(HOST) This week, VPR commentators continue to serve up some “Very Vermont Food”. Today commentator Rosemary Fifield describes a holiday tradition that will be familiar to many in Vermont’s Italian communities.
(FIFIELD) As a child whose parents were first-generation Americans, I experienced a number of Old World traditions in the month of December. On December 6, my mother celebrated the feast of Saint Nicholas by leaving small gifts in our shoes. On Christmas Eve, in anticipation of the Christmas feast, we followed the traditions of my father’s Sicilian family and ate only fish.
The ritual I found most intriguing, however, took place on December 13th: the feast of Santa Lucia. To most people, Saint Loosha, as she is called in Sweden, is the saint portrayed by young girls wearing white dresses with a red sash and an evergreen wreath of lighted candles in their hair. Her name comes from the Latin word for light, and because her feast day is close to the winter solstice, she symbolizes the promise of light.
The actual Santa Lucia, however, was an early Christian martyr from Sicily. Italians revere her as the patron saint of vision, but Sicilians celebrate St. Lucy’s Day for a totally different reason. In 1582, people on the island of Sicily were suffering from a severe famine. Then, on December 13th, a flotilla filled with wheat miraculously appeared in the harbor at Palermo. Everyone was so hungry, they couldn’t wait to grind the wheat into flour, so they boiled the grains and ate them whole. To commemorate this miracle, Sicilians refuse to eat anything made of wheat flour on December 13th. That means they give up pasta and bread for a day, which for most southern Italians is no small sacrifice.
What they do eat is a wonderful dish called cuccia. The recipe for cuccia varies from family to family, but is basically a combination of cooked wheat berries, milk or ricotta cheese and sugar or honey. Women prepare it for their neighbors and send their children out to deliver bowls of cuccia on St. Lucy’s Day.
Cooking the wheat berries takes some planning ahead. They must soak for three days, then boil in water until they are done. My grandmother added vanilla, sugar and candied citron to the ricotta before the cooked wheat berries were folded in, and sprinkled the whole thing with chocolate shavings. It was like eating cannoli filling with a spoon.
I haven’t made cuccia for my Vermont family in years. There was a time when the only wheat berries available were the hard red kind for grinding, and those never soften. But with soft winter wheat available in local stores, I’ll have to make it again. After all, like much of the Mediterranean diet, cuccia is not only delicious, but, with its whole grain and low-fat dairy, is even good for you! How many holiday treats can boast of that?
This is Rosemary Fifield in Thetford Center, wishing you the best of the holiday season.
Rosemary Fifield is education director for the Hanover Food Co-op. She spoke from our studio in Norwich. Tomorrow morning we’ll sample more Very Vermont Food when Elizabeth Ferry introduces us to Vermont grown game birds.
Be sure to use soft white winter-wheat berries for this recipe. Red winter wheat may soften when cooked, but will toughen up the next day!
Makes 10-12 servings
1 lb. soft white wheat berries
2 lbs. ricotta cheese
1 cup sugar
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup chopped candied citron or orange peel (optional)
Chocolate shavings or tiny chocolate chips
Three days before: soak the wheat berries by covering them with water. Change the water twice each day. On the fourth day, drain the berries again and put in a large pot, cover with lightly salted water, bring to a boil and gently simmer until soft. This could take from 3 to 6 hours. Drain and place in cold water.
Add the sugar and vanilla to the ricotta cheese, beat until creamy and taste for sweetness. Add more sugar, if desired. Stir in the candied peel, if using. Drain the wheat berries and squeeze out any excess water. Add to the ricotta cheese and stir in. Serve with a sprinkling of chocolate on top of each serving.