The Epiphany. . . La Befana

January 6 is a National holiday in Italy. It is the Epifania (Epiphany), a Christian holiday celebrated precisely on January 6, 12 days after Christmas.

The word Epifania derives from the Greek word epifanèia, which means “the manifestation or the appearance”.

The Epiphany celebrates the first manifestation of Jesus to the world through the visit of the Re Magi (three wise men) coming from the East, led by a comet to adore the Baby Jesus and to offer their gifts of gold (symbol of royalty), frankincense (symbol of divinity) and myrrh (symbol of the future redemptive suffering).

The celebration of the Epiphany is also accompanied by traditions of very ancient lineage (solar cults) and in particular the visit of la Befana on the eve of January 6. The tradition of La Befana may actually predates Christianity, as it is believed to have derived from a pagan goddess or oracle that Romans sought for guidance and gifts at the start of each new year.

“la Befana vien di notte con le scarpe tutte rotte il cappello alla romana, viva viva la Befana!!!”

(The Befana comes at night with broken shoes and a roman hat, hurrah hurrah for the Befana!!!)

With this rhyme the Italian children every year celebrate the arrival of the old, good witch.

La Befana is a typical Italian tradition.

According to the modern legend, the Re Magi (The three Wise men), on their way to Bethlehem to bring gifts to Baby Jesus, stopped for directions at an old woman’s house.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

Despite their insistence in following them, the old woman did not go, as she was busy sweeping the floors.

Later, the old woman repented, prepared a basket of sweets and left the house hoping to find the three Wise Men. She stopped at every house and gave candies to the children, in the hope that one of them was Baby Jesus. Poor Befana never found her way to Bethlehem. But, every year at Christmastime, she takes her broom and flies all over the Italian sky, leaving gifts and candies to every children.

La Befana is typically depicted as an old beneficent woman, with the hump nose and pointed chin, dressed in rags and covered with soot, because she enters into the houses through the chimney, which represents the connection between sky and earth. She carries on her shoulder a bag full of gifts, and is said to sweep the kitchen with her broom when she leaves her gifts in the children‘s socks.

The festivity of the Befana is particularly felt in Rome, where many families each year gather in Piazza Navona to meet the Befana and enjoy her confectionary.

The Befana traditionally rewards the well-behaved children with gifts and candies, while she punishes the ones who have misbehaved, with pieces of coal as a reminder of their misdeeds.

But. . . nobody is perfect, so you will find in the “calza” (sock – stocking) a nice chunk of coal and then, digging deeper, among some walnut and mandarins you will always find candies and chocolates.

The eve of the Befana is a night of expectation for all the children who, before going to sleep, write the letterina (short letter). The letterina to the Befana is a must. You write how good you have been or how sorry you are for your misbehaving and then you ask for gifts for yourself and for your loved ones.

One more thing before going to sleep must be done, setting up a tray with the Befana’s meal. I know. . . you are thinking cookies and milk just like Santa Claus! Well, you could not be more wrong. . . cheese, tangerines and a glass of red wine! In true Italian style!

I have many memories of the night of the Befana but, two in particular that I would like to share. When I was a child, my family didn’t have a fireplace to hang the stockings so my mom would set up a drying rack. One year I remember hanging long wool tights on each string of the rack. That was a lot of stuffing to do for poor Befana! I remember waking up the following morning and finding the drying rack set on top of the dining room table, all the tights were filled and a beautiful electric train was assembled at the foot of the drying rack all along the edge of the table. Oh, I was so happy!

My second memory brings a little sadness. I was six years old when my grandmother passed away just two days before the Epiphany. I was sent to stay with some close friends. That year, in a home that was not mine, I had not written my letterina (short letter), or left a meal for the Befana and not even hung my calza (stocking). Despite all, I woke up to find my calza (stocking) filled as usual, and the gift I had wished for. My Befana knew, and even in a time of grief she remembered that I was only a little kid.

My mother has filled my brothers’ stockings and mine until we moved out. Often with the candies, walnuts and tangerines, we would also find a scarf or hat that she had hand knitted.

Today, I still fill my two, now adult, son’s stockings and I will keep doing it until they go on their own. I fill their calze (stockings) with Italian candies and chocolates, tangerines, walnuts and a stuffed animal, a tradition I started on their first Befana.

Picture from "The Christmas Witch" by J. Oppenheim and A. Mitra

With la Befana the Italian Christmas Season is officially over, as the saying goes “L’Epifania tutte le feste si porta via!” – “The Epiphany all holidays takes away”.

It is time to take the Christmas tree down, to store the presepe (Nativity scene) in its box, the wreaths and garlands in the storage room and to turn all the shining lights off.

Anyway, if there was not the Epiphany to take all the holidays away, we would still have the Home Owner Association to remind us that we only have this weekend to make sure that no signs of Christmas would be in sight!

How many of you celebrate the Epiphany?


My New Year’s Eve . . . Friends, Lentils, Cotechino, Tombola and “Something” red!

Festa di San Silvestro, named after Pope Sylvester I, is how in Italy we refer to New Year’s Eve.

Did you know that were the ancient Romans that in 153 B.C. moved the start of the year from the Spring equinox to January 1?

In Italy, traditionally the Veglione di Capodanno (New Year’s Party) lasts all night and typically starts with the Cenone (big supper) which is then followed by a big party with music, dancing and games.

When I was a child, after the Cenone friends would often come over for desserts and to wait for the Mezzanotte (Midnight). The table was cleared to make room to play Tombola (Italian version of Bingo), Mercante in Fiera (“Merchant at the Fair”, a traditional family game played with 2 identical decks of illustrated cards which are auctioned for final prize) and Sette e mezzo (“Seven and a half”, a game played with Neapolitan cards and that is similar to blackjack).

A Mezzanotte (at Midnight) the bottles of champagne were popped open for the brindisi (toast) while everyone was cheering on the new year with the “Buon Anno!” wishes.  We would then run by the windows to watch the display of fireworks, firecrackers and flares.

The best botti di Capodanno (New Year’s fireworks and firecrackers) I have witnessed were on the water of the Amalfi Coast, from the terrace of the Hotel Saraceno where I spent a beautiful night with my husband and my brother and sister-in-law; It was December 31, 1987.

Whether at the fanciest venue or at home with friends and family, no New Year’s Eve celebration in Italy would be complete without the lenticchie e cotechino (lentils and cotechino – a type of cooked sausage).

Because of their resemblance to coins the lentils are a symbol of prosperity and to ensure the good fortune they must be eaten within one hour of Midnight.

The  most valuable Italian lentils are grown in the high plane of Castelluccio di Norcia, in the region of Umbria, at 4,500 ft above sea level. The climate and soil contribute to the high quality of the legume. In 1997 the lenticchie di Castelluccio have received the IPG (Protected Geographic Indication) recognition.

The lentils are typically served with pork, symbol of the richness in life, therefore Cotechino and/or Zampone are the perfect complements to the lentils.

The cotechino, is a big sausage  made with a mixture of ground pork, pork rinds, and spices.
An alternative to the cotechino is the zampone where the same mixture is stuffed into a boned pig’s foreleg.

Both products are typical of Modena, in the region of Emilia-Romagna. The zampone originated around the 1500 thanks to the ingenuity of the Modenesi who, being under siege, had to find a way to preserve what it was available.

Tonight, I am celebrating the New Year’s Eve with a potluck dinner with some Italian amici (friends). I am preparing the lenticchie and cotechino, we will play Tombola and Mercante in Fiera and we will toast the New Year with My favorite Italian Spumante (sparkling wine), “Ferrari“!

Cotechino is not easy to find in my area. However, I was able to buy a pre-cooked one at an Italian grocery store in Wheaton, MD. The advantage of buying a pre-cooked cotechino is that it only requires to simmer in warm water for 20-25 minutes. This will ensure  the melting of the fat which will give this special sausage a very earthy flavor. You need to keep the cotechino warm until you are ready to eat.

I was in NYC two weeks ago at the Italian market EATALY, where I did find the lenticchie di Castelluccio. However, even if I love chefs Batali and Lidia, I was not going to drop $15 for 1/2 pound of lentils. That would have defied the purpose of the lentils . . . to bring you fortune and prosperity! My organic green lentils would do just fine!

RICETTA (Recipe)

MY LENTICCHIE STUFATE E COTECHINO (braised lentils and cotechino)

1 pound dry green lentils
1/2 onion thinly sliced
1 large carrot chopped into large pieces
1 celery stalk
4 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste
1 slice of pancetta 1/2 inch tick finely minced
1 tablespoon tomato paste

Before you start sort and rinse the lentils.

In a large pot warm the oil and sautéed the onion, the carrot, the celery and the pancetta.

Add the tomato paste and a little bit of warm water and stir to dissolve the tomato paste.

After 3-4 minutes add the lentils and let them coat with the condiment for 4-5 minutes.

Add enough water to cover the lentils, add salt, cover with a lid and cook on medium heat for 1-1/2 hours.

Check frequently to make sure that the water doesn’t dry out completely. Add warm water if necessary.

When the lentils are just about done, remove the carrots and celery.

Also, at this time, remove the cotechino from the warm water and place on an oval serving dish.

Slice the cotechino into 1/4 inch thick slices. The juice from the cotechino will accumulate in the bottom of the dish and will serve as additional condiment for the lentils.

Spoon the lentils around the cotechino and serve immediately after Midnight!

I almost forgot about the “something” red!

Typically Italian is the tradition, on New Year’s Eve, to wear something rosso (red), particularly lingerie.

It appears that already in ancient Rome, under Octavian Augustus, during the Roman New Year, women and men used to wear something red because this color represented power, love, health and fertility.

So, don’t waste any time, cook your lentils, get yourself something red and party your night away into the New Year!



Feast of the Seven Fish? Not quite . . .

Buon Natale! Merry Christmas!

It is time to break the news: there is not such thing as the “Feast of the seven fish” in Italy!

When I moved from Italy to Frederick, MD in 1991, I could not find espresso, cappuccino, fresh mozzarella or prosciutto. However, I could buy “Italian” garlic bread and “Italian” salsa Alfredo, both of which are NOT Italians. Then at Christmastime the fateful question would always come up: “Do you celebrate with the feast of the seven fish?”. The first time I almost felt embarrassed having to explain that I didn’t know about this “Italian” tradition. I just was not ready yet to break the news.

The tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve certainly comes from the Catholic religion, which forbids eating meat on the Vigilia (the word comes from the Latin verb vigilare “to watch or “to stay awake”) as a sign of respect and contemplation of the great event that is about to be celebrated.

There is indeed a tradition to celebrate the Vigilia (Christmas Eve) with the Cenone (big dinner) during which only fish dishes are served. Still, the tradition doesn’t dictate neither the number or the type of fish.

Most importantly, this tradition is very much eradicated in the Southern regions of Italy but not in the North where the pranzo di Natale (Christmas lunch) takes center stage and it is mostly based on meat preparations.

Well . . . I am from the Southern region of Campania and on My Vigilia‘s table there will be fish!

One of my most vivid memories of Christmas Eve at my parent’s home is the capitone (adult female eels) swimming in our bathtub. No, I am not kidding!

Eels should not be killed until shortly before cooking, so they were bought alive, kept in the bathtub until my father on Christmas Eve morning would chop them in pieces. And let me tell you, what a strange fish these eels are, they keep moving even with their heads chopped off!

Years after my dad had passed away, I went in Italy to spend Christmas with my brother who wanted to keep the tradition alive. So, bravely, he bought the capitone and then asked my husband to help with the task at hand. All I can say is that the scene would have made the show “America funniest video”.

I remember the day of the Vigilia as a day of waiting and expectations. My mother started her day early, she would plate the struffoli first, then prepare the pasta cresciuta (dough) to be fried around lunch time. We would eat these pizzelle (fried dough) throughout the day waiting for the cenone. This was the only day of the year when my brothers and I were not required to be home for lunch. The zampognari, shepherds from the mountains of Abruzzi, often came to play Christmas music on their bagpipes.

Late in the afternoon the festive table was set and it was finally time to start the feast. The menu included: seafood salad, fried baccalà, spaghetti with clams and spaghetti with anchovies and walnuts, capitone, fried shrimp and calamari, a baked fish, insalata di rinforzo (a marinated vegetable and cauliflower salad) and then dry figs, dates, nuts, nuggets, mostaccioli and roccocó, Panettone and struffoli.

After Midnight Mass, back at home, we would start the traditional procession open by my mom carrying a candle and followed by me (the youngest of the family) carring the statue of baby Jesus while the rest of the family was singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle” ( You come down from the stars). The procession ended with the arrival at the presepe (nativity scene) and the kissing of the Baby who was finally positioned over the crib of the nativity.

Some of these traditions are still part of My Vigilia.

Enough with the memories and back to My menu. Over the years I have substituted some dishes and I usually change my pasta dish from one year to the next. Also, since my two sons have lately shown a clear preference for a variety of small dishes (almost like tapas) and they love pasta, I have designed a menu with many antipasti (appetizers), and one main pasta dish.

I will post pictures and some recipes after the Holidays, for now here it is My 2011 Menu della Vigilia.  Buon Natale a tutti ! Merry Christmas everyone!

Antipasti (Appetizers)

Pizzelle – fried dough

Gamberoni in guazzetto – large shrimps in a spicy tomatoes-cream sauce

Insalata di mare  – seafood salad with calamari, octopus, shrimps, clams and mussels seasoned with a lemon parsley vinagrette

Seaweed fritters

Insalata di Baccalà – salted cod fish salad served warm with a yougurt-mayonnese- dressing

Seared scallops with radicchio and pancetta

Frittura di pesce  – fried shrimp, calamari, smelts


Primo Piatto (First course)

Calamarata ai frutti di mare – calamarata is a cut of pasta in the shape of calamari rings, it is traditionally served with only calamari but I use a variety of seafood

Contorno ( Side dish)

Scarole di Natale – sautéed frise and escarole with anchovies, raisins and pine nuts

Frutta e dolci (Fruit and desserts)

Frutta secca – (Dry fruit – figs and dates),  nocciole tostate (toasted hazelnut), assorted torrone italiano (Italian nuggets), My struffoli, My mustaccioli and Panettone.

Of course wines from My hometown will fill our glasses, Greco di Tufo and Fiano di Avellino, both white wines. And My Limoncello will complement the erray of desserts.

What’s on your Holiday table?