Fever, February, Fishbones & Fenugreek are not things that grab you as having a lot in common, but on this ever-steep learning curve of Abruzzo culture, I also get to understand the history of words in my native English.
The 3rd February is the feast day of Armenian San Biagio (Saint Blaise). He was a hermit who was fed by the animals of a nearby forest and who he, in turn, fed when they were ill. His fame stems from melting a fishbone that had stuck in a child’s throat and he’s now the patron saint of throat afflictions. He’s more often than not depicted with wild animals in frescos in churches but sometimes as a pair of wool combs as he died rather nastily by these tearing him apart to “earn” his martyrdom.
Of course it is no coincidence that his miracle is celebrated in February. The original meaning of February stems from the Latin for fever, febris, and it’s this time of year that the Romans had their februa ‘purifying’ festival. This built on the idea that fevers were positive, a purifying test, and if you got through you’d be all set for sunny spring. Numa Pompilius, King of Rome in c700bc built this purification festival into a month when 10 months became 12 in the Roman calendar.
Yesterday evening our Italian teacher’s mamma kindly sent us these Ciambella di S. Biagio to start the day with; children are expected to eat a whole one in protection for the coming year. If they are really diligent and make it to church, olio santo, the best of the oil from the previous harvest which is still given to the local priest and used in blessings is rubbed onto the adam’s apple.
The ciambella are surprisingly moreish despite their dryness, great dipped in a small glass of wine, and strangely great with a cup of coffee or Earl Grey tea. Their secret protective ingredient is fenugreek. These seeds are considered a traditional cure for fevers, hot flushes, bronchial problems.
The recipes for these biscuits vary from village to village I am sure, and probably a little different to Abruzzo’s most popular 3-day sagra for St Biagio in Castiglione a Casauria. Here the Ciambella di S. Biagio are dipped in an ancient local wine called Moscato di Castiglione. In Taranta Peligna, the unsalted biscuits created to celebrate their patron saint are known as Panicelle, which resemble the Saint giving a traditional blessing, here’s the local community making them for their celebration.
This recipe is taken from ‘L’antica Cucina Teramana’ by Nunzia D’Antuono, a collective of Grandmas’ recipes from the small town of Tossicia .
- 5 Eggs
- 5 heaped tablespoons Olive Oil
- 5 heaped tablespoons Caster Sugar
- 2 heaped teaspoons of crushed fenugreek seeds
- Flour – add until you have a stiff dough that resembles that for pasta
- Mix the eggs, oil and sugar together, and slowly add flour till you get a pasta like dough.
- Pull off a small piece of the dough and roll into a worm like shape with your hands and then join each end together.
- Have a pan of boiling water ready and literally dip your circular biscuits in and out, this acts as a starch tightener and helps them keep their shape.
- Bake in the oven at 170C until they look toasty.