San Martino

Tonight we discovered a love for San Martino. Hadn't given the man a moment's thought, all my life (except, in retrospect, I think Nicolas played a character inspired by him in a Quaker Christmas play), and now I plan on celebrating his gifts every November.

As the afternoon darkened to night, we heard an odd sound. Each one of us lifted our heads and asked, "What is that?" Bells. We knew they were bells, but we've gotten quite accustomed to our neigborhood church bells, and this was very different. The bells sounded older, heavier, smaller. And nearer. With a start, we realized they were the bells of San Martino, the sweet little chapel (which dates back to the 13th century, and possibly even earlier) that is a five second walk up the hill from our house, on the corner where our road meets Arturo's alley. A bit later, we heard the bells again, and this time we decided to look outside and see if there was something happening. It's a popular church for weddings, as the inside is small, and elegantly simple. But we've never seen a wedding there at night. We went to the loggia to look out to the church and the little courtyard that fronts the church. We did see a gathering of people, some in white, but they seemed to be men. Were priests getting priest-ified or something? We also noticed that there were candles around the church, and along the road. Siena noticed there was even one on our stoop!

At this point, my polenta water was boiling, so Keith stepped out to see if he could determine what was happening. He came back, his eyes wide. He told me it was a festa for San Martino, and it looked fascinating. Big grills set up for cooking sausage and bruschetta, candles everywhere, the doors of the church thrown open. I left him in charge of the now-burbling polenta, and took the three kids to observe the festivities. In a stroke of absolute luck, Arturo, our Italian teacher, was the first person we saw, and it looked like he was waiting for us.

He quickly filled me in. This was the festival of San Martino, to honor the saint's day which is the 11th of November. I asked if it was a celebration for the people of the church, and he looked aghast—No! It was for everyone! I asked if we could pay to attend, and he said no, but showed me the jars that were set up for offerings, in case I wanted to donate a couple of euros. Siena noticed that the jars were from Arturo's house, with the dried pansies glued onto the sides. I deposited a five euro bill, and then sent Nicolas to get Keith.

Keith returned right as Arturo was telling us the story of San Martino. He said that San Martino was riding his horse through the countryside, wearing his cape (luckily, Siena was wearing her poncho, so Arturo could gesture at it when I asked him what mantella meant). He came upon a shivering man, climbed off his horse, and ripped his cape in half to share his warmth with the poor man. And now, we celebrate San Martino with the following foods—roasted chestnuts, bruschetta with the new olive oil, new wine, and sausage. As he was telling us this story, the old men from the neighborhood huddled into our conversation, their eyes watching us expectantly, listening to a story they must know by heart, but delighted in our interest.

Two grills were set up, which made the air heady with the scent of woodsmoke and sizzling sausages and roasting chestnuts. The aroma of incense drifted out of the tiny church, with the doors thrown back to allow the clear, golden light to spill into the street. And we were shepherded from table to table by Arturo and his friends to be sure we ate of all the bounty of the festival. Bags of hot chestnuts, garlicky bruschetta with good green olive oil, sweet vin brûlée (warm wine with sugar, orange peel, and cinnamon), and cups of robust new sagrantino wine. We pronounced everything excellent, and the men smiled and chattered. One informed us that there was no bad Italian food—to which another added, only bad Italians. And we all laughed together. I was touched by their interest, their insistence that we try everything, their joy that we loved it.

Unfortunately, Gabe and Siena needed to tuck in so I took them home. Keith stayed long enough to enjoy and bring home sausage sandwiches, and then insisted I head back, as there was also a mele cotte (cooked apple)  dish I must try. Nicolas and I headed back, the apples were indeed wonderful. Warm and spiced, heady with the vin brûlée, and enlivened with tart raisins. The man spooning out vin brûlée drizzled a ladleful into my bowl of apples. Heaven. We enjoyed our baked apples while we talked to Arturo. Arturo noticed that Nicolas was rooting through the empty bags on the table and told him that the chestnuts were finished, but then he pulled us to the grill, where we saw a new batch being roasted. I also noticed more meats to go on the other grill. Two kinds—ribs, and something that looked like half-inch thick slices of bacon. Arturo called it "magro e grasso" (thin and fat), but I also heard it just referred to as pancetta. Arturo told us the the combination of lean meat and the fat in the slices made it very flavorful, did we want to try it?

Ha ha ha ha!

What a question.

Arturo held out slices of bread for the grill guys to slip in ribs, and then more slices of bread for them to slip in pancetta, both for Keith and I. The plates were hot, and I wanted to bring them to Keith, so I said goodbye to Arturo, after confirming our Monday lesson. I brought the meats to Keith, and we spent the next few minutes in utter grill euphoria. The ribs were remarkable, flavorful with delicious crispy bits. But the magro e grosso. Oh, that was something else. Keith insists it might be the best thing he's ever put in his mouth. While we were staring down at our now empty plates with a mixture of joy at our unlooked-for luck, and sorrow that we'd eaten it all, our doorbell buzzed. We went down to find Arturo with a bag of blisteringly-hot roasted chestnuts. We chattered in the doorway, laughed when he called himself the hospitality of the festival, praised the delicious foods, reveled in the pleasure of the evening. Keith, Nicolas, and I agreed over peeling warm, smoky chestnuts that the language seemed to come to us more easily tonight. For me, I think it was partly that I didn't have time to psyche myself into the kind of fear that usually freezes my brain. We were thrust into a situation that was so joyous, so open, there was no room for anything but happiness. So the words spilled out, some without thought, for the first time. And people seemed to understand me. Our downstairs neighbor looked at me with surprise and said, "You speak Italian!" No, not really, but it was nice of her to say so.

And I realized how much people love to be asked how to say things. Noticing a group of men watching while Keith and I debated how to say "bell," I turned to them and asked. Oh, they were so excited to tell us. They also eagerly told us the word for where the bell is hung, and the person who rings the bell. They were so happy when I noted that Umbrian bread was the best for bruschetta. Their eyes widened and they looked at me with respect and gratitude. It's true, too. The denseness holds up to grilling, and soaks up olive oil "like a boss" (as Nicolas would say).

After the chestnut shells were cleared away and the wine finished, I did some research on San Martino. What an incredible man he was. He was born to pagan parents in Hungary in the fourth century. As his father was in the Roman army, he was raised in Italy, and eventually became a Roman soldier. One cold and snowing night, he came upon a shivering beggar, took his sword to divide his cape, as Arturo said. That night, he dreamed that Jesus appeared to him wearing half the cape. He immediately ran to be baptized and eventually became a monk in central France. He led a quiet and simple life, teaching others and, by some accounts, spreading viniculture throughout France. He valued his simple living so much, he was reluctant to become bishop, so when he knew that the townspeople were coming to force the bishop-hood on him, he hid among the geese. A goose's honking gave away his position, and because of this in some places Saint Martin's Day is celebrated with a goose dinner. Which is a little mean, if you ask me. The goose helps you out, and so you repay it by annually eating its brothers and sisters? Then again, as Saint Martin's Day coincides with the annual butchering of farm animals (hence the sausage, just like at the Sagra di Sedano Nero), there is an old Spanish expression,"A cada cerdo le llega su San Martín", which translates to "every pig has his Saint Martin's Day," as a way to indicate that all wrongdoers get their just desserts. I guess that's no more friendly.

In Portugal, the celebration of San Martino coincides with the maturation of the new wine. It is thus often considered the first day that the new wine can be tasted. They drink this young wine around bonfires while eating roasted chestnuts, as well as figs and walnuts. What is interesting about Portugal, is that they have a term called Verão de São Martinho (St. Martin's Summer), so called because the period of time around Martinmas is usually fair, and in the Portuguese story of San Martino, it is raining when Martin comes upon the beggar; after the vision of Jesus, the skies clear. Thus, they consider the pleasant temperatures a gift from God. And oddly enough, the weather at the festival was unseasonably warm. Nicolas was in a shirt, Siena without socks. I guess we had our own Saint Martin's summer.

In parts of Western Europe children go from house to house with lanterns, and sing Saint Martin songs in exchange for sweets. I wonder if one of the Saint Martin songs includes the local translation for "dolcetto, scherzetto!" I am particularly intrigued about this, as I read that in Estonia, children skip the lanterns, but don costumes and go door to door telling jokes in exchange for sweets. Fascinating.

The feast coincides with the harvest time, hence the abundance of autumn's glory. In fact, in its celebration of the gratitude for a successful harvest, it is not unlike our Thanksgiving. So it sounds like our Halloween and Thanksgiving might both have their roots in Martinmas. In some cultures it bears resemblance to Christmas, too, as children receive presents from Saint Martin in November, rather than Saint Nicolas in December.

Keith and I have decided that we will now celebrate San Martino's feast day, every year. We'll have the traditional autumnal foods we had tonight—chestnuts, apples, bruschetta, olive oil, wine, grilled meats. We'll toast our friends with the classic Saint Martin's chorus:

"If you raise your glass

At Martinmas

Wine will be yours

Throughout the year."


We'll celebrate the twists that life takes to deliver glory. The bounty the earth volunteers. The divine grace that lives within us all. The gratitude for gifts we didn't know to ask for. We'll toast San Martino—our patron saint of accidental joy.