Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Ritual Dish for La Festa della Madonna della Salute, Long in the Making

Two bunches of castradine
Tomorrow night's dinner spent all of last night outside on Sandro's small balcony. That's where our butchers told us it belonged. Tonight it will probably be out on one of our window ledges.

You see I'm making castradina, the traditional Venetian dish eaten for the Festa della Madonna della Salute on November 21, and it's a three-day process to prepare it. Or I should say that it's a three-day process according to the definitive recipe dictated to me by our trustworthy neighborhood butchers who have never yet, if you'll pardon the expression, given us a bum steer (as they say in America).

Of course this being Italy, there's no lack of other equally "definitive" recipes for castradina, some suggesting you can be done with the whole thing in a single day, or even a couple of hours. According to our butchers, restaurants often use a truncated version of the preparation process with results that are schifoso--disgusting, and prone to a certain gelatinous quality. I'm doing my best to avoid producing anything schifoso.

A castradina displayed on greens in our neighborhood butcher shop
 Castradina itself, as many of you perhaps already know, is a smoked, spiced sun-dried leg of mutton. Originally a product of Dalmatia, the Balkans and Albania, the first reference to it being eaten in Venice goes back to the 11th century. It is eaten on the Festa della Salute to commemorate those "Schiavoni" who were the last people to supply Venice with food either just before the city quarantined itself because of the awful plague of 1630-31 or while the plague raged (I've read both versions). The plague, that is, from which the festa gives thanks to Mary for the city's deliverance.  

A handwritten sign alerting customers that our husband and wife pair of butchers were now accepting orders for castradina appeared in our nearby macelleria in early November, but I really thought nothing of it until last week when two castradine took up their places--looking rather like sculptural objects--in the center of the butcher case.

Actually, what they resembled were ritual objects that in recent years have been displayed in museums and gallery shows as sculptural objects: the African power objects known as a boliw (or boli, if there's only one). These abstracted buffalo-shaped figures are in the words of the Rand African Art website, "complex creations created from esoteric recipes." Rather like the castradina themselves.

The inedible ritual object known as a boli from Mali
For castradine, our butchers tell us, are cured and seasoned according to esoteric recipes that go back generations and are never shared. The particular batch of castradine from which ours came did not (as in the days of the Republic) originate across the Adriatic, but on the terra ferma of the Veneto region, yet our butchers could no more tell us what seasonings were used, which particular types of wood it was smoked with, and what the exact process of its production was than they could give us the exact details of that first dish of castradina mentioned in 11th-century Venice.

They could tell us that our castradina was produced during the month of July in the most impressive and traditional cantina they've seen, and that they think the older man who did so makes the best-tasting castradina of any they've tried.

Now, the boli are definitely not made to be eaten, built up as they are of various animal and vegetable matter, mud and clay, and coated as they are with successive layers of ritualistic materials such as animal blood, millet porridge, alcohol and chewed kola nuts. Rather it was the abstracted shape of the castradina that made me think of them, and the castradina's dense surface layer built up over time in a series of secret steps and composed of mysterious substances.

And I'd hate to think what a boli might smell like if one put one's nose up to it... Our castradina smelled to me more woodsy than simply smoky; more gamey, somehow, than meaty--redolent more of pheasant, say, than salami. It smelled kind of nice--but not necessarily like food. It reminded me, in fact, of the incense I remembered from the Catholic funeral masses I served as an altar boy, and that I sometimes still catch a fugitive drift of in churches here.

Sliced castradina ready to be put into the pot
In any case, the first day of my three-day preparation required me simply to put the cut-up pieces of castradina given to me by the butcher into a large pot with water, a carrot, an onion and a stick of celery and boil it for 2 hours. When two hours were up, I put a lid on it, secured the lid with a bungee cord, and left it out overnight on Sandro's balcony.

Can't I just put it in the fridge overnight? I asked.

No, I was told, they didn't have refrigerators when this dish was developed.

This evening I brought the pot inside, spooned the fat off the surface of the water and disposed of it, took out the pieces of meat, then threw out the water and vegetables. Then I once more put the meat into the pot, added a cut up carrot, stick of celery, and onion, covered them all with water and set it to boil for an hour.

When it's done, I'll once more close up the pot and place it outside.

Then tomorrow evening, I'll bring the pot in, and once more skim the fat off the surface of the water and throw out all vegetables. I'll take the meat out of the broth, set it aside, then filter the broth.

I'll then separate the meat from the bones using my hands--NOT a knife, they emphasized--and throw away the bones.

Then I'll slice verza--ie, savoy cabbage--very thinly, and an onion very thinly. These vegetables I'll put into the broth with the meat and cook for 30-40 minutes.

I believe olive oil also comes into play tomorrow, but I need to stop by the macelleria and ask them about it. They dictated the recipe to me in Italian, I was writing it in English--by the time we reached the final steps I figured I could come back and ask about the olive oil.

I have no idea how this will turn out; how it will work out as a recipe. But as a community-building ritual I can imagine few things more effective. When I went to buy the required vegetables yesterday, I had only to mention the verza, or cabbage, to the green grocer on Via Garibaldi for him to list the rest of the things I'd need. Beside me I heard a woman asking for the same ingredients. For a brief moment we all seemed to be on the same page in the long history of Venice.


  1. Bravo to you! We'll all be very interested to see what you think of this very traditional meat dish!

  2. And? Was it delicious? We had fritelle yesterday at the Salute festival.

    1. I'm sorry to be responding late to this question, Andrew, but yes it was. Fritelle sounds good, though, too.I missed that.