Food is such an integral part of culture – it’s something that I’ve been thinking about lately especially after contemplating whether or not food writing was important. In the article, Michael Ruhlman (author and charcuterie/salumi-maker extraordinaire), poses the question with some pretty convincing points and quotes, such as this one by George Orwell, no less, written about 75 years ago:
“I think it could plausibly be argued that changes of diet are more important than changes of dynasty or even of religion. The Great War, for instance, could never have happened if tinned food had not been invented. And the history of the past four hundred years in England would have been immensely different if it had not been for the introduction of root-crops and various other vegetables at the end of the middle ages, and a little later the introduction of non-alcoholic drinks (tea, coffee, cocoa) and also of distilled liquors to which the beer-drinking English were not accustomed. Yet it is curious how seldom the all-importance of food is recognized. You see statues everywhere to politicians, poets, bishops, but none to cooks or bacon-curers or market-gardeners.”
What does this have to do with this month’s Italian Table Talk topic, the festival of Ognissanti – All Saint’s Day? I am going somewhere with this, I promise.
It’s that food, of course, is all-important, as Ruhlman states. And not only as an obviously necessary part of our survival, literally but also culturally. Food’s role in society, in our identity, even in history, as Orwell points out, makes it something that we cannot do without. It plays an important role in rituals, both religious and non – no celebration, of any type, would be complete without food. In a country like Italy, which is tethered to its religion in nearly every way, food symbolises more than the seasons, as it did in its early pagan rituals. Festivals and Saint days are celebrated with their own specific dishes, with specific ingredients that have come to mean more than just a meal – a tradition, a metaphor, a connection, a symbol.
This month, the bloggers of Italian Table Talk, Giulia from Juls’ Kitchen, Valeria from My Life Love Food, Jasmine from Labna, discuss the gastronomical traditions of Ognissanti. The holiday falls on November 1, while November 2 is known as tutti i morti, a day that is celebrated by honouring deceased relatives. It was said that the night between these two days the dead come back to frequent the places they did when alive and this belief (originally a Celtic one) created many rituals that are celebrated in every region of Italy in their own way, which, not so surprisingly, have to do with that all-important life substance: food. In Campania, a bucket of water was left out for the thirsty souls; in Piemonte the table was set with extra settings for the spirits of loved ones, while in Sardegna, the table wasn’t cleared after dinner to allow the dead to eat and rest during their big night out on the town. While these traditions may not be followed by every household these days, the baking and eating of certain foods is very much still alive.
This period is one of many symbolic foods – each region has their own collection of favourites, and interestingly, they are almost all sweets of some sort, the dolci dei morti (sweets of the dead) being offerings to the dead after their long and weary travel (you can see the connection with modern day Halloween here). The most well-known savoury dishes involved fave, beans. An ancient Roman offering to the dead, beans were often eaten at funerary banquets. Later, the ritual was adopted by Christians and beans were used in symbolic dishes throughout Italy during this time of the year. Today, they’ve been popularly substituted by so-called fave dei morti (beans of the dead), which have nothing to do with beans anymore but are actually biscuits, almost like a macaroon, made with almond meal or pine nuts. They are very similar to the ossi dei morti (bones of the dead) biscuits, which have many variations but are usually white (bones, after all!), made with almond meal, spices and egg whites.
Another typical dish of this period, which you can generally find in the north, between Lombardy and Tuscany, is pan dei morti, bread of the dead. Depending on the region, it’s often made with dried fruit such as figs or raisins, spices, cocoa and leftover crumbled biscuits, such as lady fingers (savoiardi) or amaretti. See Jasmine’s post for her recipe on pan dei morti. Similarly, pan co’ santi (literally, bread with saints) is a dense bread with walnuts and raisins made for this holiday. Giulia has a quick, modern version of pan co’ santi muffins.
Also around the time of Ognissanti you find plenty of autumnal dishes made with seasonal and traditional ingredients such as pumpkin or chestnuts, which have come to be connected with the holiday simply because of a question of timing. Castagnaccio, for example, is a Tuscan dish made with chestnut flour, raisins and rosemary – a sort of flat bread with a textural consistency that reminds me of a thick crepe. Although it’s not part of the ritual, dishes like these are associated with the period that Ognissanti falls in and you’ll often find castagnaccio in bakeries and even on menus in traditional trattorie at this time of year. Valeria is making a traditional cake known as a pinza from the Veneto, this version made with sweet potatoes.
I decided, with all the choices of recipes to share for this festivity, to combine a few of the traditional ideas: a bit of chestnut flour from the castagnaccio, some of the ingredients of the pane dei morti, such as figs, nuts, cloves and cinnamon, and of course the biscuit form, traditional offering for the dead.
I used as a base, my mother-in-law’s trusty cantuccini (or biscotti) recipe, but instead of white flour I used about two-thirds chestnut flour, mixed with one-third wholemeal flour. Chestnut flour has a low GI and also naturally has a sweet tendency, so is perfect if you happen to need something to keep you going in the afternoon but can’t eat much sugar. Instead of the regular white sugar, I used mostly honey and some raw sugar. The key to any biscotti recipe of course is the double-cooking (biscotti literally means “twice cooked”): the first as a loaf, which then gets sliced while still warm, then the slices are put back in the oven to crisp up and harden, making them perfect for dipping into a warm drink.
Be sure to also check out this post of Giulia’s for a similar recipe made just a little more indulgent with chocolate chips: Chestnut flour and chocolate biscotti.
Chestnut flour biscotti with figs, nuts and spices
Note that chestnut flour has no gluten so it usually needs to be mixed with another flour when used in baking – pick your favourite. If you use another low gluten flour it will tend to be crumbly but still delicious.
- 200 gr of chestnut flour
- 100 gr of plain, wholemeal or spelt flour
- 3 eggs
- 75 gr of honey
- 25 gr of raw sugar
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 70 gr of walnuts, shelled and chopped roughly
- 70 gr of dried figs, chopped roughly
- 2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1 tsp ground cloves
- A splash of vin santo or any other dessert wine
Heat the oven to about 180ºC and prepare a baking sheet lined with baking paper. Sift the flours into a bowl and create a “well” in the centre. Crack the eggs into the well and beat, incorporating the flours slowly as you go. As you’re mixing, note the consistency. The dough should be stiff like pastry dough, or stiff enough to shape into logs. Depending on the flour you used and the size and quality of your eggs you may get different results. If it’s too dry, you can add a few glugs of extra virgin olive oil while you’re mixing. If it’s too wet, leave out the vin santo or add a touch more flour. This is one of those sort of recipes.
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well until just combined. Split the dough into two sections. Shape the dough into logs about 10cm or 3 inches wide and as long as your baking sheet. Place on baking sheet, about 5cm apart.
Bake for about 20-30 minutes or until browned. Remove the biscotti logs from the oven and while warm, slice the logs at a 45 degree angle into cookies about 1-2cm wide. Place these cookies back in the oven for another 15 minutes or until they are crunchy and golden-brown. Allow to cool and serve with a small glass of vin santo or other dessert wine for dipping, if you’re being traditional. They also go nicely with coffee and even tea. Store in an air tight container.
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