Burning “La Befana” – Very Much A Local Tradition

One of the things that I try really hard to impress upon visitors is how divided Italy is. Until very recently it was not one country and mobility between towns, cities and across mountain ranges was limited. As a result, regional traditions are more localised than you may have first imagined and remain very much undiluted.

I’m in the Veneto, up in the north east between Lake Garda and Venice. More precisely, my town lies on the boundary between two provinces – Verona and Vicenza. When I first moved to Italy, I was staying on the Verona side; now I’ve moved over to Vicenza. The two places are only a 15 min drive away but there are many differences.

Firstly the dialect is different:

‘What shall we do?’ is Cosa facciamo? in Italian. “cosa faemo?” and “cosa fazemo?” in dialetto vicentino. Not huge differences but enough for it to be obvious where you come from.

Similarly, you may well know that “a glass” is “un bicchiere” in Italian. In vicentino, I hear “biccher” quite commonly, while back on the other hill, it was “un goto.”

Finally “cucchiaio” (“a spoon”) becomes “cuchar” or “cucharo” if you’re in the province of Verona… but if you get closer to Vicenza and across to Padova, it’s “scugliero!

It’s not just the language; there are many cultural differences too.

In the province of Verona, the most important celebration over the Christmas period is the Festa della Santa Lucia on December 13th. It is traditionally on this date that the families get together and presents are exchanged. In Vicenza, however, Santa Lucia is not recognised, nor is Christmas particularly, and we have another important date instead: the 6th January.

You may know that date as being Epiphany, y’know, the three kings, twelfth night, end of the festivities… Not so. Here it’s called La Befana.

La Befana is a old woman or a witch who would fly across the sky at night, delivering presents and treats to children. (Haven’t I heard this story before…….?) In this case, there’s a slight twist because she’s supposedly searching for baby Jesus…. here’s what Wikipedia has to say about the legend:

“The magi invited her to join them on the journey to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, stating she was too busy with her housework. Later, La Befana had a change of heart, and tried to search out the astrologers and Jesus. That night she was not able to find them, so to this day, La Befana is searching for the little baby. She leaves all the good children toys and candy (“caramelle”) or fruit, while the bad children get coal (“carbone”), onions or garlic.”

You might think it’s all hullabaloo and old folklore but several of my local friends got stockings full of presents from La Befana yesterday and this seems true in other regions throughout the boot.


There’s a second thing though and this seems more localised. On Jan 6th in the evening, all our neighbouring towns hold bonfires, upon which they have an effigy of La Befana who gets burned (yes, very much like the story of Guy Fawkes in England.) I’ve heard it explained that it’s the occasion to get rid of or burn anything from the previous year that you don’t want to take with you into the new.

As for us, well, we had gone to a small town called Valeggio sul Mincio (between Verona and Mantova) for a long lunch with a dear friend (more about that soon) and then came back to watch the bonfire. Most of the town’s population turned out for the event, which was washed down with plenty of mulled wine, sausages, polenta and prosecco.

New Year’s Eve in Italy… and the importance of lentils!

Happy New Year’s Eve! Or “la notte di San Silvestro” in Italian.

Whether it’s out partying or staying in wrapped up in a blanket on the sofa, I hope you’re spending the last few hours of 2017 exactly as you want to spend them. I’m personally not much of a fan of New Year’s Eve. There seems to be so much hype about what really is just another day. Many moons ago, I would choose to take a shift working in a bar or restaurant on NYE. That way, I was at least in a festive ambiance but I wasn’t spending stupid amounts of money on a set meal and a bottle of over-priced Champagne.

More recently, I’ve preferred hosting friends for a dinner and drinks party and that’s exactly what we did this year – just a small dinner party for some local friends. To lighten the load, it was agreed that they would bring the appetisers, cheese course and the dessert, and that I’d cook the main course.

The traditional main course over the winter festivities in Italy is a type of sausage called cotechino. It’s a large pork sausage, originally hailing from Modena but even my local butchers make a pretty good version.

I’m not sure why, but I always feel a little uneasy about cooking classic Italian foods for Italians. I suppose I fear that whatever I serve couldn’t possibly live up to whatever their mamma or nonna used to make.

As a result, I resort to typical English or French dishes, with which I’m fairly confident there won’t already be ridiculously high expectations. For tonight, I’ve decided to cook Beef Wellington. If you’re not familiar with this antiquated-but-undeservedly-so English speciality, it’s essentially about a kilo of beef sirloin, wrapped in finely chopped mushrooms, wrapped again speck (I chose speck ham for the smokey flavour over the more traditional prosciutto crudo) and all of that wrapped in puff pastry! I’m going to be serving it with roast potatoes (requested by the boys) and two cold side salads – red cabbage and orange (inspired by BBC Good Food) and kisir (a Turkish salad mainly of bulghur wheat and tomatoes) – and a warm side: lentils!

When I was running through my proposed menu with the boy, “yes, but you must also cook lentils,” was his advice. Lentils are a bearer of good luck and prosperity, apparently.

 

It would appear that in Ancient Rome, there was a tradition to give a leather bag filled with lentils as a gift. You would attach this bag to your belt and apparently (but I mean this is rather a stretch of the imagination!) the lentils would transform into coins!

So there you have it, a bowl of lentils is going to be on my table this evening…. just in case! Happy New Year, one and all!

Waiting for Advent

The final days of November always feel strange to me. It’s this weird time of year when you’re in limbo. My American friends have already made me hungry for turkey but yet it’s still too early to really start the Christmas countdown: mince pies, festive music and twinkling lights.

I don’t recognise the Thanksgiving holiday but I may have indulged in a little Black Friday shopping anyway (*slinks away guiltily…*) I love London in the run up to Christmas; it’s my favourite time of year to see the city. The lights in the commercial heart (Oxford Street, New Bond Street, Regent Street) are far better than anything on the Champs-Elysees and Avenue Montaigne.

Here in Italy, I’m out in the countryside so Christmas lights are few and far between. That said, the 8th December is a bank holiday (la Festa della Madonna, apparently) and it’s on that precise date when they put up and decorate the Christmas trees.

When I was told about this tradition, I looked at the boy excitedly, eyes wide open like a kid on Christmas morning. “Oh no! You don’t have a tree amongst all that stuff, do you?” he asks worriedly….

— Short aside: Most of my stuff is still in boxes. A whole room at the back of our house has been given over to the contents of the removal truck from Paris! :/ As we’ll be moving into the new house in a few months and there’s simply not space nor need in his place for me to unpack, it was decided that they would be put out of the way for the time being. The boy has clearly but wisely decided to consider that area potentially contaminated with nuclear something or other and not to go anywhere near it! It’s for that reason that he is still blissfully unaware of the presence of two large Christmas boxes! —

I’m feeling particularly festive this year; full of good cheer and all that malarkey. It’s rather out of character.

We’re going to a panettone party tonight. Yes, it appears that’s a thing. It’s held in a local restaurant and we’ll testing all the best artisanal panettoni from the region.

All this premature festivity is getting to me. The problem, though, is that December is looking decidedly busy; I’m in France for five days and then back in the UK on the 18th until at least after the holidays. If I put up the tree on the 8th, it will essentially be uniquely for the dog’s benefit. I’m sure she will enjoy tearing it to pieces in my absence! I’m wondering if it would be acceptable to put up the tree a few days before…. I wonder…