Up in London on Sunday 15 November, we found ourselves alongside a memorial procession taking place in Whitehall, where The Cenotaph, the UK’s national war memorial, is located. This was the remembrance ceremony of AJEX, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women. Among the more elderly participants, adorned with medals and proudly wearing their regimental berets, were representatives of the 65,000 British Jews who fought for the Allies in World War II.
It was a moving event, and I’m surprised I’d not heard of it before. Perhaps it’s somewhat overshadowed by our main Remembrance Day, which takes place four days earlier, on 11 November. The “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” is when the guns officially stopped firing in World War I in 1918.
Poppies and chapels
I’d been meaning to write something for 11 November, as it’s also, in the Christian Calendar, St Martin’s Day or Martinmas. However, I felt somewhat overwhelmed by the number of different feast day bakes that are traditionally made in various countries around Europe, so got a bit stymied.
Among the many bakes are rogale, or rogal świętomarciński (“St Martin crescents”) pastries from Poznań, Poland, which can have a poppy seed filling. This connects nicely with the poppy as the symbol of remembrance, as worn during the commemorative events on Sunday and on the Tuesday beforehand.
The poppy was chosen as a symbol in the UK and Commonwealth countries as it’s a flower that proliferated in the former WWI battlefields of Flanders. Not speaking Polish, I’m struggling to find out if the use of its seeds has any older symbolism in the rogal świętomarciński. Their use may have come about simply as an alternative to an almond-based filling when the nuts became scarce after WWII.
I’m not going to do a recipe here, but did want to write about St Martin’s Day as it’s got all sorts of interesting angles. As an etymology geek, one of my favourite associations with St Martin is how one of his myths gave us the words “chapel” and “chaplain”.
Martin was born in the 4th century, in what is now Hungary, and served in the Roman army before finding his religion. He later became the bishop of Tours, in France. His conversion was inspired by a meeting with a beggar. Touched by his poverty, Martin tore his army cloak in half, giving a piece to the beggar to save him from the cold. Martin purportedly then dreamt of Jesus wearing the half-cloak. The remaining half became a holy relic. The Latin (and Italian) for a cloak is cappa; a small cloak, a cappella. The place Martin’s cloak was kept took the same name, and cappella became “chapel” in English.
Disgrace and favours
Germany produces a similar pastry to the rogale, called Martinshörchen, while there are various products from different regions of Italy. When I lived in Italy I found chestnut flour on the market, and used it for making a chestnut bread. I subsequently discovered this was something that was traditionally done in St Martin’s name: pane di San Martino.
The Sicilians, meanwhile, have biscotti di San Martino, which aren’t biscuits, and aren’t twice-baked, but are instead small yeasted buns, often flavoured with anise or fennel seeds. The one I’m most intrigued by is pizza di San Martino.
In Italy, the word pizza is used not just for thin dough discs topped with cheese etc, but for other breads. Pizza di San Martino is one such bread. It may originally be from Molise and nearby regions of central and eastern Italy, but I can’t be sure. It seems a fairly loosely defined product that be can be sweet or savoury, enriched and flavoured with grated parmesan, and again, might contain fennel or anise seed. The most interesting aspect of this bread is how it’s made is sections or balls of dough, with a different seed or grain hidden inside them.
This hiding of seeds and grains is another example of the habit of hiding “favours” – think of the coin inside the British Christmas day pudding, a baby Jesus in French galette de rois, or an almond hidden in Danish Christmas Eve rice pudding (thanks to my half-Danish friend Kate for informing me about the latter). And many other examples.
Most of these favours are about bestowing good fortune or a special status on the person who finds them, but in the pizza di San Martino, each one symbolises something different. It’s fascinating. So the person who finds a dried broad bean, a fava*, in their portion is the queen (or king) of the household for the duration of the feast day. Who finds the acorn is a pig. A grain of barley? An ass (as in Equus asinus, not the American for arse). Pumpkin seed – liar. Grass pea (cicerchia) – farter. And of course it involves that prime Italian insult, the cuckold – whoever finds the fagiolo, common bean.
This is why I like traditional baked goods. They’re steeped in history. And, often, good to eat too.
All these rich St Martin’s Day baked goods used to be eaten to mark the start of a 40 day fast. I doubt many people observe that now, certainly not in Britain, with its protestant official religion and widespread secularism. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make the breads and appreciate the stories. And, as St Martin’s day and Remembrance Day have been conflated, also spare a thought for all those who’ve died in war. Whatever their religion, or lack of; soldiers and non-combatants alike.
* I wonder if there’s some etymological connection between “favour” in the sense of a hidden charm, and fava?