Updated on 6 January 2019
Epifania reminds us of our old roots and rites, and especially in Venice, refers to the ancient way of celebrating Christmas in the Byzantine world. Here are six useful terms for you to understand Venetian traditions on Epiphany Day, and of course, we’ll share a recipe for you to taste a favorite cake.
Epifania, Befana, Re Magi, carbone, panevin and fritole are the terms connected with Epifania – Ephiphany, which we will explain in a moment. Like it has been for centuries here in the Lagoon, the week after the New Year brings on the ancient and real Christmas traditions in Venice. Venetians have celebrated Christmas twice for centuries: first, in December like elsewhere in Catholic Europe. It was a quiet Christmas though, even though the Doge did solemnly visit visited the church of San Giorgio Maggiore on 25 December, and then again, on 26 December, to honor this church and monastery where reliquaries of Santo Stefano have found their home.
And then, we celebrate Christmas a second time, based on the ancient traditions of the Lagoon and its Estuary. If you are in Venice on 6 January, the Torre dell’Orologio is where the people flock to see the scene you can watch in the video below: it’s the appearance of the Re Maghi, which takes place only twice peryear:
As we mentioned, there are agricultural rites, centuries-old Lagoon traditions which may go back even to the final decades of the Roman Empire, that people have been used to while welcoming the New Year.
First, there’s the tradition of the 12 (sometimes 13) 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. In the countryside, and also in the Lagoon, people welcome the New Year not by means of fireworks but by lighting fires, like they have been doing since times immemorial.
A few days after after Capodanno (New Year’s Day), Panevin e i falo is celebrated around the Lagoon and in Treviso, Verona and Padua: Firesare lit and people eat pinsa cake and drink vin brûlé. On the night of 5 January, children in Venice and the Veneto 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! Officially, for one day only, but I wouldn’t exclude that some bakeries and pastry stories in town offer them in this quiet month we are all looking forwaard to.., before it will take the stage during Carnival.
In 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. It’s a recipe taken from grandmother’s recipe journal, which consists of powerful ingredients, very healthy and nourishing and above all, warming which we need for a freezing day in Venice, where it may be sunny during the day (also needed for the regata delle Befane taking place on the Grand Canal!). In short, it’s the cake we bake not only for Epifania, but often in January, during those days when the Lagoon turns frozen ice blue. 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 another bowl, whisk two eggs with 80 gr brown cane sugar. Add 5 tablespoons medium-colored honey (ours is currently a eucalyptus honey from Campania, Usually, we have pine honey from the Veneto). 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 buttered cake form.
4. Bake the cake in the oven at 170 degrees Celsius for about 30 minutes or until the cake assumes a golden color. Leave 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 and decorate your cake.
We are sharing more recipes and impressions in our Venetian Christmas and New Year Bakery E-Book here.