From the Friday of the Octave of Easter to the following Monday the streets and air of Pagani – near Salerno in the Campania region of Italy – are thick with the smoke of fireworks and carciofi arrostiti (roasted artichokes) as part of a centuries-old ritual celebrating the feast of Our Lady of the Hens (Madonna del Carmelo detta “delle galline”).
The story has it that some hens scratching the soil found a panel depicting the Madonna del Carmelo; this was assumed as a divine sign by the locals and religious authorities who decided to build a Sanctuary in her honour. Since then, the religious feast has revolved around a procession of the statue of the Madonna del Carmine transported on a cart to which people offer various birds, but it also hinges upon unchanged gastronomic traditions the locals preserve and spread painstakingly. The traditional meals consumed during the 4-day celebration are tagliolini al ragù, casatiello, tortano and, above all, carciofi arrostiti.
The artichoke is native to the eastern Mediterranean basin, including the Aegean Islands, Cyprus, North Africa and Ethiopia, and it was already popular among the Greeks and the Romans, who referred to it as cynara and attributed to its fleshy leaves an aphrodisiac power. Indeed, Pliny the Elder in ‘Naturalis Historia’ extolled its aphrodisiac and depurative powers, and Pharaoh Ptolemy Evergete of Egypt (3rd century B.C.) obliged his soldiers to eat them before every battle. Cynara was also the name of a Greek nymph –called like this because of her ash-blond hair and green-purple eyes – turned into a green-purple artichoke with bristly leaves and a thorny heart by Jupiter, whose love for nymphs was unrequited.
Going back to the feast, artichokes are cooked by families in courtyards, on balconies and in so-called toselli (spaces of worship decorated with fine drapes and a picture of the Madonna del Carmelo) by using a traditional cooking tool called fornacella (a charcoal-fed grill). Artichokes are washed and beaten with the tip of the leaves pointing to the table so that they spread out and can be easily stuffed with fresh garlic and parsley. After 30 minutes, the burnt outer leaves are cleaned off with the tip of a knife and olive oil is added. Traditionally, it is served on a slice of pane cafone, which absorbs the flavours of the oil and the seasonings.
A similar culinary tradition rooted in Italy is that of the so-called carciofo alla giudia (Jewish-style artichokes), a speciality of Roman Jewish cuisine originally conceived to celebrate the end of the Yom Kippur fast but now popular with Romans from all communities.
Photo Credit: Domenico Varone
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Written by Francesco Nacchia
PhD in “European Languages and Specialised Terminology” (University of Naples “Parthenope”)