Archive for Befana
Regional cookery is one of the zillion things that Italy is so proud of and so admired for. (End of preposition storm.) But the funny thing is that a dish will be super-famous as being from one place, and then you discover its stolen-at-birth sibling in a completely different region, and then you discover it again, and again, and sometimes even again. The reason is simple: People all over Italy have the same needs (eating) and many of the same ingredients, and what develops is something like a theme and variations.
Take castagnaccio (kas-ta-NYA-cho). Perhaps its most noted version is from Tuscany, but there are variations from Naples, Corsica, Emilia-Romagna, Liguria, Piemonte, Calabria, and even the Veneto — anywhere there are chestnut trees, in fact. The names may change along the way — baldino, pattona, ghirighio, castigna’, pane di castagna, migliaccio, gnaccia, and in Venice, “gardo” — but the essential ingredients originally couldn’t rise beyond the gravity pull of poverty: chestnut flour and water, and a little olive oil. Then came raisins and pinoli nuts and sugar, even wine and milk and orange peel and chocolate. But I don’t see how you can improve on the basics, which produce something super-dense, not too sweet, and loaded with winter-useful calories (193 per 100 grams).
Chestnuts were the perennial backup when you had no more flour of any sort, and not even polenta. When the countryfolk would burn the effigy on Epiphany (the “befana”), eyes used to be fixed on the direction the sparks flew. People still look, but now it’s more like a game, though it wasn’t always so. The doggerel makes that clear: “Se le falive va a marina / Tol su saco e va a farina / Se le falive va a montagne / Tol su saco e va a castagne” (if the sparks fly toward the sea (east), take your sack and go to make flour (the wheat harvest will be good) / If the sparks fly toward the mountains (west), take your sack and go gather chestnuts.”)
But like so many other “poor” dishes, castagnaccio is apparently being rediscovered by people who have had enough of smoked salmon and foie gras (just an expression — does anybody still eat foie gras?). Anyway, Lino is impervious to fashions and fads. He’s always eaten something, he’s going to continue eating it. Every so often the urge for castagnaccio will strike him and off he goes to acquire some chestnut flour. It is reliably available at the ever-amazing Mascari. (Full disclosure: I have no connection with this shop.) He doesn’t add either pinoli nuts or raisins, but sticks to the bare bones of the recipe, with a sprinkling of rosemary.
Lino remembers that there was a little shop at the corner of the Riva degli Schiavoni and Calle de la Pescaria which sold slices of gardo and also a “cake” made of chickpea flour. That was all, he sold nothing else.
As it happens, however, a bar-cafe in via Garibaldi has recently taken up the baton:
The internet is full of recipes, but here’s the simplest version of castagnaccio, if you want to chance your arm:
Ingredients: 750 ml water, 500 gr chestnut flour, some fresh rosemary “needles,” a pinch of salt, 6 spoonfuls of extra-virgin olive oil, to keep it soft.
Heat the oven to 200 degrees C or 350 F. Put the flour in a bowl and add the water slowly while stirring. Spread a little olive oil on the bottom of the pan. Pour the batter into the pan and bake for one hour. (Note: The pan, or casserole, or whatever you’re using, shouldn’t be so broad that the batter only barely covers it. Use your judgment, but bear in mind that this isn’t going to rise.) The surface of the final product should have slight cracks or fissures.
Modify it as you wish, of course; I’ll never know. In fact, the heathen thought of topping it with whipped cream or ice cream did cross my mind, but I quashed it. We like the basics here.
One thing that everybody loves about Venice is that it seems so old. Of course, it is old. It’s kind of like a Byzantine/Renaissance/Baroque/Neo-Classical Lascaux Caves, except that it’s inhabited.
I pause to say that I know there are at least 14 continuously inhabited cities in the world that are far, far older than Venice. I was just making the point that many visitors are struck with astonishment at the fact that Venice was ever created, an emotion I believe the cave paintings also elicit. But I’m getting off the point.
One thing that makes it feel old when you’re living here is the endless cycle of the same old things, and when I say that I don’t mean the Befana (with its utterly predictable brief annual cluster of highly-charged articles about the dangerous effects of the air pollution caused by the bonfires’ smoke), or the feast of the Redentore, or other celebrations.
By “same things” I mean issues that just keep coming up, that continue to be transformed in a shape-shifting way by assorted groups, interested parties, and random changes of circumstance, but that never get settled. Even in the rare instances when a problem appears to have been resolved, before long we discover that it has spawned new problems. And the cycle begins again.
In the few days since 2015 began, the Gazzettino has filled its pages with a new crop of the old. Such as:
MOSE: No, this time it’s not about the gates themselves, nor about the billions that were stolen to pay off its many participants, collaborators, and well-wishers. Now it’s about the conca, or basin (#4 on the image above), which was dug at the inlet of Malamocco to permit the passage of ships on the occasions when the gates are raised.
For one thing, it’s too small.
It has been designed to accommodate ships up to 280 meters (918 feet) long and 39 meters (128 feet) wide. These dimensions are already too small for the largest cruise ships, the ones that certain groups want to compel to enter the lagoon by way of Malamocco instead of by the Bacino of San Marco. So a mega-cruise ship wanting to come to Venice would have to hang around outside in the Adriatic until the tide turned and the gates were lowered, to let them continue with their plan to unload thousands of passengers and take on more. Having to delay entry sounds like a new problem has just replaced the old.
But it gets worse. The fundamental problem isn’t size. It’s the positioning of the scogliera (skoh-LYEH-ra), or protective barrier, in relation to the basin. Stick with me here, because in the world of engineering “oops!” this is kind of special. And whatever you may think about cruise ships, we now have to consider the needs of real grown-up working ships that haul containers and petroleum and grain and coal (for the power station just on the edge of the mainland); these are ships for which time really is money.
The curve and position of the barrier built to shield the basin from wild stormy water (the kind you might well have if there is an exceptional acqua alta underway) makes it difficult — in some cases, perhaps impossible — for even smaller ships to navigate themselves into a perfect straight line to enter the basin.
“About 2,000 vessels (note: That’s nearly six per day) enter and exit the lagoon each year,” said Alessandro Santi, president of Assoagenti Veneto, the maritime agents’ association. “Of these, at least 350, in the current state of things, would be prevented from entering the basin.” They’d have to wait outside till the tide turned and the MOSE gates were lowered to allow them to enter by the usual channel.
Solution! Construct an additional rubber barrier (I have no further details) against which the ships could lean — a sort of fulcrum — to help them position themselves to enter the basin. I’m referring to the ships which can, in fact, enter the basin, which as you see isn’t going to be all of them.
Projected cost: 15 million euros ($17,669,900). That’s one heck of a patch.
Speaking of cost, the news has just come out that the completion date for MOSE has yet again been postponed. It is currently predicted to be finished in mid-2017, and will cost an additional 2 billion euros ($2,355,980,000). Unless it turns out to cost more, of course.
So why is this an old subject? Because it’s yet another aspect of a project that wasn’t planned correctly, but construction just went merrily along anyway, and now everybody is having to find ways to resolve problems that didn’t ever have to exist.
DEGRADO: The terse but expressive and useful term degrado (deh-GRAH-do) means “degradation,” and it finds innumerable uses. And I will keep this entry short because the subject deserves a post all of its own, if I could find the strength.
Degrado is a hydra-headed monster composed of graffiti, broken pavements, disintegrating nizioleti, and now strata of aging posters stuck up all over walls. The city of Venice, and myriad individuals, put up these pieces of paper with or without permission, and these announcements of all sorts of events, needs or offers stay there because once the moment has passed, who cares?
The city says it cares, and since 2012 has spent 856,000 euros ($1,008,360) to pay a private company named A.R. Promotion to affix posters and also to strip away the accumulated crud. But evidently the announcements breed at night and produce more old posters, or somehow the private company isn’t keeping up. Or perhaps even starting, who knows?
Breakdown of payments made: At the end of 2012 A.R. Promotion won the bid to do this work for one and a half years for 456,000 euros. A few years later, the same company got the job for about two years for 400,000 euros. The age of some of the posters indicates that in either one or other of these periods, the company somehow didn’t catch everything.
Let me say that having to hack away layers of gummy paper over a period of years does not speak well for the paper-hangers. Because while one could criticize the ability of A.R. Promotion to remove paper, one could much more justly criticize the cretins who put up the pieces of paper in the first place.
But back to the subject of payment for services rendered, or not: Cecilia Tonon, president of the volunteer group Masegni e Nizioleti, has raised her hand to ask why the city is paying for a service which evidently isn’t provided, when squadrons of members have turned out more than once to do a large amount of this very work for free. (I participated in one clean-up project, which I’ll write about another time.)
No answer has yet forthcome.
Intermission: News from the trial of the Indian couple who murdered their Iranian roommate, Mahtab Ahadsavoji, and dumped her body in the lagoon. The Indian girl has been identified as the culprit, and has been sentenced to 17 years in prison. Her boyfriend got a smaller sentence because he merely helped dispose of the evidence. Appeals will drag on.
BUDGET: For years now we’ve had to listen to the municipal choir singing the Anvil Chorus, financial version, whose refrain is “No ghe xe schei” (there is no money).
We found out last year that the reason there was no money was because it had all been gift-wrapped and given to politicians and businessmen involved in the MOSE project.
So now there really is no money.
After working his way upstream through heavy fire from outraged city employees facing drastic cuts, attempting to make the budget balance in some miraculous way (“miraculous” meaning “money from Rome”), the emergency governor, Vittorio Zappalorto, has had to say it isn’t working. The city is 60 million euros ($70,855,800) in the hole.
“The situation is unsustainable,” he said. “We’ve reached a point of no return, The next mayor is going to have” (I freely translate) “one hell of a hideous job.” The Casino’, once an endless font of funds, is also now crouching over its begging bowls. The sale of palaces is almost the only option for raising money, but so far they are being sold at slashed, fire-sale prices, or not being sold at all.
POVEGLIA: Remember the popular groundswell, funded by citizen contributions, to acquire the island and restore it for the use of the Venetians rather than let it be sold to one of those terrible foreign companies which would transform it into a hotel?
All stuck in lawyer-land. The city put the island up for bids; the highest bid, from a private businessman, was snubbed by the city as being ridiculously low. To which the bidder has replied, “But you had no higher bids in this auction. So?”
In any case, the groundswell of Venice-for-the-Venetians emotion hasn’t been heard from in quite some time, considering that since last June 4, when the sky fell on Venice, much bigger problems have overcome everybody. It would be extremely difficult, in the current climate, to get anybody excited about an abandoned island.
BIG CRUISE SHIPS: This is an issue that’s so photogenic that it cauterizes people brains, rendering them incapable of thought. In battling to ban the ships from passing in the Bacino of San Marco, the enthusiasts have created a much larger problem, which is how to keep the port economy going when some cruise lines have already canceled their plans to come to Venice in 2015.
The no-big-ships people haven’t given any sign of caring much about the port itself, but they are baffled as to how to they feel about the digging of the Contorta Canal (officially named the Canale Contorta S. Angelo). But it seems clear to almost everybody that deepening the canal will create so many more problems than it solves that it makes my teeth grind all by themselves.
The tug of war about approving the Contorta canal is going to continue for an unspecified time. Another year, anyway, I have no doubt. There will be flourishing crops of claims, counter-claims, and recriminations.
Meanwhile, due to the canceled cruises, 300,000 fewer passengers are expected this year. This means people may very well be laid off or fired, and all the rest of the ripple effect that doesn’t need describing. There is also the loss of income from the taxes paid by the ship companies to be considered. Nice.
But what I don’t understand is why the ships are vilified as ugly, and therefore deserving of death, when everyday ugliness like graffiti just keeps rolling along, singing a song.
Old? New? Is there a difference?
The high tide of the holidays has washed over the calendar, the budget, the crumpled handful of tomato-stained to-do and to-buy lists, and as the tide retreats into the new year, I thought I’d give a tiny review of the two weeks (it seems so much longer) just past.
After so many holiday seasons here, I don’t have much to say that’s new. Christmas, New Year, and the ineffable Befana have passed in orderly single file, and here we are, facing the next 12 months. The holidays don’t end on New Year’s Day, they drip on for another few days till the day after Epiphany, which my calendar says is dedicated to St. Raimondo de Penafort, who must be the patron saint of children going back to school.
How to beguile the dead-air space between New Year’s and Epiphany? The old-folks’ club of Castello East, which undertakes some very charming initiatives for the neighborhood kids, came up with a new idea this year. On Epiphany Eve (last Monday), they arranged for some of the carnival rides which are here for their annual two- to three-month stint, to open at 10:00 AM, and they were free for children up to 11 years old. I think it was a very likeable idea, even if not very many kids made it out into the sunshine from their festive lairs (fancy way of saying “beds”).
Epiphany, which it says in the fine print is intended to commemorate the visit of the Three Kings to the Baby Jesus, offering him gold, frankincense, and myrrh, has metamorphosed over the centuries into a day dedicated primarily to a happy little hag known as the Befana. Her name, which I suppose could just as well have been Hepzibah or Basemath, is a homely mutation of the word Epiphany. You probably already figured that out.
Her connection to the day is gifts. No, of course children haven’t gotten enough of them yet. Are you mad? It’s been a whole 12 days since the last truckload of presents was dropped on them.
The Befana is a remarkable creature, and to love her you must get past your feelings about hook-nosed, snaggle-toothed harpies with broomsticks. She’s actually closer to honey and poplar syrup and agave nectar, all sweetness and no light. She flies at night.
Stockings don’t belong to Santa Claus, here they’re hung out tonight for the Befana to swoop through and fill with candy and doodads. In my day, a doodad might have been a Slinky. Today, it’s probably an iPhone.
She is also liable to leave coal instead of candy, coal being the traditional judgment on Bad Children. But naturally by now a loophole has been found — created, actually — by inventing a candy that looks like coal. I’ve tried it, and it tastes exactly like what you’d think a block of black sugar would taste like. Not that black has a taste, but your imagination instinctively supplies one.
The Befana is always changing, always the same. Averaging out the thousands of versions crowding the candy stores and pastry shops, I’d say she was a combination of Dame Edna Everage and Jimmy Durante. I found one that looked like a distant cousin of Porky Pig, but I’m sure that was unintentional.
There are many and deep significances to this observance which I won’t repeat now; my post last year covered most of them. I only note here that I am looking forward, as always, to detecting the smell tonight of woodsmoke blowing over from nearby farmland — Sant’ Erasmo, or, slightly further away, the settlements by the sea near Jesolo, Ca’ Savio, Treporti, smoke swirling out of the flaming bonfires which are lit in her honor.
I want to note — for the record, whoever may be keeping it, or reading it — that the occasional practice of burning the effigy of the Befana atop the pyre is historically wrong. Bonfires, yes, but with the purpose of disposing of a lot of dead plant material you have to get rid of before next spring’s planting. The “Vecia” (old lady) is more traditionally burned up at the middle of Lent, and some places still plan it that way.
Meaning no disrespect whatsoever to this venerable crone, I have to say that Venice once was swamped with cronish ladies, of various ages, whose mission in life was to patrol the family, and neighboring families, with relentless scrutiny. Now that neighborhood life has changed so much over the past three generations — television, sufficient heating, children moving away, and death have taken their toll on the dense agglomerations of terrifying, invasive, implacable old ladies who could smile like angels as they slashed your reputation to ribbons behind your back. I know this because Lino has told me Stories about them, and does a bloodcurdling impression of a typical conversation between a few of these matrons.
Even more, I can confirm that the Venetian language is gratifyingly rich in terms which describe the myriad nuances of ancient females. I don’t imagine I can do them justice on my own, even though they’re words you could hear every day and eventually begin to use instinctively in certain situations: Marantega, carampane, grima, sbetega, peocio refa‘, and many more, all have deliciously complicated meanings. The fact that there are so many words for the variations on these life-battered and -battering women (not to mention casual expressions to describe them, such as “Ugly as the plague,” “As ugly as hunger,” and so on), show the depth of feeling they inspired in everyone who knew them or even came near them, especially their families.
Espedita Grandesso, in her wonderful book, “Prima de parlar, tasi,” has applied her exegetical scalpel to many of these terms. Here is a brief sample (translated by me):
Marantega: [Ma-RAHN-te-ga]. The Befana is sometimes referred to as the “marantega barola” (barola meaning really old), but that is sort of a slur, in my opinion. A marantega, according to Grandesso, is primarily an ancient and misanthropic woman, dedicated to the cult of the dead in the sense that she keeps daily tabs on who has preceded her to paradise, spreading the news everywhere. This type of woman possesses a mournful sense of existence and is the town crier of every disgrace which occurs in her range of activity. In days gone by, one could find her in the performance of these duties in church, at the hour of saying the rosary, or vespers, in the act of delivering the last horrid news in the ear of yet another unfortunate biddy, chosen from among the meekest and most impressionable.
Carampana: [cah-rahm-PAHN-ah]. By now this term signifies a woman of decrepit agedness, who maintains presumptions of attractiveness and, for that reason, plasters her wrinkles with rouge and continues to dress in the style of the time when she was lovely. In general, she is a pathetic creature who, unfortunately, gives a helping hand to derision. In the past, however, this term literally meant “prostitute,” and can still describe a trollop who is old and out of service, and who, with her excessive makeup and her attitude maintains an equivocal air that is almost the stamp of her long-practiced profession. In fact, it was originally the name of the neighborhood near the Rialto which was the red-light district.
Sbetega: [SBEH-teh-ga]. Literally a shrew and loudmouth.
Grima: [GREE-ma]. Much worse than a sbetega. In this case it means a malignant woman who is, at the same time, aggressive and hard to neutralize. Mothers-in-law often belong to this category, but daughters-in-law also do pretty well for themselves.
Peocio Refa‘: [peh-OH-cho reh-FA]. Literally a made-over cootie. This is a person (who could also be a man) who has made money and enjoys a good financial position, remaining at the same time crude and mean-spirited, whose greatest pleasure consists of humiliating her neighbor, especially if that person is culturally superior to her. The northeast Veneto [and, may I add, much of the Lido] offers excellent examples of this species.
Otovario dei Morti: [Aw-to-VAH-ree-oh day MOR-tee]. I myself haven’t heard this term used in daily life around here, but the character it describes is eternal. Grandesso says that the “ottavario” was the word indicating the repetition of a religious feast, one that was particularly solemn or deeply felt, eight days after its first celebration. Therefore the Ottavario dei Morti was tied to All Souls’ Day, or the commemoration of the deceased. This term is given to a person who is sad, either in appearance or temperament, who only talks about depressing or funereal events, whether public or private, reaching the apex of pleasure when they are particularly disastrous. In the days of patriarchal families, this role was generally performed by widowed or spinster aunts, well along in years. These charitable women, having long since left behind the joys of the world, busy themselves in extirpating them as well in the hearts of relatives, friends, and acquaintances.
None of these expressions could ever be used for the Befana, though. She adores children and I myself don’t believe she cares what adults might think or say about her. You can tell she isn’t from around here.