Thanksgiving is not unique to the US each November. This Sunday and Monday – November 20/21 – Venetians in their thousands will make the slow pilgrimage across the Grand Canal on a specially erected temporary wooden bridge to their cherished Baroque church of Madonna della Salute – seen here in a drawing by the Archdeacon of London, Peter Delaney.
Old and young, families with children and those few visitors lucky enough to be in La Serenissima at this magical time – cold and damp, but usually with bright blue, almost cloudless skies. Their pilgrimage is to give thanks for those whose families survived the drastic 17th century plague – and for others to show gratitude for their own health and that of their families and friends.
The date almost coincides with my birthday and our wedding anniversary – we married traditionally at the Casa della Matrimona, a magnificent pink palazzo just down from the Rialto bridge as a celebration to a city we had grown to love over 10 years or more when we always visited around this time.
Madonna della Salute is surrounded by candle sellers and, on leaving by the traditional one way route through the tiny streets of Dorsoduro through to the Accademia bridge, there are dozen up dozens of sweet and balloon sellers – making it very much an annual event for the children.
The church opens is massive double doors for the annual festival where you can glimpse through into its huge rotunda interior as the thick, rich red velvet curtains part from time to time. The interior is lit by thousands of tall white candles. An awesome sight.
The church was designed and completed in the mid 17th century - in what was considered the new Baroque style - to celebrate closure of that dreadful plague which had taken the lives of many thousands, not just in Venice but as far away as Mantova – another magnificent city which has had a special relationship with Venice since the Middle Ages. It is supported by 300,00 wooden staves driven into the floor of the lagoon, as is the way for all the buildings in Venice.
With a festival comes a feast – the more so that the plague was accompanied by a famine throughout much of the region as country folk fled the farms on the outskirts of the cities and harvests stayed unreaped. It’s recorded that this plague spared neither aristocrats or commoners, priests or peasants. I also read that to celebrate its passing, the 10,000 survivors marched around Piazza San Marco carrying torches and religious figures for a full three days and nights.
Surprising for Venice, the feast itself is a simple affair you will find in most traditional restaurants as well as in the home. Butchers throughout the city and in Rialto sell cuts of castrated lamb for a stew called the ‘Castradina’.
Harry’s Bar makes it a menu feature for the day before and after the feast – it’s as if rich and poor must partake the dish at this time. It has a celebratory meaning more akin to the Americans and their turkey, cranberries and corn than, say, the British with their Christmas turkey which was, like so much of the Christmas festivities, largely unknown until late Victorian times – aside from those left over from Pagan times
Please don’t be squeamish about the term castrated lamb - in Britain most male lambs are castrated and tail docked at birth, as they are bred for the meat market through the summer months and on into the autumn – it’s said that lamb is at its peak in these autumn months having spent the entire summer eating only fresh, rich pasture. Young lambs for the Easter trade are far younger. Unfortunately only a butcher who is close to his farmers – known in the old days as a ‘grazier’ – will know, as most meat today is bought from wholesalers who operate the abbatoirs and cut the meat to the supermarkets’ requirement. For me I would opt for half a leg from the top end, trimmed of any excess fat whatsoever – by now lambs have just begun to run to fat, so seek out only the leanest you see hanging in your local butcher’s shop window. Trim away any excess fat – this is essential to keep the broth clear and rich.
The recipe below (and picture above) is taken from The Food of Venice (ISBN 962-593-504-5) - and they in turn took it from a famous restaurant, the Antico Martini, only a short walk from the Madonna della Salute on Dorsoduro.
Written by Luigi Veronelli who comes highly rated as a food and drink expert in Italy – as well as a writer for leading Italian titles like L’Espresso, Il Giorno and La Repubblica.
Serve in soup dishes with a fork and spoon, having given thanks for the good health of all around your table. Feasts and festivals like these are an essential, grounding thread through European culture. One can only be saddened to turn on the television these past two weeks and see how our Christmas is portrayed so far from its meaning with, to me and most I speak with, the glitzy advertising from the mass of retailers peddling a retail occasion so far from the soul and root of Christmas.
‘Castradina’ is a simple, almost humble dish – still eaten in many, many homes and restaurants throughout the Veneto three centuries on. With the Savoy being the king of cabbages and well reared lamb one of the sweetest of meats, I urge you to try it. There’s still time to find the simple ingredients.
Happy, healthy Salute.