The Befana in Venice

Every child of Italian heritage has heard of La Befana, a character in Italian folklore who delivers presents to children throughout Italy. It is believed that the legend of La Befana may have originated in Rome, then spread as a tradition to the rest of Italy. Some believe her name is derived from the word Epiphany, but others say La Befana descended Roman goddess named Strina.

In folklore, Befana visits all the children of Italy on the eve of the 6th of January (the Epiphany) to fill their socks with candy and presents if they are good or a lump of coal or dark candy if they are bad. Because she is a good housekeeper, she will sweep the floor before she leaves. The child's family typically leaves a small glass of wine and a plate with a few morsels of food for La Befana.She is usually portrayed as an old lady riding a broomstick through the air wearing a black shawl and is covered in soot because she enters the children's houses through the chimney. She is often smiling and carries a bag or hamper filled with candy, gifts, or both.

Christian legend has it that La Befana was approached by the magi (the biblical three kings) a few days before Christ's birth. They asked for directions to where the baby Jesus was, but she did not know. She provided them with shelter for a night, as she was considered the best housekeeper in the village with the most pleasant home. They 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 baby Jesus. She leaves all the good children toys and candy, while the bad children get coal or bags of ashes.

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Another Christian legend takes a slightly darker tone. La Befana was an ordinary woman with a child whom she greatly loved. However, her child died, and her grief maddened her. Upon hearing news of Jesus' birth, she set out to see him, delusional that he was her son. She eventually met Jesus and presented him with gifts to make him happy. The infant Jesus was delighted, and he gave La Befana a gift in return; she would be the mother of every child in Italy.

Italians believe that if one sees La Befana one will receive a thump from her broomstick because she doesn't wish to be seen. This aspect of the tradition may be designed to keep children in their beds while parents are distributing candy (or coal) and sweeping the floor on Epiphany Eve.

Traditionally, all Italian children may expect to find a lump of "coal" in their stockings (actually rock candy made black with caramel coloring), as every child has been at least occasionally bad during the year.

Fegato alla Veneziana (Venetian Liver and Onions)

Fegato alla Venziana, finely sliced liver with gently stewed onions, is one of the most classic Venetian dishes, and even those who do not usually like liver enjoy it. The recipe will serve 2 Ingredients

  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 1/2 white onions, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme, crumbled
  • 1 teaspoon rubbed or ground dried sage
  • 1 garlic clove, flattened
  • 2 tablespoons all purpose flour
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 12-ounce, 1/4- 1/2-inch-thick calf's liver, cut into strips
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh Italian parsley

Preparation

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in heavy large skillet over medium heat. Add onions, 1/2 teaspoon thyme and 1/2 teaspoon sage and sauté until onion is tender and brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer to bowl. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to skillet. Add garlic and cook until golden brown, about 2 minutes. Discard garlic.

Combine flour, remaining 1/2 teaspoon thyme and remaining 1/2 teaspoon sage in bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Pat liver dry. Add liver to flour mixture and toss to coat. Add butter to garlic oil and melt over medium-high heat. Add liver and stir until beginning to brown on outside but still pink inside, about 3 minutes. Add onions and sauté until liver is just cooked through, about 5 minutes. Stir in parsley

 

Carletti Risotto

MAKE THE STOCK: In a large saucepan, combine the water with the onion, carrots, leek, celery, garlic, bay leaves, thyme, and cloves and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to moderate, cover and simmer for 50 minutes. Strain the stock into a medium saucepan, cover and keep warm.
MAKE THE RISOTTO: In a medium skillet, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter. Add half of the minced shallot and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the carletti a handful at a time, stirring between batches until wilted. Season the baby greens with salt and pepper and set aside.
In a large saucepan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the vegetable oil. Add the remaining shallot and cook over moderate heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook over moderately high heat, stirring to coat the grains, about 2 minutes. Add 1 cup of the warm stock and cook, stirring constantly, until nearly absorbed. Continue adding the stock 1/2 cup at a time, stirring until it is nearly absorbed between additions. The risotto is done when the rice is al dente and suspended in a thick, creamy sauce, about 25 minutes total.
Stir the wilted greens and the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter into the risotto and season with salt and pepper. Serve at once, passing the cheese at the table.

Castradina

The “castradina” is a stew, real comfort food, and is a traditional recipe that traces its roots in Dalmatia, where the dried, smoked mutton aromatized with herbs and spices came from. At a time when food deteriorated easily and could carry diseases, the “castrà” (a leg of castrated lamb) was a guarantee. This delicacy has to be prepared 2 days in advance and the “castrà” is available in the best butchers a week before the feast of Madonna della Salute. INGREDIENTS: CABBAGE CASTRA’ ONIONS, CARROTS ROSEMARY, THYME, LAUREL AND JUNIPER IN A GAUZE BAG EXTRA VERGIN OLIVE OIL

Thinly chop the carrots and the onions and stir-fry in olive oil. Add the cabbage slices into thin strips and simmer in low heat in little water (keep adding water when needed) with olive oil until soft. Bring to a boil the castrà in water with the herbs, let it simmer for about half an hour, then remove from heat, throw away the water where the castrà has been cooking, and complete the cooking in renewed water (otherwise it gets too salty). Put both the cabbage and the meat aside, somewhere cool. The next day, skim off the layer of grease, add the cabbage and simmer for an hour approximately. Serve it as a hot stew or a soup.