Italy’s Day of the Dead

The urns of strong men stimulate strong minds

To deeds of great distinction O Pindemonte

And these urns make sacred for the traveller that earth which holds them

– Ugo Foscolo, Of the Sepulchres, 1807 –

IMG_5866P1090717IMG_5900I have always felt drawn to cemeteries. Whenever I go to the resting places of loved ones, I nearly always insist on staying longer to visit the burial sites of those nearby. They fascinate me with their names, dates and commemorative messages inscribed in their honour. I infer a lot about their lives and sadly, in some cases, deaths, from the information on the plaques. Illnesses or accidents that put a premature end to young lives. Personal, local and world events they lived through. Technological changes they witnessed. I then gasp when I make that inevitable realisation; these were people who lived and breathed just like me.

IMG_5873P1090718When I was younger, this reminder about mortality frightened me. With All Saints and All Souls Days rapidly approaching though, I’ve found myself reflecting on the lesson going to the cemetery taught me. I am not particularly religious. I do concede though that there is something special about Italian funerary art and moving about the commemorative customs characterising these Catholic feast days.

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P1090681Each Italian village, town and city is home to a monumental cemetery run by the local council. These walled enclosures are located outside the historic centres, as per the 1804 Edict of Saint-Cloud which forbade burials in church graveyards within town walls [i]. With their multi-storied blocks of marble-plaqued vaults, they are veritable necropolises or cities of the dead. Home to funerary art and architecture  representing a variety of artistic and architectural periods since Napoleon’s decree, some cimiteri monumentali [ii] are breathtakingly beautiful. Every 1st November (All Saints Day), a public holiday, their grounds fill up with visitors bringing flowers to the graves of their deceased relatives. The following day (All Souls Day),  candles are lit for i defunti (‘the dead’) who are said to have returned for the day.

P1090694P1090735Rituals on these feast days are not limited to the churches and cemeteries. In Sicily, many children still look for presents – in the past these were in the form of frutta martorana (surreally colourful marzipan sweets made to look like fruits and vegetables) – around their homes hidden by the defunti. Gestures, moreover, are made to accommodate relatives visiting their old haunts with many families leaving lights on at night and setting an extra place at the table. On that table, symbolic offerings of food and drink, generally glasses of water and sweets, are laid out. Tired and weary after their journey from the underworld, the dead will be in need of replenishment.

P1090705P1090721Before Christianity, pagan food offerings in Ancient Rome were savoury beans. Later on, this practice was taken up by Christians. At some point though, the offerings took on a less savoury note and became sweet breads and biscuits.  The biscuits can be rather macabre-looking as they are often made to resemble the ossa dei morti or ‘bones of the dead’ in shape and, in some cases, consistency. Sicilian ‘bones’, made with almonds and flavoured with cinnamon and cloves, are renowned for being particularly hard to bite into! The Piedmontese interpretation of these ‘bones’ are chewy macaroon-like biscuits, made with flour, sugar, eggs, butter, almonds and/or hazelnuts called ossa da mordere or ‘bones to bite on’). Here is a recipe for them from the town of Borgomanero:

Ossa da mordere piemontesi

Ingredients (makes about 20-25 ‘bones’)

  • 320 g flour, plus extra for dusting
  • 200 g hazelnuts, roughly chopped
  • 400 g caster sugar
  • 3 egg whites
  • A pinch of salt
  • 30 g butter, melted
  • Lemon juice from half a lemon

 Method:

  • Pre-heat oven to 180 degrees.
  • In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, chopped hazelnuts and sugar.
  • Beat egg whites and pinch of salt until stiff white peaks form.
  • Add lemon juice, melted butter and egg whites to mixing bowl and combine wet and dry ingredients carefully.
  • Dust hands and a clean working surface with flour and knead biscuit mixture until obtaining a firm and smooth ball of dough.
  • Divide dough into four equal sized balls. Roll each ball into a long snake-like shape. Cut snakes into pieces 5-7 cm long and shape them into ‘bones’.
  • Place ‘bones’ on a lined baking tray, ensuring that they are no too close to each other.
  • Bake bones for 20-25 minutes or until a nice golden colour.
  • Remove from oven and leave to cool before serving.

[i] The edict also stipulated that, for democratic reasons, all tombs had to be equal in size with inscriptions to be controlled by a special commission. Ugo Foscolo, the poet quoted above, was critical of the decree. Although an atheist and generally supportive of French revolutionary principles,  he felt all human beings aspire to transcend death and that the monuments and tombs of ‘great men’ serve to inspire the living to ‘great deeds’.

[ii] For more information about monumental cemeteries worth visiting in Italy, I recommend this article from Italy Magazine: http://www.italymagazine.com/featured-story/top-ten-italian-monumental-cemeteries

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Medieval bling

spices 9In her introduction to La Serenissima, Venice: Recipes Lost and Found, Katie Caldesi writes, ‘The more I write about food, the more I find myself writing about history. The two are inseparable and although the end result of my research will be a recipe that I can share, it will inevitably be bound up with the past’. When I started my blog early this year, I set out to write about food in Italy. I don’t think the word ‘history’ featured at all in my original About Me page.  Like Caldesi, however, I’m increasingly finding myself writing about history.  I really should have foreseen it. History was my favourite subject at school and I have always been determined to scratch the surface of any topic that happens to interest me. It was only natural then that my love of food and history would come together at some point on this blog.

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I am currently fascinated by the use of spices in Medieval Italian cookery. These days, Italian dishes are more likely to be aromatised with garden herbs such as basil, parsley and sage. I was therefore surprised to learn that Italian aristocrats in the Middle Ages loved nothing more than feasting on dishes with flavours we would more readily associate with the Mughal court. Conventional wisdom has it that the abundance of spices used was because medieval cooks were trying to preserve or mask the taste of old meat and fish. The reality, however, is that the upper classes had access to fresh meat. They also happened to like the taste of spices and the prestige that eating these incredibly expensive commodities conferred.  Basically, spices were the nobility’s status symbol or ‘bling’ of choice.

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At the time, the Italian maritime republics enjoyed a trade monopoly with the Middle East. The Republic of Venice, in particular, had become incredibly wealthy thanks to the distribution of highly in-demand silks and spices by Venetian merchants across Europe. The 14th-century Venetian manuscript Libro per Cuoco (‘Book for Cook’) is testament to the medieval aristocracy’s addiction to spices. This anonymous publication includes 135 recipes that are light years away from our contemporary food sensibilities. There was no distinction made between sweet and savoury flavours and liberal amounts of spices and sugar (another precious and expensive commodity that the Republic of Venice was greedy for) are included in preparations such as panicata (a type of porridge made with millet) , agliata  (a garlic sauce served with meat dishes) and King Manfredi broad bean pie.

spices 3These days, people are most likely to associate the dishes risi e bisi, baccalà mantecato, fegato alla veneziana and sarde in saor with the city of Venice. Of these modern classics, only some variants of sarde in saor retain vestiges of Venice’s spice-laden and agrodolce (‘sweet-sour’) past. Venetian and Italian cookery gradually took on a distinctly less spicy note after Venice’s trading supremacy began to decline, first with the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to the Ottomans and then Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1499. A few Italian dishes, however, have survived to this day with their spiciness and/or sweet-sour combination intact. Stay tuned as I share some recipes for them in the next couple of months…

Is there a nutmeg in the house?

For further reading on this subject, I recommend:

  • Anonimo Veneziano – Libro per Cuoco
  • A. Capatti & M. Montanari – Italian cuisine: a cultural history
  • G & K. Caldesi – La Serenissima, Venice: Recipes Lost and Found
  • E. David – Italian Food
  • J.  Dickie – Delizia! The Epic Story of the Italians and their Food
  • O. Reddon, F. Sabban & S. Serventi – The Medieval Kitchen: Recipes from France and Italy