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The distinct food and traditions of St. Martin’s Day


Legends retell the encounter between beggar and Roman soldier

By Jeanne Outlaw-Cannavo
Each November, in many countries, Roman Catholics celebrate St. Martin’s Day. According to legend, St. Martin of Tours was the son of a Roman official who became a soldier. He was also a convert to Christianity. One very cold autumn day, near the town of Amiens, he met a beggar. Martino, carried away by his good natural instinct, cut his cloak in two pieces and gave half of it to the beggar. Like magic the cold disappeared and the sun began to shine. That night, he dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak and saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is now baptized; he has clothed me.” Later known as St. Martin of Tours he would eventually become a bishop in Tours France. He died on Nov. 8, 397.
In Italy from north to south, tables are richly laden with wine, chestnuts and goose. St. Martin’s Day falls during the season of chestnuts and other delicious autumn food, especially goose. Why goose? The goose represented the “pork” of the poorer rural people who were strong devotees. They would eat a lot on St. Martin’s Day because
a period of fasting started the next day.
The tradition to eat goose refers also to the Celts and their Samhain, the Celtic New Year’s Eve. The goose was sacred for the Celts, because it represented the Messenger, who led the dead to the afterlife.
In present-day Italy you can eat goose dishes mostly in northern Italy, but not in Rome. Probably the reason is that geese saved Rome from the Gallic invasion and they were venerated instead of eaten. Geese are also connected with St. Martin’s history. When people selected him as bishop of Tours, France, he initially tried to hide but some geese found him, Unable to hide anymore,
he then accepted the bishop’s post.
Eating goose is popular in northern Italy, especially in Friuli, Veneto, Lombardia and Emilia-Romagna.
On Nov. 11, children with pans and lids go around in Venice asking for coins or candies from shopkeepers or bystanders and sing a nursery rhyme in dialect. This tradition is referred to as “battere San Martino,” meaning “beat St. Martin.” After that, children buy sweets with the money they gathered.
The traditional sweet prepared for St. Martin’s Day represents St. Martin riding the horse and it is made of pasta frolla, a short crust pastry garnished with pralines, chocolates and candies. An older version was a quince jelly cake. Children receive one from their grandparents or parents. Today many pastry shops promote this sweet treat as the “special of the day.”
L’Estate di San Martino (St. Martin’s summer) is the traditional Sicilian reference to a period of unseasonably warm weather in early to mid-November which indicated it was time on the island to begin the celebration of St. Martin. In the past there was a St. Martin’s Day for the rich celebrated on Nov. 11 and one for the poor on the first Sunday after that date. Today, on the traditional day of the poor’s commemoration in Palermo, women prepare cookies as big as an orange, whose dough contains anise seeds and wild fennel. These cookies are immersed in Moscato, Malvasia or Passito to be enjoyed by all, young and old alike. On the other side of the island in Linguaglossa, a little village on the slopes of Mount Etna, they celebrate St. Martin on Nov. 10 and Nov. 11 in its main squares with wine tastings, roasted chestnuts, typical Sicilian autumn foods combined with music, folk dances and games.
Above all else St. Martin’s Day in Italy is a religious celebration strongly connected to the farming life. It marked the time of renewing agreements, buying new livestock, tasting the new wine and eating good food. Today St. Martin’s Day represents a moment in which people taste local wine and enjoy autumn.
No matter in which region of Italy you find yourself, there are events to celebrate this saint along with great wines of the various regions!
In the United States, St. Martin’s Day celebrations are uncommon, and when they do happen, they reflect the cultural heritage of a local community. It seems that most of the local cultural celebrations in the United States are organized by German-Americans. Many German restaurants feature a traditional menu with goose and gluhwein; a mulled red wine. St. Paul, Minnesota, celebrates with a traditional lantern procession around Rice Park. The evening includes German treats and traditions that highlight the season of giving. In Dayton, Ohio, the Dayton Liederkranz-Turner organization hosts a St. Martin’s family celebration on the weekend before with an evening lantern parade to the singing of Saint. Martin’s carols, followed by a bonfire. Phoenix, Arizona, carries out an annual traditional German lantern procession at the MacDonald‘s Ranch in Scottsdale.
As far as Italian-American celebrations
in honor of St. Martin, there are none as extensive and elaborate as those of German-Americans, although local Italian-American social and fraternal organizations hold private events in which members share their newly brewed wines and celebrate their age-old ancestral tradition of enjoying fine wine. IAH

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