Festa de San Martin
Like most countries, Italy has now imported Hallowe’en from the United States, and on 31 October the streets, up and down the country, are filled with miniature Italians screaming dolcetto o scherzetto! (Trick or treat!) However, in Venice there is an old tradition, which is very similar, which takes place a couple of weeks later on 11 November, the feast of San Martin.
Throughout the day, small children wander the calli and campi of the city in groups, banging saucepans and lids. When they come across a shop, particularly a bakery or sweet shop, they go in and sing the following rhyme in Venetian:
San Martin xe ’ndà in sofita,
A trovar ea so’ novissa,
Ea so’ novissa no ghe gera,
San Martin col cùeo par tera.
E col nostro sachetìn
Cari signori xe S.Martin!
Saint Martin went to the attic
To find a novice nun.
When he got there the attic was bare,
Saint Martin landed on his bum.
We have our little bags here,
Dear sirs, it’s Saint Martin’s day!
They then ask the shopkeeper for some sweets. If they get something then they chant a little rhyme of thanks. If not, then they chant a cursing rhyme.
Tanti ciodi gh’è in sta porta,
Tanti diavoli che ve porta,
Tanti ciodi gh’è in sto muro
Tanti bruschi ve vegna sul cùeo.
E CHE VE MORA EL PORSEO!
May many nails be in this door,
May many devils pass through this door,
May many nails be in this wall,
May many boils be on your bum!
AND MAY YOUR PIG DIE!
In the days leading up to San Martin, the shops of Venice become full of special sweets in the form of San Martin, a soldier on horseback covered in sweets and chocolates. These were originally made to give the groups of kids.
San Martin, or Saint Martin of Tours, was a Roman solider who converted to Christianity, became a hermit monk and was eventually tricked into becoming Bishop of Tours in south-west France. He’s most famous for a legend concerning his cloak which he wore in the military.
The story goes that one winter’s day, near the town of Amiens, he saw a beggar wearing nothing but a few rags. Without thinking, he cut his cloak in half and gave one half to the beggar. That night, he dreamed that he saw Jesus wearing the half he’d given away and in the morning, he woke to find that the cloak had been magically restored.
Saint Martin’s cloak was a famous relic during the middle ages. It was carried into battle and had special small churches built to house it. These became known as cappellae after the latin word cappa meaning cloak and is the origin of the modern word chapel.
A later addition to the story is that immediately after he had given the half cloak away, the weather perked up and became quite warm. This was added to explain the meteorological phenomenon experienced in northern Italy where the autumnal weather is replaced by warm sunny days as summer’s last ‘hurrah!’ This period, which ends around 11 November, is known as l’estate di San Martino, or Saint Martin’s Summer.
What’s lovely about the feast of San Martin is that it’s a Venetian tradition for Venetians. The sweets appear in the shops without explanation. The events (there’s a party in the parish of San Martin in the Sestiere of Castello) are not marketed to tourists. November, is the only month of the year which is really low season in Venice and so it’s a time in which local residents feel more in possession of their city.
You can buy large cookie cutters all over Venice to make your own San Martin, and in fact these make great souvenirs as they are something typically Venetian.
Making your own San Martin, with or without children, is actually quite fun.It consists of the shape of San Martin, in sweet pastry (pasta frolla) with chocolates and candy stuck on with royal icing. You can decorate it with whatever sweets you want. Cotognata, a kind of quince jelly, is traditional as is chocolate money. You can add your favourite candy in the wrapper, as Venetians do.
This year I used a chocolate in the shape of a bauta, a traditional Venetian carnival mask, for the head of San Martin, cotognata for his shield, jelly beans for the horse’s mane and bridle, tiramisù flavoured eggs for the horses hooves, and I added my two favourite Italian chocolates, Mon Cheri and the classic Baci. Here’s the recipe for you to try.
- 300g / 2 1/2 cups plain flour
- 100g (1/2 cup) sugar
- 11/2 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ lemon zest
- 100ml (1/2 cup) extra virgin olive oil
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 egg white
- 225g (1 3/4 cups) icing sugar
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- food colouring
- An assortment of sweets and chocolates of your choice.
- Sift the flour, sugar, and baking powder together.
- Add the lemon zest and mix thoroughly.
- Add the olive oil and mix well until all the oil has been absorbed.
- Add the eggs and use them to bring the mixture together as a dough.
- Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least half an hour.
- Heat the oven to 180° C (355° F).
- Put a piece of greaseproof paper on the work surface and dust with flour.
- Roll the pastry out so that it just fits the size of your template or cutter.
- Cut out the shape of San Martin.
- Bake for 17-20 minutes. Be careful to remove from the oven before the legs, head, and so on start to discolour.Allow to cool completely.
- Make the royal icing
- Whisk the egg white until it’s still liquid, but frothy.
- Add the icing sugar, one tablespoon at a time, and mix thoroughly with a whisk to avoid lumps.
- Add the lemon juice.
- Add the food colouring to achieve the desired shade.
- Using a little of the royal icing, glue the pastry base to a cake board.
- Using a piping bag, glue to the sweets and chocolates to the pastry base.
- Leave for about 12 hours for the icing to set.