Of Coffee, Cakes, and an Obligatory Saint

Catherine Kovesi  University of Melbourne

Bassrelief of San Martino on the Oratory of the Scuola of San Martino

Bassrelief of San Martino on the Oratory of the Scuola of San Martino

Throughout most of the westernised world we have just celebrated the festival of Halloween. Each year many protest the intrusion of what they see as an Americanised festival into their indigenous traditions, and it did look a little anachronistic here in Venice to see Halloween paraphernalia in many shop windows. But now, barely a fortnight later, the windows are full of paraphernalia for a different and delightful festival here in the city, one with many similarities to Halloween in the ways in which it is celebrated by the children of Venice, but which is completely enmeshed in Venetian tradition. This is the Feast of San Martino, celebrated on 11 November for at least three centuries now.

This is my first introduction to the Festa di San Martino. As a part-Hungarian italophile, what is not to like about this saint? No. 1 he is Hungarian – a huge plus; no. 2 amongst his several portfolios, he is the patron saint of wine and wine making – second huge plus; no. 3 he has a certain level of panache in the clothes department – third huge plus; and finally, no. 4, his feast day is celebrated in Venice with beautiful cakes – plus again. Slightly more puzzling is the fact that he is also the patron saint of cuckolds, but few Venetians (at least as far as I know) are celebrating that fact this weekend. Were I living in Rocca Canterano instead I would be writing a very different blog this week. There the Festa del Cornuto occurs this weekend with the welcoming slogan: “Alla rocca benvenuti voi grandissimi cornuti” (All great cuckolds are welcome in this city) and in other Italian towns they are serving Rappacornuti soup. But this is not going to be a blog about cuckoldry or about soup. Cakes. Yes. Coffee. Yes. Cuckolds. No.

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Pordenone, San Martino dividing his cloak, Organ door, Chiesa di San Rocco, Venice

You may know him as Martin of Tours, but to my peoples he is Márton of Szombathely because he was born in 315 or 316 in the Roman territory of Pannonia  (present day Hungary). He spent his early years in Ticinum (now Pavia) in Italy. As required by Roman law, as the son of a military veteran, at the age of fifteen he became a soldier, and, on his journeyings in what was then Gaul, at the gates of the city of present-day Amiens, in the middle of winter, he came across a poor beggar. Ever pragmatic, Márton was not foolish enough to give the beggar the full substantial woollen cloth off his back and risk perishing of cold himself. No, he flourished his sword, and cut his cloak in half so that he and the beggar could both see through the night. Legend has it that at this moment, the sun unexpectedly came out, and that that night Márton dreamt of the beggar who now appeared to him as Christ himself, wearing his half of the cloak. This encounter obviously forced some reflection in the man, and shortly after he gave up his worldly goods altogether (the tale does not relate what became of his half of the cloak), sought to be baptised, and became a monk, eventually being elevated (with appropriate and humble reluctance) to the position of Bishop of the city of Tours.

We might expect, therefore, that Martón’s feast day should be celebrated in France, or Pavia, or even Szombathely. But why Venice? Why would Venetians offer a particular homage to this saint? Goodness knows there are plenty of others here in the city of 125 churches that could have festivities in their honour instead. San Martino is the protector of the Island of Burano in the lagoon, where there is a church dedicated to him, and he also has an eponymous church in the sestiere of Castello, where there is a small confraternal building dating to the early sixteenth century built by the caulkers of the Arsenal with his image in bas relief. But neither of these facts really impinges on the reason for celebrating his feast day in Venice, nor for the way in which it is celebrated here.

Instead, it is a group of Swiss who, in the late seventeenth century, brought about a revolution in the eating culture of this city, and subsequently throughout Europe, and who ensured that the Saint’s feast would be celebrated here. Poor immigrants from the Swiss Canton of Graubünden had been welcomed in Venice with a special edict in 1603 because their pastry making skills were particularly highly valued. By the early 1700s, more than eighty per cent of the pastry shops of Venice were run by people from Graubünden. The Swiss in Venice were granted permission to form a confraternity and had their meetings in a building next to the Church of San Marcuola. (Unfortunately the building was demolished in 1806 in the wake of Napoleon’s suppression of religious institutions in the city).

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Privilege granted to the People of Grubünden to sell pastries (bussolai), and to have shops in any part of the city whatsoever, Biblioteca Marciana, Venice.

Nor did they stop at pastry. Although the famous Florian café on Piazza San Marco, founded in 1720, is the oldest coffee shop in Italy still in continuous operation, according to Bo Lönnqvist (Pastries: A Study of the Cultural Expression of Luxury (Schildts, 1998)), the first coffee shop in Venice was opened in 1680 by a Swiss immigrant from Graubünden. This immigrant devised a culinary pairing which seems so natural to us that it seems remarkable that it had not occurred to anyone before. In a city in which the newly introduced concoction called coffee had previously only been sold through pharmacies, and in which pastries had only been served as a dessert, this Swiss gentleman decided to serve pastries together with a cup of coffee.

In addition, the feast day of San Martino coincides with the period for tasting the new wines, and dinners would be held to celebrate the new wine in the city, at which pastries were served. It is these Swiss pastry makers who are credited with devising a pastry in the shape of San Martino himself, bringing the custom of the San Martino biscuit to the city.

In 1766, when the edict allowing free trade and settlement by these Swiss expired in Venice, it was not renewed, and so many of them left the city, and took their winning coffee/pastry combination to other parts of Europe, and from thence to the rest of the world.

Originally poor people would come out on the feast day of San Martino and open empty pockets asking for salami and ham. Now it is the children of Venice who dominate the proceedings. Just as for Halloween, Venetian children dress up for this feast day, but not as ghouls, rather with snazzy red capes and soldiering caps. They go around the city with saucepan lids, pots and pans, making as much noise as they can, singing a traditional song (see below), and going into shops requiring the payment of sweets or money in return for peace and quiet.

So what is the San Martino biscuit? It is a pastafrolla (shortcrust pastry), in the shape of San Martino on his horse, sword up-raised ready to cut his cloak, which is covered in icing and chocolates. There is also a type of sweet made from quince and decorated with little silver sugar dragees. On the island of Burano, the San Martino biscuit is made instead from a base of pasta dei bussolà; the famous biscuits of Burano, made from flour, eggs, sugar and vanilla.

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There is also a traditional song to be sung, of which there are a couple of variants:

S. Martin xe ‘nda’ in sofita (San Martino è andato in soffitta)
a trovare ea nonna Rita (a trovare la nonna Rita)
nona Rita non ghe gera (La nonna Rita lì non c’era)
S. Martin col cueo par tera (e San Martino è finite col sedere per terra)
E col nostro sachetin (e col nostro sacchettino)
Cari signori xe S. Martin (cari signori è San Martino)

Or:
San Martin xe nda’ in soffita
a trova ea so novissa,
so novissa no ghe gera
san Martin casca part tera,
e col nostro sacchetin,
cari signori xe san martin,
FORA EL SOLDIN!!!

At those who fail to give the children anything to eat, the following is sung:

Tanti ciodi gh’è in sta porta,
tanti diavolo che ve porta,
tanti ciodigh’è in sto muro,
tanti bruschi ve vegna sul culo.

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