• Nicoletta Fornaro

The feast of Madonna della Salute and a traditional recipe


Every 21st of November Venetians celebrate the feast of the Madonna della Salute by crossing the temporary Ponte Votivo, lighting a candle and sharing a steaming hot soup called castradina with family and friends. As you may know, the origin of this feast dates back to 1630, when the church was built as an ex-voto to thank the Virgin Mary for having saved Venice from the black death, the plague, brought by an ambassador sent from Mantua exactly to ask for help. Still today this is one of the most felt festivities and every year a sort of magic re-occurs.

On the occasion of this feast, a temporary bridge connects Santa Maria del Giglio to the Salute and, at both sides of this bridge, but also in campo San Gregorio and in the area in front of the church, small stalls sell candles depicting the black Madonna. To reach the inside of the church, you must walk 15 steps (15 because the basilica is dedicated to the Madonna and her prayer is the rosary. The rosary has 5 decades and there are three mysteries! 5 X 3 = 15 The glorious - the sorrowful and the joyful!) and find your way among the crowds, but as soon as you enter, you will be pervaded by a really emotional atmosphere.

Everyone is there to light their candle and make a prayer, not just locals, but people from all over the region and also from Trieste and some towns in Istria and Dalmatia that were once part of the Venetian Republic. The typical dish eaten on this day, the castradina, in fact, is originally from Dalmatia and it's a stew made with juniper seasoned mutton meat and savoy cabbage.

If you happen to be in Venice in this period, a visit to the Basilica is a must. This pilgrimage combines emotions, deep thoughts and beauty all at the same time. The whole experience is wonderful, I remember as a child my parents would bring me to the Basilica and then -my favourite part- I got to eat candy floss and frittelle and buy a super cool balloon with one of my favourite cartoon characters. Ask any Venetian, every year that balloon would end up sticking to the ceiling for weeks, until someone -in my case, my father- could not take it anymore and pulled it down. Not very spiritual, but I loved it!

Now the stalls are not outside the church, but in the nearby Rio Tera' dei Catecumeni and they are the usual stalls you find throughout Italy, which sell donuts, candies and specialities from other regions, especially Sicily (don't ask me why, but it was like this when I was a kid too). I have to confess that now I skip the sweet treat and the balloon and just buy a candle, make a wish and try to remember what gratitude really means (although it's not so easy).

This year I went more than once, on my own and with Vito. Both times I took the Rio Tera' and walked all the way to the Zattere, along the Canale della Giudecca. The tide had been high (the season of the so-called acqua alta has started) and it was full of puddles everywhere, with all the reflections and games of light involved. So pretty and calming, a view with the ability to bring peace to any soul.

I was feeling happy, I had already celebrated with friends on Sunday (working today...) and was thinking about the lunch. My husband makes castradina every year, it's one of his specialities and I quite enjoy this treat. Last year my mother had asked him to prepare it for one of her dinner parties and he cooked for about 18 people, this year we were a smaller group, but it still was very lovely. We had ordered about 2 kilos of meat three weeks ago and were curious to taste it again!

All our guests brought something and there was the usual abundance of food, among which a particularly addictive chocolate salami cake (which our friend left at our house... so terrible of her!!!) and some delicious Californian handmade chocolates by Maison Bouche, which -besides being delicious- have a really beautiful packaging with vintage-looking drawings and writings. Anyway, going back to castradina, Venetians were acquainted with this type of smoked meat since the XII century, but it became the official dish of the Madonna della Salute because it was the first food that arrived in Venice after the 1630 plague, helping the local -quite wrecked, starving and tired- population survive.

All the traditional restaurants prepare it and a sort of competition takes place. Of all castradine I had outside my house, the best one was at Osteria all'Arco, but (okay, maybe I'm not being objective, but I really believe this) no one makes it like Vittorio. He changes water twice and boils the meat for three hours, so it loses all the wild flavour and becomes soft and tender, with the result that it tears into pieces without the need to use a knife and it melts in the mouth. In fact, some people who had claimed they didn't like it, changed their mind after tasting his!

So, I'm sharing his recipe and wishing you a Felice Madonna della Salute !!!

TRADITIONAL VENETIAN RECIPE:

CASTRADINA | SMOKED MUTTON STEW WITH SAVOY CABBAGE

INGREDIENTS (for 4/6 people)

1 and 1/2 kg smoked mutton leg

2 white onions

2 carrots

1 celery stick

1/2 savoy cabbage

water

Note: ask the butcher to cut the bone in 5/6 pieces

METHOD

1) Put the pieces of mutton in a considerably large pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a simmer then lower the heat and boil for about one hour.

2) In the meantime chop onions, carrots and celery.

3) When the meat is ready, drain and rinse the pot. Then fill the pot again with the meat, the veg and more water and boil for another hour at low/medium heat.

4) After one hour, take the meat out from the soup (let cool a moment!) and remove the bone (if you like, at this point you can eat the marrow inside the bone...)

5) Put the meat back in its stock. Slice the savoy cabbage lengthwise and add to the soup.

6) Let cook for another hour, then turn off the heat and serve hot.

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