Today is Santa Maria Della Salute in Venice, a celebration dating back to the 17th century and probably the least “touristy” one, still evoking strong religious feelings among the local Venetians.
Everything started with the plague in 1630, when Venice was devastated by the outbreak of the disease. The Republic of Venice pledged to build and dedicate a church to Our Lady of Health, in Italian “Salute”, as a votive offering for the city’s deliverance from the pestilence. The design of the church was entrusted to Baldassare Longhena, who designed it in the typical Palladian style of the time. The Church stands at the top of the Canal Grande in the area of Punta della Dogana and it is clearly visible from San Marco.
Every year on November 21 , the day which was appointed by the Council of Venice over 400 year ago as the day of the celebration, on the Feast of the Madonna della Salute the Venetian pilgrims can cross a bridge made of boats, which runs from St. Mark’s Basilica, and go to the Church to pray. People go there to pay their respect and to pray as early as 5 in the morning, before going off to work. Later whole families (parents, children, grandchildren) make their way to the church to attend the various masses which are celebrated all throughout the day. The local tradition calls for everyone to buy and lit a candle and to spend a few minutes praying to the Holy Mary.
And as soon as the families come out of church, they go to the little stalls which have been set up by the church and all the children patiently wait to get a balloon, a frittella (a flat fried donught like sweet) and a candy apple, just like their parents, and their grandparents and all past young Venetian children have been doing for centuries (actually in the old days they used to get a zaeto – typical Venetian cake, a little crown and a little saint picture, but things obviously have evolved a bit)
Soon after that, Venetians make their way home for lunch, when they will eat “castradina”, a dish made of mutton and cabbage, a simple dish which is eaten in Venice only on this particular day.
Following the suggestion of a dear friend, Lee Laurino of Home To Italy and thanks to the kindness of another Venetian friend, I had the pleasure of meeting the queen of Venetian cooks yesterday, Ada Catto, the historic cook of Trattoria La Vedova, one of the oldest osterie in Venice, who was so kind as to let me have and reproduce her original recipe for Castradina, a dish which she has been cooking for more than 40 years in the famous Venetian restaurant.
Castradina alla S’ciavona
According to tradition, the mutton meat (salted, smoked and dried in the air) was imported into Venice from Dalmatia, which used to be part of the Venetian Republic in the old days and was also called Slavonia (slave land). The name of the recipe “alla s’ciavona” comes from the fact that the meat was downloaded by the Dalmatian merchants in Riva Degli Schiavoni, which in Venetian means The Riverbank of the Slaves and which was called exactly like that because for the Venetians the Dalmatians were considered a bit like slaves, since they were under the dominion of the Republic of Venice.
Ingredient for 6 people
1,5 Kg of spiced mutton meat
1 savoy cabbage
salt and pepper
Put the meat in a bowl with cold water and leave to stand for 24 hours (this helps to realise all the spices, the salt and to make the meat tender).
Take the meat and with a cleaning brush and running cold water clear away all the salt and the spices, until the meat is nice and clean.
Place the meat in a deep pot and boil for 10 minutes. Remove the meat, rinse with cold water, place it again in the pot and bring again to boil with clean water. Remove the meat again and repeat the operation for 4 times.
Now cut the meat into small pieces, add some water, salt, pepper, add some onion, the shredded cabbage and some thyme. Cook for 2-3 hours, until the meat is tender.
Serve with polenta slices.
Buona Festa Della Salute!