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      Remembering St. Martin’s Day

      Nov. 11, 2012

      Fin ai Santi somena i campi; a San Martin portelo al mulin.
      (Until November 1st work in the fields; on St. Martin’s Day bring your harvest to the mill.)

      On November 11 Italy celebrates St. Martin, bishop of Tours, France, who is best known for his act of kindness when, while patrolling on his horse the walls of Amiens on a gelid day, he met a poor man who was shivering. Martin, who was wearing a cloak, immediately decided to share it cutting it in two parts with his sword and giving half to the man. For his kind gesture God repaid him with a few summer days, hence the saying, still in use today, l’estate di San Martino’(St. Martin’s summer).

      Today in Italy St. Martin is celebrated with the baking of a big cookie shaped in the form of St. Martin on his horse and decorated with candies (see recipe below). In the city of Venice the day is now celebrated by school children going from store to store – on a questua – chaperoned by their teachers, making noise by banging together pots and pans and singing rhymes in the hope of receiving small gifs or money from the shop owners. The singing rhymes are many and differ from town to town and from area to area, but one of the most popular is: “San Martin l’è ’ndà in sofita a catar la so novissa, la so novissa no ghe gera, San Martin l’è cascà col cul partèra, E col nostro sachet, cari signori xe S.Martin.” (St. Martin has gone to the attic to find his bride to be, but the bride to be wasn’t there and St. Martin fell on his bum. And with our small bags, dear people, it is St. Martin’s Day.)

      In many places St. Martin is now celebrated with the making and eating of the cookie, but this day is still permeated with the legacy of many events, sayings and food traditions that characterized the society, especially the agricultural one, of some decades ago. Parents and grandparents still remember and talk about St. Martin’s celebrations. Indeed, November 11 was an important day in the calendar year for farming communities throughout Italy. It officially marked the beginning of the filò season, although the gathering in the barn could have started earlier depending on the weather. The filò was an important component of social life in rural northern Italy. It was where family members, friends and neighbours met during the long winter nights. It was the “school of life” as many elders describe it. Oral traditions, stories, legends, and customs were passed down from one generation to another while manual work was carried on.

      November 11 also marked the end of the agricultural year and it was the day contracts were either renewed or not. If they were not renewed, the family would have to leave the house and their moving out was described with the expression, still used today, of “far sanmartin” (do a St. Martin, moving). The beginning of a new contract with a new family was marked by a meal offered by the landowner in his house consisting of a chicken (el galeto de S. Martin), that symbolized the new relationship and the new contract.

      The new agricultural year was also celebrated on St. Martin’s Day by eating roasted chestnuts and drinking the new wine (a San Martin castagne e vin; A San Martin el mosto deventa vin). In the Piedmont region, and also in some wealthy Venetian families of Jewish origin, it was tradition to eat a wild goose with the new wine.

      In the Venetian countryside people would prepare what they called “vin còto” (cooked wine, not to be confused with mulled wine), prepared by boiling newly made wine together with pumpkins, pears and quinces.

      Natural phenomena of this day were carefully observed and analysed by the elders as these were signs of how the new agricultural year would be: if the sun set amidst fog, “sell the bread and keep the cow”; if the sunset was beautiful, “sell the cow and keep the hay.” Once dark descended and a candle was lit, elders would look at the smoke of the candle: if the smoke went towards noon or evening, the winter would be dry; if instead the smoke went towards morning, the winter would be humid and with south-westerly winds.

      St. Martin’s Day was, and in part still is, full of traditions worth remembering every year!



      To make the dough (pasta frolla):
      250 grams flour
      150 grams Butter
      100 grams white sugar
      1 egg yolk

      To make the icing:
      300 grams icing sugar
      1 egg white
      5 drops of lemon juice

      To decorate the cookie:
      100 grams of Smarties
      (or other candies of your choosing)

      Preheat the oven at 180C/350F.

      In a bowl add the flour, the butter, the sugar and the egg yolk (put the egg white aside). Start by mixing together, using your hands, the butter, sugar and egg yolk, and then incorporate the flour. Work the dough with your fingertips until it “feels” right both in consistency and in color, which should be homogeneous. Make a ball out of the dough and move it to a previously lightly floured cooking sheet. Using a rolling pin, flatten the dough and cut out a cookie shaped as a St. Martin on a horse. With the left over dough you can make smaller St. Martin’s cookies or cookies shaped as you like. Put the cookie, still on the cooking sheet, in the oven for about 15/20 minutes or until golden.

      When the cookie is ready, let it rest on a rack. While it rests, prepare the icing: in a bowl put the egg white and start adding the icing sugar a bit at the time making sure it gets well incorporated before adding more. Half way through, add the five drops of lemon juice and then continue adding the remaining icing sugar. In the end you should have a pretty fluffy and consistent icing. Using a decorating bag with a medium size star-shaped tip, cover the cookie with the icing. Then place the Smarties (or the candies of your choice) on top of the icing sugar, pressing lightly to let them sit. Let the cookie dry for about 12 hours and then enjoy!

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