The feast day for San Martino is 11 November, his onomastico bringing a week of warm days to Sicily. Dispensing this wonderful weather is just one of San Martino’s jobs, he’s the patron saint of horses and riders, tailors and beggars, of the poor and injured, of barrel makers and drunks, of cured alcoholics and, or so I’m told, of betrayed husbands. A big portfolio. How did he get connected with all of that?
One day Martino was out riding and saw a poor beggar shivering in the snow. Martino took pity on the old man and, taking off his own all-weather soldier’s cloak, he slashed it in half and shared it. As a heavenly reward for this act, the weather suddenly became much warmer, warm enough for Martino to get home without taking a chill.
So these early to mid November days are called l’estate di San Martino, the summer of St. Martin.
But most importantly, San Martino is the patron saint of winemakers and on his feast day it’s time to drink vino novello, the new wine, from the recent vendemmia, the grape harvest.
November brings cooler evenings and in the streets of Siracusa and Catania the chestnut vendors roast the annual harvest of castagne from the slopes of Etna. The Feast of the Summer of San Martino is an Autumn Feast, celebrated with the Fruits of Fall. Set your table with castagnaccio, chestnut bread, and good wine.
On the slopes of Mt Etna grows the oldest chestnut tree in the world, Lu Castagnu di li Centu Cavaddi as the Sicilians call it, the Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree. Legend tells us that a company of 100 knights of Queen Giovanna were caught in a severe thunderstorm and all of them were able to take shelter under the massive tree.
But the tree is older than those 15th century knights, somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 years old and it’s witnessed volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, storms and warring armies. Yet it survives.
I took a bus from Catania to the eastern side of Etna and we stopped at Sant’Alfio to take photos of the tree. I picked up a hunk of castagnaccio to sustain me on the journey.
- Castagnaccio is a Northern Italian tradition and comes very close to Ancient Roman food.
- I should be grinding whole chestnuts but the flour is easy enough to get from supermarkets. Buy the smallest amount possible, it has a brief shelf life so keep it in the fridge and use within a month. Sifting, however, isn’t easy, the flour typically has many hard lumps.
- Vin Santo, holy wine, is a dessert wine from Tuscany but I maintain that any wine can be holy and I substitute with a rich Marsala or even Sangiovese.
- I’ve eaten castagnaccio with pine nuts sprinkled on the top but I prefer to leave them out. You can also leave out the rosemary if you wish.