Here are six useful terms for you to understand Venetian traditions on Epiphany Day, and of course, to taste all the cakes ! Watch out for the terms Epifania, Befana, Re Magi, carbone, panevin and fritole which we will explain in a moment. The week after the New Year brings on the ancient and real Christmas traditions in Venice. As you can read in this blog article, Venetians never “really” celebrated Christmas in December, except for in ancient times when the Doge solemnly visited the church of San Giorgio Maggiore on 25 December.
Click here to watch what Epiphany is like here and the appearance of the Re Magi on the Torre dell’Orologio (Clock Tower, Piazza San Marco). Also today, Ortodox Christmas is celebrated at San Giorgio dei Greci in Venice. Venetians have always been very close to that feast.
It’s these 12 nights – le Notti Santi – between Christmas Eve and Epiphany when ancient Christmas traditions in the Veneto and the Lagoon come alive. Christmas starts very quiet on the night of 24 December and only gets lively during New Year’s Eve and its fireworks. Yet there are other traditions welcoming the New Year and it’s not by means of fireworks but by lighting fires in the ancient manner. On one of the days after Capodanno (New Year’s Day), Panevin e i falo is celebrated around the Lagoon and in Treviso, Verona and Padua. Bonfires are lit and people eat pinsa cake and drink vin brûlé. On the night of 5 January, children in Venice hang up a calza (stocking) above the mantlepiece or near a window. The following morning they look for the gifts that La Befana (a good witch) has brought, and their stocking will contain little sweets, cookies or even il carbone (sweets made from zucchero filato (sugar), corn starch and egg whites, simply called “charcoal”).
And yes – you’ve recognized the picture above – the fritole (fritelles) are back in town! They could be your breakfast in any pastry store in town from now for today is the first day of culinary Carnival. Venetian pastry stores, those not closed for a week or two in quiet January, will offer these treats until well after the end of Carnival.
To our home, la Befana brings a cake 🙂 It’s a pan spezià pepà, a spicy pepper-honey cake coming in the form of a star, so we call it torta stella dei Re Magi. A recipe from grandmother’s recipe journal, and and looking at its ingredients, very healthy and nourishing and above all, warming which we need for a freezing day in Venice. So good for the white and blue days of January we are in for. This cake even has a frosting made from sweet cherry liquor, cinnamon and dark chocolate.
Torta stella dei Re Magi – an ancient Venetian honey-pepper cake
1. In a bowl, mix 50 gr ground walnuts, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, two teaspoons vanilla sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, 150 gr flour and 1/2 teaspoon baking powder.
2. In a second bowl, whisk two eggs with 80 gr brown cane sugar. Add 5 tablespoons medium-colored honey (ours is a eucalyptus honey from Campania). Work in the dough mixture in spoonfuls.
3. Finally, flavor your dough with one tablespoon ground orange peel and 3 tablespoons grappa. Bake your cake in a well buttered cake form.
4. Bake at 170 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes or until the cake assumes a golden color. Leave the cake to cool for at least 30 minutes before you spread the frosting.
5. For the frosting, mix 5 teaspoons sugar with 3 tablespoons water, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and one teaspoon sweet cherry liquor. Add five tablespoons cocoa powder if you like. Leave to rest for 10 minutes to make the frosting thicken and decorate your cake.