28 March 2015

LIFE: Palm Sunday at the Vatican

CHIAVARI, Italy –Today is Palm Sunday.  The church ladies have been out selling braided palms in the local street markets all week, while others have been busy decorating their churches with palm fronds and braided palm crosses. It’s an old custom that is kept alive to remember the crowds that held palms and olive branches as symbols of peace and joy when they greeted Christ as he entered Jerusalem six days before his passion. 
St. Peter's Square at the Vatican and Caligula's Obelisk
In Rome’s St Peter’s Square two thousand woven palms have been blessed and will be given away. One hundred palms have already been given to the Cardinals, with the largest one reserved for Pope Francis.  

The palms are a gift from the Ligurian towns of Bordighera and San Remo and are part of a long tradition that began in 1586. That was the year Pope Sisto V decided to move an ancient Egyptian obelisk that had been brought to Rome by the Roman Emperor Caligula in the year 37 BC from its location in Caligula’s Circus to St. Peter’s Square.  
Pope Francis
The Pope’s workmen got busy building the foundation needed to support the heavy obelisk and by the scheduled installation date of September 10, 1586, all was ready. Hundreds of Romans gathered in St. Peter’s Square. The monument, which weighed 350 tons, would need 900 workers, 140 horses and 44 winches to move it and set it up. Who would want to miss that show? No one. 

The Vatican’s Chief Engineer, Domenico Fontana, warned the Pope that the project was very risky and that total silence would be needed to raise the obelisk once it was in St. Peter’s Square. Fontana said that even the slightest sound could distract a worker and result in the obelisk crashing down on the crowd. In other words, a whisper could cause a total disaster.
 Bishops Carrying Ligurian Palms
The Pope turned to the crowd and said, “if anyone speaks or makes a sound during this delicate and risky operation, they will be put to death by my order.” As the obelisk was slowly raised, the ropes holding it began to weaken and the obelisk began to wobble perilously.

 Everyone, including the Pope, was holding their breath. It soon became obvious that the ropes were not going to hold, they were starting to fray and were almost at their breaking point. The ancient Egyptian obelisk was in serious danger of crashing to the ground.  
 The Work of Making Parmureli Starts Long Before Palm Sunday
Just then, Benedetto Bresca, a ship’s captain from the town of Bordighera, cried out – “aiga ae corde!” Put water on the ropes. The Chief Engineer spun around to see who dared to speak, but then he realized the Captain was right. He ordered the ropes to be doused with water. They soon became taut and strong and the obelisk was raised without further danger of falling. Six days later it was blessed and consecrated.  

In spite of the Pope’s demand for silence, the Captain wasn’t punished for his outburst, instead he was praised. As a reward, the Pope asked him what he wanted and Captain Bresca said what he really wanted was for his town of Bordighera to provide Ligurian palms for the Holy Week ceremonies at the Vatican.
It's Slow Painstaking Work
You may think that Captain Breca’s story is pure fiction but there is no denying the fact that Bordighera and San Remo, which are on the Ligurian Riviera of the Palms, do have had the exclusive right to supply the Vatican with palms for Palm Sunday, and those rights are in perpetuity.

 It’s been more than four centuries since that day the Captain spoke out, and the cities of San Remo and Bordighera have been sending palms to the Vatican ever since. They are the palms used for the Vatican’s traditional ceremony of the blessing of the palms on Palm Sunday. For this special ceremony the palms, which are known as parmureli, are woven and braided into intricate sculptures large and small.  
Parmureli Are Sold in the Markets Throughout Italy
If you happen to be at the Vatican on Ash Wednesday, the ashes you receive will be the ashes of the palms from Bordighera and San Remo. The Vatican, and many churches throughout Italy, save their palms from Palm Sunday and burn them for Ash Wednesday. The Church considers the ashes from the blessed palms to be sacramental and endowed with the power to promote good thoughts and increase devotion.

26 March 2015

AUNTIE PASTA: Favorite Things Part II

CHIAVARI, Italy – It seems to me there are an awful lot of cookies and pastries connected to Lent, which is supposed to be a period of fasting, moderation, and self-denial. Almost every town and region in Italy seems to have its own Quaresimali (Lenten) cookie or pastry, and often more than one.
 Convent of Sant'Antimo, Toscana
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends with Easter Sunday, and those six weeks are often compared to the way people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes. In keeping with that old tradition, only sweets and treats made with the most basic of ingredients were allowed.

The rules were simple: no meat and no animal fats. But leave it to the clever Italians to figure out how to create treats that followed the rules of the Church, but at the same time were delicious. Here are two cookies and a surprising snack that get the Quaresimali seal of approval.  
 Genova's Biscotti Quaresimali


It’s impossible to know how long it took the Augustinian nuns of the church of San Tommaso in Genova to figure out how to make a cookie without butter or eggs, but they did. The answer was not easy to find, in fact it was hundreds of miles away in Sicily. In Sicily the nuns were making a sweet called marzipan out of ground almonds and orange flower water. It was one of many Arab-Persian recipes that had been handed down from generation to generation starting back in the 800’s when Sicily was the Emirate of Sicily, an Islamic state whose capital was Palermo.

The Genovese nuns tried the ground almond and orange flower water recipe and it was fine as long as they didn’t bake it, but they wanted cookies, not candy. They knew the problem was the no eggs rule. They needed eggs to hold the mixture together, there was no way around it. But just maybe, if they only used the white of the eggs the cookies would hold together and it would only be a partial infraction of the rules. So they did. And it worked.

During the three hundred years that followed, the Convent of San Tommaso closed and no one was making the Quaresimali cookies any longer. In the 1800’s the Genovese confectioner’s shop Romanengo decided to start making their version of the cookies, and they have been making them every Lenten period ever since.

Romanengo’s Confectioner’s shop is still around and still selling Quaresimali cookies and they are just as delicious as they were in the 1500’s when the clever Augustinian nuns first created them.
 Florence's Biscotti Quaresimali


The only “luxury” allowed on these special cookies from Florence was a sprinkle of cocoa, which when these cookies were first made, was truly a luxury. It was the nuns in a convent between the Tuscan cities of Florence and Prato who first came up with a recipe that didn’t use butter or egg yolks. They made the dough and shaped it into the letters of the alphabet to remind them of the words of the Gospel.

The nuns made the cookies for the priests and other men of the church, and for the rich, aristocratic families of Florence who supported their convent. However, it wasn’t long before a famous Florentine cookie factory started producing and promoting the cookies   as a Lenten treat. Needless to say they were a big hit in a time when fasting and self-denial was taken very seriously. Today you will find alphabet cookies in pastry shops in Florence and Prato and many other Tuscan towns during Lent. 
 South Tyrol's Fastenbrezel


In the mountains of South Tyrol, the favorite snack during Lent is a pretzel called a Fastenbrezel  -  and it’s thought to be the oldest snack in the world. It certainly is the most popular snack in the German speaking parts of Italy – South Tyrol - as well as in Germany and Switzerland.

In the late 18th century, Southern German and Swiss German immigrants introduced pretzels to North America.  Many of them settled in Pennsylvania and were known as Pennsylvania Dutch. They started selling pretzels and the idea took off from there. I never realized how popular pretzels were until I moved to Philadelphia in the 1980’s  and saw street vendors selling big soft pretzels – with mustard or without – on almost every corner in Center City. 
I thought it was a new twist on the hot dog carts that you find on many a corner in New York. Little did I know that the average Philadelphian eats twelve times as many pretzels as the national average, and that the Philly vendors were actually carrying on an old European tradition.  

There are a few versions of how the pretzel came to be but my favorite is that they were created in 610  AD by a Benedictine monk in northern Italy. He made them as a prize for his students who had managed to memorize verses from the Bible.  The form represented two hands clasped in prayer while the three holes symbolized the Holy Trinity.  And as the word “pretzel” is derived from the Latin word “pretiola”, which means reward, this may very well be its true origin.

Because pretzels are made from simple ingredients, it wasn’t long before people realized they were perfect as a Lenten snack. They still are, but their popularity has gone well beyond Lent as a stop at any bar in Philadelphia at Happy Hour will prove.

22 March 2015

LIFE: Pope Francis Goes to Naples

CHIAVARI, Italy - Pope Francis paid a visit to Naples, Italy yesterday and the city exploded with joy.

Three million people turned out to see him, including including 68 cloistered nuns who had been given special permission to leave their convents.  Hundreds of church bells rang out to mark his arrival and 1,500 singers with joined voices in the central Piazza del Plebiscito when the Pope arrived there to celebrate Mass. The photos will tell the rest of the story.
 Waiting for Pope Francis
It Was a Joyful Greeting
 A Proper Papal Setting
 With the Blood of San Gennaro
 Will the Blood of San Gennaro Liquify?
 Some of the Blood Liquified -  Which It Never Did for John Paul II and Benedict XVI
 The Nuns Meet the Pope
And the Pope Meets the Nuns
 Crowds Greeted Him Everywhere He Went
 They Cheered and Waved and He Waved Back
 It Was a Busy Day But  Not Too Busy for a Selfie
 It Was a Long Day, But the Boys Were With Him Every Step of the Way