Christmas is over & quite a few of us are feeling a little deflated, disappointed that the period of goodwill has been & gone, a little miserable that the end of the holidays are in sight & in no mood to get back to the grindstone & real life! After an eventful 2012, many of us simply aren’t holidayed out while others have spent a little too much & are skint. So what’s next? In Italy it’s not over because La Befana is in sight and she’ll visit the homes of all the small children who’ll be ready and waiting for her.
In the Italian folklore, La Befana is the old lady who delivers gifts to children throughout Italy; the tradition probably originated in central Italy and then spread to the rest of Italy. Her name may have come from the festival of Epiphany or even from the Roman goddess, Strina. “This Befana appears to be heir at law of a certain heathen goddess called Strenia, who presided over the new-year’s gifts, ‘Strenae,’ from which, indeed, she derived her name. Her presents were of the same description as those of the Befana … moreover her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotous, and licentious character“. Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs, Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicily by Rev. John J. Blunt (John Murray, 1823).
ZUCCHINI AND PARMESAN SOUP
- 1kg green zucchini cut lengthways into quarters and then into slices
- 60ml extra virgin olive oil
- 15g garlic cloves, chopped
- 750ml fresh homemade chicken stock
- 60ml single cream
- 2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, chopped
- Italian parsley, chopped
- 50 g parmigiano Reggiano, freshly grated
- Sea salt and freshly ground white pepper, to taste
- Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan and then stir fry the garlic, the basil, the salt and the zucchini slowly until the zucchini are golden and very soft.
- Add a little pepper to taste and the stock – simmer for about 8 minutes, uncovered and then remove from the heat.
- Put ¾ of the soup into a food processor and process until smooth, return to the saucepan and stir in the cream, the parsley and the parmesan.
- Serve sprinkled with the cheese, salt and pepper to taste and plenty of crusty bread.
During the Neolithic age, homes in the Anatolian villages had no doors and no windows and people would enter there homes through wide, horizontal roofs. In other words, people entered their homes via ladders that they could withdraw the minute they felt threatened or uneasy in any way. The Befana always enters the homes of Italian children through the chimney (much like Santa Claus and quite a few other mythical figures throughout the world) and she will visit on the eve of the 6th of January to fill their socks with sweets and gifts if they are good; if they’ve been horrible little monsters, they’ll get a a lump of coal (or dark rock sugar that’s supposed to look like coal) but it seems that Italian children are little angels because I haven’t yet heard of an Italian child that got coal instead sweeties.
Normally the children receive both sweets & rock sugar & they’re delighted because the dark rock sugar is delicious. Because the Befana is such a good housekeeper, she’ll sweep the floor before she leaves which is why the family leaves a small glass of wine and a plate of the local speciality for the Befana. She is reminiscent of the Russian Babuschka. She’s always an old lady, carrying a big bag full of sweets and gifts and legend has it that she rides on a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl; she’s covered in soot because she’s been up & down chimneys so often. However, in the cities when she comes to hand out gifts (like the Santas in Stores), she usually rides on a donkey and has two baskets on each side. Again, much like the Russian Babuschka tale, the story goes that a few days after the birth of Jesus, La Befana was approached by the magi because she was the best housekeeper in her village; they asked her for directions but she did not know them & instead gave them food and shelter for a night – in turn they invited her to join them on the journey to find the infant Jesus. She declined because she had far too much housework. Later, however, she had a change of heart and started to look for them and for the baby Jesus but unfortunately she couldn’t find them and to this day she still looks for the baby Jesus and as she travels, leaving gifts and sweets for all the good children and bags of ashes or coals for the naught brats. .
- 1 yellow pepperoni
- 75 g pancetta
- ½ onion
- ½ carrot
- ½ garlic clove
- 3 large tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
- 2 potatoes diced
- 2 generous spoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 tbsp Italian (flat leaf) parsley, chopped
- 100 g shelled broad beans
- 2 zucchini (courgettes) sliced
- 100 g shelled peas
- ¼ cabbage, coarsely shredded
- 1 escarole head, cut into strips
- 2 aubergines, diced
- 100 g cannolicchi pasta
- 1 tbsp fresh basil, chopped
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- To serve, provolone cheese, freshly grated
- Crusty bread , to serve
- Place the pepperoni under a pre-heated grill and cook, turning frequently until the skin is charred and blistered, then place in a plastic bag and tie the top – as soon as it is cool enough to handle, peel off the skin, halve and seed the pepper and dice the flesh.
- Finely chop the pancetta with the onion, carrot and garlic, heat the oil and add the pancetta mixture to cook over a low heat or a few minutes until lightly browned.
- Now add the tomatoes and cook for 10 minutes before pouring in 2 litres of water and seasoning with salt and pepper – bring to the boil, add the potatoes and beans and simmer this for an hour.
- Add the zucchini (courgettes), peas, cabbage, escarole, aubergines and the pepperoni and simmer for another 30 minutes.
- Now add the pasta and cook for about 10 minutes until just al dente, check and correct the seasoning, pour into a soup tureen, sprinkle with basil and serve with plenty of provolone, crusty bread and little excellent olive oil for those that would like a little swirl.
- Note: remember that the pasta will continue to cook while you check the seasoning and put the soup into the tureen – by the time it gets to the table it will be perfect.
As with all myths, there’s two sides to the story & in the other one La Befana was an ordinary woman who had a small child whom she adored but sadly, the little boy died. His death caused her to become insane; as soon as she heard the news that Jesus’s had been born, she set out to visit him, believing that he was her son reborn. Fortunately, she did get to see him and gave him the gifts to make him happy. The baby Jesus was thrilled to bits and He gave her a ‘gift’ in return & from then onwards, she would be the mother of every child in Italy. Children are not allowed to see La Befana because the parents need the children in bed while they put out the gifts, sweep the floors and drink the wine on the eve of the Epiphany.
Urbania is thought to be her official home and a huge festival is held annually to celebrate the holiday – hundreds of Befana’s are present, swinging from the main tower. They juggle, dance and greet all the children. However, today in Italy, there are two important places associated with this tradition:
- Every year in Rome, in the Piazza Navona a market is held between Christmas and the Epiphany – toys, sugar charcoal and other sweets and treats are sold here.
- As mentioned above, Urbania in the Province of Pesaro Urbino (in the Marche region) hosts the national La Befana festival is every year between the 2nd of January 2 and 6the 6th of January. They even build a house for her and the local post office has a mailbox specially reserved for her letters.
UOVA AL PIATTO CON POMODORI
These eggs are baked in the tomatoes and make a delicious breakfast.
- 4 large tomatoes
- 4 jumbo eggs
- 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil plus a little extra for brushing
- 1 tbsp Italian (flat leaf) parsley
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 180 C.
- Brush and ovenproof dish with olive oil.
- Cut the tops off the tomatoes and scoop out the seeds and any superfluous flesh – if the tomato has very little flesh – don’t.
- Sprinkle the insides of the tomato with a little salt and place upside down on kitchen paper to drain for 10 minutes.
- Now season with additional salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste and divide the olive oil between the tomatoes.
- Place the tomatoes in the prepared baking dish and bake for 15 – 20 minutes.
- Remove the dish from the oven, break an egg in each tomato and return to the oven to bake for another 5 minutes.
- Garnish with parsley and serve.
- Note: You need to use your discretion here – you don’t want a tomato that has fallen flat – it must be cooked but still standing up so that the egg can bake in it.