Oct
31

Day of the Dead

By

November 1st and 2nd pack a one-two punch here, though the first is a holiday and the second isn’t (every year I struggle to remember that because it seems wrong to me).   (I think they should both be holidays.)

My most recently discovered saint: St. John of Nepomuk, here adorning the prow of the 14-oar gondola of the club Voga Veneta Mestre.  He is a national saint of the Czech Republic, and protector of gondoliers and anyone in danger of drowning.  He was martyred on March 20, 1393 by being thrown into the Vltava River in Prague.

My most recently discovered saint: St. John of Nepomuk, here adorning the prow of the 14-oar gondola of the club Voga Veneta Mestre. He is a national saint of the Czech Republic, and protector of gondoliers and anyone in danger of drowning. He was martyred on March 20, 1393 by being thrown into the Vltava River in Prague.

November 1 is All Saints Day — shortened here to “i santi” (“the saints”).   There is no special way of observing this feast, other than going to church which for some people is asking too much.   I know men who will proudly tell you that they haven’t been to church (or put on  a tie) since their wedding day.   Strangulation seems to be the theme.

The cemetery island, San Michele in Isola, is in the upper right corner, just on the way to Murano.

The cemetery island, San Michele in Isola, is in the upper right corner, just on the way to Murano.

November 2 is All Souls Day — shortened here to “i morti” (“the dead”).   This is a day (even if it isn’t a holiday) which Venetians observe with more attention.   The vaporetto to the island of San Michele, the cemetery island, is free.   In the not-so-old days, within Lino’s memory, a bridge on boats was constructed for the day from the Fondamente Nove to the island (a distance visibly shorter than the Giudecca Canal, whose bridge for the feast of the Redentore was also on boats).   Many people make a point, at least once a year,  of visiting their relatives’ graves, tombs, loculi, and if you’re ever going to go, this is the day.   The florists on the Fondamente Nove make some real money.

The "bateon" for the dead was in use till the Seventies.  It was black, of course, decorated with gold.  In fact, there were several of them, kept in a canal by the church of the Madonna dell'Orto.  If you have to die, this is a superb way to make your exit.  A new initiative is being launched to build a new one and put it back into service.  Public contributions will be welcome.

The "bateon" for the dead was in use till the Seventies. It was black, of course, decorated with gold. In fact, there were several of them, kept in a canal by the church of the Madonna dell'Orto. If one must die, this is a superb way to make your exit. A new initiative is being launched to build a new one and put it back into service. Public contributions will be welcome.

I’ll write more about death in Venice some other time — it’s an interesting subject about which there is plenty to say, partly because of the age of the population.   Funeral homes are probably one of the few businesses here that  are immune to  the global economic situation.

The traditions still associated with this feast-day naturally have mostly to do with food.   For about a week before November 2, the pastry-shops and cafes put on sale little bags of what appear to be  roundish colored  styrofoam blobs, like lumpy cherries, colored white, pink, or brown.   These are called “fave” (FAH-veh) and come in either the small (Trieste) form or the larger (Venice) form.   It’s inexplicable to me but the Triestine are everywhere.   Seeking a sack of Venetian fave will cost you some time and effort.

There are differing recipes, but the one I picked  had only three ingredients: powdered pinoli nuts, sugar, and egg white, baked for an hour at low temperature.   For the record, I tried making them yesterday and while the simplicity of the recipe was part of its appeal, I can confirm that if you halve the recipe,  you’d better make an effort to halve the egg white.   They were a spectacular failure.  

However, from one of my favorite Venetian cookbooks, A Tola co i Nostri Veci by Mariu’ Salvatori de Zuliani, comes a recipe that makes more sense.  

First of all, he makes the point quite firmly that coloring the fave is a newfangled fad; the classic Venetian version is always plain white.   Remember that if you want to be a purist.      

Venetian Fave for All Souls Day (November 2)

These are typical small bags of fave, of the Trieste style.  They are priced by the "etto," or 100 grams.  Here the merchant has covered offered two sizes of bag:  One etto for 3 euros, and a two-etto bag for 6 euros.  It's like trying to understand a pun in a foreign language -- I just don't get it.

These are typical small bags of fave, of the Trieste style. They are priced by the "etto," or 100 grams. Here the merchant has cleverly offered two sizes of bag: One etto for 3 euros, and a two-etto bag for 6 euros. It's like trying to understand a pun in a foreign language -- I just don't get it.

200 gr almonds, 300 gr sugar, 125 gr flour, pinch of ground cinnamon, 20 gr butter, 2 whole eggs, lemon zest.

Leave the “peel” on the almonds and pound them in a mortar with the sugar, then sift.   Add the flour, a pinch of cinnamon, butter, eggs, and the lemon zest and mix well with your hands.  

Divide the mixture into blobs the size of walnuts, arranging them in lines on a baking sheet that’s been buttered and floured.   Press each one lightly with your  finger to flatten it slightly — the purpose is to make them resemble as much as possible the normal amaretto cookie.

Bake at “moderate heat” he says; I’ll take that to mean 150.   He doesn’t say how long, either (I love the old-fashioned way of writing recipes).  

Of course you have already been thinking, “But a fava is  a kind of bean.”   This is true.   So why call these “beans” and why this particular composition, and why on the Day of the Dead?

The rituals associated with death are so ancient there’s a point where explanations fail, but  offering food to the gods on certain occasions, especially death, goes back to when people were cooking on stones.   In the Mediterranean a great deal of attention was paid to the cult of the Parche (as they were called in Rome), or Fates,  who were the  goddesses of destiny.   (The Greeks also had them under the name of Moirai.)   Nona spun the thread of an individual’s life, Decima measured its length, and Morta was the one who cut the thread.   Hence they were revered as, among other things, the goddesses of death.

It became known (I always wonder exactly how) that the Parche especially like fava beans.   There are undoubtedly reasons for this — I’m guessing spring and fertility, that seems to be what motivates many divinities.   So since real fava beans are impossible to get this time of year, or have been — I suppose nowadays you could fly them in from Zanskar — these little nubbins were invented to symbolize them.   Sweetness, I seem to recall, was also an important element of some funerary offerings; often  honey was used, which also embodied a raft of symbolic meanings.

These fave don’t really have a flavor, unless you count sheer, unadulterated, industrial-strength sweetness as flavor.    They’re pleasant enough in the mouth, but as they go down they sort of close up your throat behind them.   After two and a half you won’t want any more till next year, and you’ll be vaguely sorry you ate that extra half.

Next year I’m going to try Zuliani’s version,  and I hope the Fates will be kinder to me in the kitchen, if nowhere else.

Another treat that shows up in late autumn (not associated with life, death, or whatever is in between) is "cotognata."  It is essentially quince jelly, hardened in a mold.  Zuliani says that it once was common in houses all over the Veneto, where it was a popular snack for children.   He also mentions that some Venetians would turbo-charge the recipe by boiling the quinces in wine instead of water, then adding a touch of vanilla.  He says this recipe has fallen into disuse.  I'd be willing to try to bring it back.

Another treat that shows up in late autumn (not associated with life, death, or whatever is in between) is "cotognata." It is essentially quince jelly, hardened in a mold. Zuliani says that it once was common in houses all over the Veneto, where it was a popular snack for children. He also mentions that some Venetians would turbo-charge the recipe by boiling the quinces in wine instead of water, then adding a touch of vanilla. He says this recipe has fallen into disuse. I'd be willing to try to bring it back.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. samantha durell says:

    I love your writing and the real insight into our life here that you capture…’right on’ for me. complimenti!!!

  2. Caterina B says:

    Well, here it is years later and I am going back to read your old posts. Each one is fascinating and enriching.
    About the quince jelly. I know that the Spanish make it to eat with Manchego cheese but my own experience is with the Mexican version.
    Quite a few years ago, when I was still working in a school, a sweet little Mexican girl brought me a heavy foil wrapped rectangle for Christmas. She called it “queso.” Her mother had made it. I had absolutely no idea what it was but it did not look like cheese! It sat in my refrigerator for several months and then we discarded it. That version, also, was supposed to be eaten with cheese. It was a quince jelly, but not jelly in the sense of, well, jelly. It was firm and pinky purple in color, about the size and shape of a brick. In Spanish it is called “membrillo,” which means quince. It is quite different looking from the Venetian ones pictured above but made from quince just the same. For me, it’s live and learn.

  3. I love reading your posts, Erla! Especially now as our little trip to Venice for two weeks approaches at the end of October. Love your insights into the people and the special environment of Venice. 🙂

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge