It was the year 1835. Somewhere off the coast of Naples the fishing boat, U Mulinciana
, was caught in violent combat with the tempestuous god of the sea, Poseidon. Having departed from the village of Malfa, Salina, the boat was laden with a cargo of capers, Malvasia and local wines to trade in return for dried pasta and legumes. Scandalised by the seafarer’s fervent faith, the jealous god unleased wave after wave of his contempt upon their boat. He blasted the winds across their voices that implored Christ’s earthly father, San Giuseppe for his aid with a litany of promises to feed the poor. Then suddenly, with a deafening crack, the ominous clouds parted and the hand of San Giuseppe picked up the wooden boat and delivered it to safety, plonking it out of Poseiden’s way in the bay of Naples. ‘Che miracolo!
’ they cried in gratitude, ‘San Giuseppe has saved us!’
An Aeolian Tradition Begins
Every Italian loves a miracle and the survival of a sea storm was reason enough to lay claim to a supernatural event. One can only imagine how the drama escalated once the fishermen returned to Salina and the story spread like wildfire across the island. And so it was that the tradition of u quadara
(cauldron) di San Giuseppe
was born. As promised, the return cargo of U Mulinciana
was distributed to the poor via a minestra
(soup) of chickpeas and pasta prepared by the menfolk themselves in a massive copper cauldron perched over a wood-fired pit. In the years that followed, this event was re-enacted on March 19, the official feast day of San Giuseppe by the fishermen who stored their boats at Punto Scario, passing down instruction from father to son. Nowadays, this responsibility is upheld by a select group of men who have been bestowed this honour as protectors of the secret recipe of u quadara
. My cousin Roberto, a newly accepted apprentice to the group tells me that it will take years of assistance before he is entrusted with this privileged knowledge!
La Tavola di San Giuseppe
(table) of San Giuseppe was already a strong tradition of the Sicilians that resettled the Aeolian Islands after Barbarossa had pillaged them in 1544. Legend has it that sometime during the Middle Ages, the people of Sicily were in crisis as the rains had not come for years and the land had become parched and fruitless. In desperation, the people prayed to San Giuseppe, their patron saint, to intervene, promising to prepare a grand feast in his honour. Responding to their pleas, the heavens opened soaking the lands that gifted abundant crops of fava
beans saving them from starvation. In gratitude, huge, public banquet tables were dressed by wealthy families who invited the less fortunate people of the village to partake in a buffet of meatless foods that included decorative breads called cudureddi
and piles of fava beans. The festivities often started with a procession lead by an elderly man, a young woman and a young male child dressed as the Holy Family, who were then seated at the head of the table. To this day, this tradition is continued with great devotion in many Sicilian villages and as well as many Sicilian migrant communities throughout the world.
La Tavuliata di San Giuseppe
It is unsure whether the Sicilian tradition of la tavola
was upheld as a public celebration prior to the miraculous occurring of 1835. However, miracles have the effect of changing lives and the lives of those simple fishermen stirred great piety amongst the Malfitani who still maintain the custom fervently.
Today, the townspeople of Malfa prepare a variety of dishes made from local produce sourced from the earth and sea. These offerings are brought to the piazza and placed on a long table adorned with a white tablecloth and freshly cut flowers.
Just as in other parts of Sicily, the festivities commence with the parade of the Holy Family that begins at the church of San Lorenzo and meanders to the piazza in front of the eighteenth century church of Sant’Anna
. Accompanied by a small group of musicians playing traditional tunes, the Holy Family take their place at la tavuliata
while the pasta e ceci
prepared in the two quadare
is shared with the entire community.
The table’s offerings of all manner of polpetti
, salads, fish and vegetable dishes with a variety of typical Aeolian sweets including sfinci d’ova
, pasta squadata
and many types of traditional biscotti
are then offered to the public who represent the poor of centuries past.
La tavuliata di San Giuseppe
has become a much-loved public event, drawing crowds from neighbouring islands and Sicily. After all, the Italians love a party almost as much as they love a miracle! Viva San Giuseppe!
Brundu, Antonio. L'Isola
, Vele Bianche Editori Srl Piazza Matteotti 7, Registrazione Tribunale di Napoli n. 25 (2003).
Racheli, Gin. Eolie di Vento e di Fuoco
, Milano, U. Mursia editore S.p.A. (1977).
WAIT, THERE’S MORE…
If you are wishing you were there, check out this youtube clip uploaded by Santino Ruggera from A Cannata
to see last year’s festa
in full swing. Or if you would like to try making pasta e ceci
this March 19, click on this link to find a recipe although you must be aware that this is not the actual recipe guarded by the protectorate of Malfa!