than 2 million people visited Turin during the 44 days it was on display. This time it is expected that the crowds will be even larger for this exceptional event as Pope Francis will make an appearance on June 21 to visit the Shroud and celebrate the birthday of San Giovanni Bosco.  


It goes without saying that reservations are necessary.  Even at this early stage organizers are advising the public that the reservation process might take a few minutes, so you need to be patient.  In the first few days the reservation site was open in 2010, almost 1 million requests had come in so it is easy to understand their concern. You’ll find on-line and phone reservation information at the end of this article.

 The Shroud of Turin
According to tradition, the Shroud is the burial cloth of Jesus, but even with the use of special carbon dating techniques, experts have been hard pressed to date it much before the 14th century. However, there is some evidence that on August 15, 944 DC an image bearing cloth known as the Cloth of Edessa, was taken from Edessa to Constantinople (now Istanbul).


It had been in Edessa since it was found sometime in the middle of the 6th century, hidden behind some stones above one of the city's gates. According to legend the cloth, with a miraculous picture of Jesus, was brought to the King of Edessa sometime between 13 –50 DC by a disciple known as Thaddeus Jude, who claimed to have been sent by the apostle Thomas.

 The Cathedral of Turin
But historians don’t seem to be able to agree on any of the dates and there are those who believe that the shroud was taken by Robert of Clari or other French knights of the Fourth Crusade during the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. There may be some truth in that as Robert of Clari mentions seeing the cloth at the Imperial Palace in 1203, even if the first actual records only trace it back to Lirey, France in 1354.
 
 Inside the Cathedral of Turin
The basis of this belief comes from a letter written in 1205 to Pope Innocent II which says in part, “The Venetians partitioned the treasure of gold, silver and ivory, while the French did the same with the relics of saints and the most sacred of all, the linen in which our Lord Jesus Christ was wrapped after His death and before the resurrection.”


If the Edessa Cloth is the Shroud of Turin, then written record of its existence goes back to the sixth century. But is it? The controversy continues. While no new tests are officially scheduled scientists at Oxford University, where the original tests were done, are taking another look at the data and methodology of the original tests to see if any mistakes were made and if the Shroud could actually date back to the time of Jesus. 
 Turin, A Beautiful City
Groups dedicated to researching the relic argue that the shroud has been handled so many times that it could easily have been contaminated. This could alter the chemical makeup of the carbon in the linen which in turn would affect the results of the carbon dating. To avoid additional contamination the Shroud is now kept in a covered, bulletproof, climate controlled case inside the Cathedral of Turin. 


If you are planning on going to Turin I can tell you from my own experiences when I went to see the Shroud several years ago, the city is well organized and even though there are a lot of people, lines move quickly and you never feel lost in a sea of humanity. It is a unique experience.

 A Sample of Turin's Exquisite Architecture
If you do have a chance to go and see the Shroud I strongly suggest staying a few extra days. Turin is one of the most historically interesting and architecturally beautiful cities in Italy, albeit not traditionally Italian. It was the city of Italy's royal family, the French Savoy, and they turned the city into a spectacular European capital. Vale la pena, as the Italians say – it’s worth it.

 
On-line Reservations to see the Shroud of Turin:  http://www.piemonteitalia.eu/prenotazione/welcome.do?codEvento=OSS2015
Your tickets will be sent to you via e-mail.
  

Phone Reservations: 
Call +39 011 529 5550. The call center will be open from Monday to Friday from 9AM to 7PM and Saturdays from 9AM to 2PM. That’s Italy time, so you’ll need to calculate the time difference between where you are and Turin.   


The official Shroud web site is: www.sindone.org

This is the information that I have as of today. As things change, as they often do here in Italy, I will update this information.


ON ANOTHER NOTE

This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks and I know the badge is kind of crummy, but clicking on it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy. I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like. Thanks.

09 November 2014

LIFE: Edgardo Simoni, aka The Fox

CHIAVARI, Italy - During World War II close to 18,000 Italian prisoners of war were held in Australian prisons.  Among the prisoners was a young Italian Lieutenant from Lucca, Italy, Edgardo Simoni.
Edgardo Simoni, "The Fox" 
Simoni had been captured at Bardia in North Africa and shipped to the Murchison POW Camp near Shepparton in Victoria. It was a high security prison in the middle of harsh, desolate country, an escape proof Australian land-locked Alcatraz, or so they thought.  

But Simoni was not an ordinary POW, but a man of extraordinary daring and cunning who managed to do the impossible. Not only did he escape, but he escaped twice.  His escape was so stunning it made front page news of the June 11, 1942 edition of The Advertiser, the newspaper of Adelaide in South Australia. The article read in part: 

 “Police and military authorities (are) searching for Lt. Edgardo Simoni, 25, the Italian who escaped on a bicycle from a prisoner of war camp in Goulburn Valley on Saturday. It is believed he has crossed the Victorian border. Detectives and railway Inquiry Officers are checking every interstate and country train and interstate detectives have joined the search.”
 
 Italian POW's in Australia
This was serious business. Lieutenant Simoni had managed to do the impossible, and they had no idea of how. They began to call him “The Fox”.

But his freedom was short lived. He was captured 24 hours later and when he was returned, he was placed in a solitary cell in the high security section of the prison. Prison authorities slept soundly after that secure in the knowledge that it would be impossible for him to escape again.
 The Australian Guards
What probably tripped him up the first time was his inability to speak English. There was no way he would have been able to survive the hardships of the isolated Australian landscape without having to ask for food or water along the way.  But when he escaped the second time, language was no longer a problem. 

It was such an incredible feat, the BBC made a film about Lt. Simoni’s great escape, but now he was  known as "The Fox”.  It was only then that the mystery of just how he managed to get out of that small cell which was surrounded on four sides by steel bars, was revealed. With a twinkle in his eye, Simoni explained that he had somehow managed to get ahold of a file and with an infinite amount of patience he had gradually sawed through one of the whitewashed bars that surrounded his cell.

He said he worked mostly at night, covering the sound of the constant sawing by singing “Waltzing Matilda” over and over again. He told the BBC that he apologized to his fellow prisoners for keeping them awake, but explained that he couldn’t help it. He had to sing. He sawed away night after night, and as the bar became thinner and thinner, he covered his work by molding a piece of white soap over the sawed off section. No one was ever the wiser. And so once again the Fox was free. But this time it was different. This time he spoke English. 
 Australia's Alcatraz
He almost got caught the day he stole a boat and was rowing down the Murrumbidgee River and a farmer, who was out hunting along the side of the river, spotted him. The farmer recognized him as the escapee the authorities were searching for and told him to row to shore or he would shoot him dead in the water.

Simoni turned the boat toward shore but stopped several hundred feet from where the farmer had been standing. In the time it took the farmer to run down to where the boat was, Simoni had already swum across the river and was on his feet and running in the opposite direction. The farmer started searching the woods on his side of the river, not knowing that the Fox was on the other side and already long gone.
 
Which Way is Home? 
When Simoni got to Melbourne, he landed a job selling cosmetics door to door. With    his good looks and Italian charm it wasn’t long before he became the company’s Number One salesman. That got Simoni, who was Number One on Australia’s Most Wanted list a prize and his picture in the local paper.  Amazingly, no one recognized him.

The Fox was free for more than ten months. Then one day one when he was walking around Adelaide, of the guards from the prison spotted him, walked over and said, “Hello, Eddie, how are you?”
 
An Uncertain Life - Would They Ever See Italy Again?
At the end of the war Lt. Simoni was repatriated to Italy where he continued his army career, retiring with the rank of Colonel. In 1974, Colonel Simoni made a sentimental journey back to visit the site of his incarceration and to try to re-trace his escape route. But he was older then and things had changed, but it didn’t matter. The Fox would always be The Fox, the one that got away.

They still remember The Fox in Australia. The prison where they held him has now been turned into a museum, with a special plaque on the cell where The Fox was kept. 


As I sat with my neighbor Eddie listening to this story and watching the BBC film that was made about his uncle, it was obvious who in the family had inherited the spirit of The Fox. Not only does Eddie look like his uncle, he is just like him: charming and funny with that ever present twinkle in his eye and his suitcase always packed and ready for an adventure. It’s days like these that make this Italian life special.


ON ANOTHER NOTE

This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks and I know the badge is kind of crummy, but clicking on it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy. I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like. Thanks.

02 November 2014

LIFE: Days of the Dead


­CHIAVARI, Italy – Lots of Halloween treats in the windows of bakeries here in Chiavari this week. There were pumpkin shaped candies and cookies and my favorites, pan dei morti, the bread of the dead.  Halloween is becoming more popular here, not the trick or treating part, the Italians haven’t quite grasped that concept yet, but the 20 somethings do like dressing up and looking weird and doing the Zombie Walks. But for those closer to and beyond 40, this weekend is a serious holiday. November 1st was Ognisanti, All Saints Day and November 2nd is La Commemorazione dei Defunti, All Souls Day.

 An Italian Cemetary
This is the weekend families travel kilometers and kilometers to lay flowers and votive candles on the graves of their parents and grandparents and other dead relatives. I doubt people still believe that the souls of their relatives return to Earth every year, but just in case it’s true, and because this is Italy and anything can be true, special masses are said for the dead. It is also a time for families to be together and pay tribute to those who have passed.

Celebrating the dead is a very old tradition that dates back to the time of the Roman pagans. The Roman holiday was called the Parentalia, and while it may sound a bit excessive now, the Parentalia was a serious nine day celebration during which neither marriages or any type of legal business was allowed. The Romans would leave garlands of flowers and wine-soaked bread on the tombs of their dead relatives. By offering the evil spirits gifts of food and flowers, they hoped the evil spirits would be appeased and not dance around in the cemeteries raising havoc and disturbing the dead who were trying to rest in peace. 
 
 Roman Cemetary, Pompeii
After Christianity took hold the Parentalia morphed into All Saints Day. What happened is the Catholic Church found that there weren’t enough days in the year to celebrate all of the martyred saints so in the early part of the 9th century Pope Boniface IV created a collective holiday to celebrate all of them with one holiday.

The date of All Saints Day was later changed to the first day of winter, as it was believed that was the time the division between earthly life and afterlife was razor thin making it easy for the dead to reenter their bodies and return to the earth for a visit. Maybe the Zombie walks represent that part of the celebration, it’s possible.
 Reconnecting with the Living and the Dead
Like the Roman Parentalia, All Souls Day celebrations also revolved around food but in a different way. Instead of leaving food on their relatives graves, people in the province of Massa Carrara (Tuscany) distributed it to the needy.  In Monte Argenario, also in Tuscany, there was a tradition of sewing large pockets on the front of the clothes of orphaned children so everyone could give them a little something, food or money, and in Abruzzo they would carve out pumpkins, put a candle inside of them and use them as lanterns. Any of this sound familiar?

Like every important holiday, Ognisanto has its special treats – the most important being the oddly shaped pan dei morti. And even though pan dei morti translates to bread of the dead, it’s really a cookie made with figs and nuts and other good things. 
 
Pan dei Morti
The cookies sort of look like hands in prayer, but originally they were supposed to resemble a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. Plates of cookie babies were left on  graves as a sacrifice to the evil spirits who lived in the cemeteries, as everyone knew those evil spirits were beastly ghouls who liked nothing better than feasting on tender,  chewy little babies.

The cookies are symbolic in other ways as well. To begin with they are made from other cookies, amaretti or savoiardi, the savoiardi being the cookies used for tiramisu, which symbolize the transformation of old into new, as one person dies another is born and life continues.
 
 Catacombs of the Cappuccini, Palermo, Sicily
The recipe also calls for dried fruit and figs, the same ingredients used in pre-Christian offerings to the dead. In the past they would darken honey by heating it on a stove to make the cookies as dark as the earth in a burial ground, but today a little ground cocoa is used instead. The cookies are dense and chewy with a bit of crunch from the ground amaretti and pine nuts, which give the idea of crunching dead people’s bones. Yum, yum, crunchy bones. So how does that song go – everything old is new again? It would seem that is true, at least here, right down to the bone crunching end.

ON ANOTHER NOTE

This Italian Life now has a Facebook Page. You can get there by clicking the Facebook badge on the right hand side of the page or going to https://www.facebook.com/thisitalianlife.  I’m still working out the kinks, and the badge is kind of crummy, but it will take you to daily updates of life in Italy. Today you'll find more info on the origins or Halloween. I hope you’ll check it out, leave a comment or two, and while you are there it would be nice if you gave the page a Like. Right now there are 20 likes and one of them is mine. Thanks.