Wednesday, January 6, 2010

La Befana

Today, the Epiphany, marks a very special day in Italy. Not only is it the end of the Christmas season, but it also means that last night was marked by a visit from La Befana.

La Befana doll at the annual Christmas Market in Piazza Navona

In Italian folklore, La Befana is a (good) witch who delivers gifts to children in Italy on Epiphany Eve (January 5.) Naughty children better watch out though -- La Befana only gives presents to good children! The name La Befana is derived from Epifania, the Italian name for the religious festival of the Epiphany.

Legend has it that the three wise men were in search of baby Jesus, but on their journey to him they lost their way. They decided to stop at a nearby house to ask for directions, and upon knocking, an old woman holding a broom opened the door to see who was there. She was unaware of who the men were and was unable to point them in the right direction. Before they left, the three wise men asked her if she would like to join them on their journey. She declined, because she had too much housework to do.

After they left the woman felt as though she had made a mistake and decided to go and try to catch up with the kind men. After many hours of searching however, she was unable to find them. Thinking of the opportunity she had missed, the old woman stopped at every child she saw and gave them a small gift in hopes that one was the Christ child. Now, each year on Epiphany eve she sets out to look for baby Jesus, and she stops at each child's house to leave treats in the stockings of the good children and a lump of coal in the stockings of bad children.

Of course, there are many versions of this story...but it's pretty interesting, right? I had already left Italy by the time the Epiphany rolled around this year, but from what I hear, the celebration of La Befana is often more exciting to Italian children than Santa Claus (Babbo Natale in Italian.)

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Traditional Christmas sweets

I wrote this post while I was still in Rome, but never got around to publishing it after I got home. Even though the Christmas season is almost over, I didn't want it to go to waste :)

During our last week in Rome, my program directors provided us with some traditional Italian Christmas treats - panettone, pandoro and torrone.

Image source

Panettone is a sweet bread that is said to have originated in Milan over 500 years ago, and it is probably the most well-known dessert of the Italian Christmas season. The most traditional contain dried fruits and candied citrus. A more modern twist is a chocolate chip panettone.

Prior to my visit to Rome, I had tried traditional panettone in the United States a few times. In Rome, however, I was able to taste the chocolate chip version. I wasn't too crazy about this one for some reason -- I thought the chocolate tasted funny with the texture of the bread. I'm not the biggest fan of panettone, but I do enjoy eating a small piece of it.

Image source

Pandoro ("golden bread") is another type of sweet bread that is also traditionally eaten around Christmas and New Year's. It is usually shaped like an 8-pointed star and is dusted with powdered sugar to resemble the snowy mountain peaks of Winter.

If I had to choose between panettone and pandoro, I'd say that pandoro wins hands down. It is so delicious and it's hard to stop after eating just one piece! It is much sweeter and more spongey and soft than panettone, and the fact that it's appearance is modeled after snowy mountains doesn't hurt either!

Torrone is a sweet rectangular bar typically made of egg whites, sugar, honey and some type of nut (usually toasted almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts) that is a specialty of Sardegna. There are two types of torrone -- morbido (soft), and duro (hard). Torrone usually have a citrus flavor -- the bar pictured above is one that I bought in Rome and it tastes like orange.

I happen to love Torrone -- I prefer the citrus flavored bars to the chocolate version. They are completely addicting and just melt in your mouth...but you do have to be careful not to break a tooth on them! Even torrone morbido are a bit difficult to eat.