All over Italy today, Italians are celebrating St. Joseph's Day. They honor both Joseph, the "earthly" father of Jesus, and also all fathers. In Southern Italy, and especially some villages in Puglia, parades and grand events are being held to honor San Giuseppe. As with all celebrations in Italy, food plays a huge part, and with food in Italy, there are always food rules that must be followed.
First, it is not a festa di San Giuseppe without the very decadent zeppole. Everywhere I looked this morning it seemed that someone was ordering a zeppola or eating one. Pastry shops and even the gelaterie flooded their pastry cases with the ring-shaped doughnut. In Lecce, where I am now, these fried treats are topped off with generous amounts of two kinds of pastry cream - a lemon-infused one and then a "dollop" of chocolate. In Naples, amarena cherries replace the chocolate pastry cream, and in Sicily, they slather their famous ricotta cream over the top of the zeppole.
Find the recipe here: Le Zeppole di San Giuseppe
Another food-focused feast happens in the villages near Otranto in Puglia where hundread of homes still practice the tradition of preparing a feast to show hospitality to others in St. Joseph's honor; this feast is known as Le Tavole di San Giuseppe. There are several renditions of how this feast started. Some say it was transformed from a pagan celebration to celebrate the end of Winter and beginning of Spring. Others say that it started when noble families chose one day to offer banquets to feed the poor. Whatever the origins, families in these villages prepare elaborately decorated tables filled with 13 different dishes (13 symbolizing the number that attended the last supper). At the main table is an "altar" to St. Joseph. There you'll find a statue of St. Joseph, his flower-covered staff, and the large rounds of bread, each having an orange in the center. The other tables are filled with meticulously plated dishes, all of which are typical farmers' or peasant's dishes of Puglia.
On March 18th, the night before St. Joseph's day, these families open their doors to all who want to make this pilgrimage; friends, strangers, foreigners, tourists, and even enemies. At each house, those who enter say a prayer at the altar created for St. Joseph. Families start preparing for this feast weeks in advance, and many homes expect more than 400 visitors during the night. During this eve of St. Joseph, no one eats the 13 dishes. Instead the families usually prepare a pasta dish, called massa for the visitors. One house we visited had used hundreds of kilograms of flour to make the massa for their expected visitors.
On St. Joseph's day, in the afternoon after mass, the priest goes around to each of the houses in his village and blesses the tables. Then the banquet starts and the guests, some of dressed to represent St. Joseph, the holy family, the apostles and other saints, eat the 13 dishes of the feast. They consist of the following:
The bread - shaped in the form of a circle (or taralli as they say in Puglia) with decorations on top that symbolize the holy family (Mary, Joseph & Jesus) and with an orange placed in the middle. There are also the fried fish, stoccafisso (a salted cod stew), boiled lampasconi (wild hyacinth bulbs), chickpeas - which are sometimes served with the massa (pasta), pasta with breadcrumbs, pittule (fried dough), cauliflower fried in pastella, le cime di rape (broccoli rabe), puccedruzzi (Puglia's version of the more popularly known struffoli), carteddate (another sweet fried dough with honey drizzled over the top), and wine.
What a lot of food and what a feast!! And then to add one or two zeppole to the day's eats! One of the families we visited in addition to the pasta, even prepared extra gifts of sweets, little cups of various types of cookies, to give to the pilgrims who would come on the eve of March 18th. Whatever your religious beliefs are, or are not, this is quite a thing to witness. The amount of work and love these families put into every detail and how truly generous and hospitable they are to everyone who comes to their doors is astounding and would bring a tear to the eyes of even the most cynical of people.
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For this food lover's culinary tour, we'll be cooking with our beautiful Italian mamme and professional chefs. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region and making zepppole like those above, and many other traditional Pugliese dishes,too!
For tour details, check out this page: Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia
Read more about the food and beauty of Puglia - Puglia section here on the blog.