Venetian Castradina: mutton and cabbage stew
Every 21st of November Venetians celebrate the Feast of the Madonna della Salute, one of the most felt local festivities. We cross the Ponte Votivo, a temporary bridge made up of boats that connects Santa Maria del Giglio to the Salute, and head towards the church to light a candle. We also share a traditional meal called castradina with friends and family. It is a steaming hot mutton and cabbage stew, which was the first food that arrived from Dalmatia in Venice after the 1630 plague and helped the local people survive from starvation. The meat is smoked and seasoned with juniper and other spices, extremely flavorful.
As you may know, this feast commemorates the bubonic plague of 1630-31 and the vow made by the Doge Nicolò Contarini to obtain the intercession of the Virgin Mary and build a church in Her honor once the plague, brought by an ambassador sent from Mantua exactly to ask for help, was over. The Doge died before the cornerstone of this church was laid, but since him, Venetians celebrate this event every year. On the occasion, 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, one must climb 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 their way among the crowd.
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, once part of the Venetian Republic.
If you happen to be in Venice in this period, a visit to the Basilica is a must. The pilgrimage is a wonderful and rather emotional experience. When I was a child my parents would bring me to the Basilica, and then buy me candy floss or a frittella and a balloon with one of my favorite cartoon characters. Every year that balloon would inevitably float to the ceiling and would stay there for weeks. A memory I share with many Venetians!
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). I have to say that I'm not fond of those stalls.
Each year I go to Salute at least twice, one morning on my own to take photos and another morning with Vittorio, with no camera.
It is Vittorio who prepares castradina, one of his specialities. He typically buys 2 kilos, some for us alone and some to enjoy with friends. All restaurants prepare it and a sort of competition takes place. If I were to recommend somewhere to taste it, it would definitely be Osteria all'Arco, although...my husband's is better!
Find the recipe below and... Happy 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
1 celery stick
1/2 savoy cabbage
Note: ask the butcher to cut the bone in 5/6 pieces
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.