Climbing up into the hills of Piedmonte from the town of Alba, the landscape alternates between vineyards of grape varietals and intermittent groves of hazelnut trees; the panorama takes your breath away. Typically, hazelnut trees are planted on hillsides that don’t receive the requisite sun for grapes. Hazelnuts, also know as Filberts in the United States, are emblematic of Piedmonte and provide a stable source of income to some growers….
The history of a people is often reflected in their traditions around food. Some years ago I began researching Jewish holiday foods of Italy while preparing a class featuring a Mediterranean Seder. My intention was for the Seder to be something light and fresh, with historical significance while having a contemporary twist. Since that time, tremendous information has emerged rich in detail about the Jewish communities of the greater Mediterranean diaspora. My own research culminated with a course incorporating the Passover (Pesach) traditions of the Southern European and Northern African Jewish communities.
Haroset, a symbolic part of the Seder, is essentially a fruit and nut paste representing the mortar used by the Israelites in building the Pyramids while slaves in Egypt. Each family has their own special Haroset recipe reflecting their origins. The Jews of Italy were no exception; Livorno, Milano, and Padua to name a few, all had a distinctive mix of fruits and nuts to symbolize the mortar for their Pesach table.
The first Jewish ghetto was established in Venice in 1516 on the site of an iron foundry. The term ghetto is derived the Venetian dialect ghetar or gettare meaning to cast. Today the ghetto remains intact and in fact, is one of the most interesting sites in Venice; providing valuable historical detail about the diverse Venetian Jewish community through the ages. The current Jewish population of Venice is about 500 with about 30 residing in the actual ghetto.
Venetian Haroset reflects the prominence the city heralded as a commercial port, the importing of goods from mysterious lands. Some of the initial recipes I unearthed used chestnuts ground into a paste, walnuts and pistachios. The ingredients have been adjusted over the years to include elements that have become part of our family tradition. This year to bind the fruit and nut mixture, the ever thoughtful Gugliemo hand carried a jar honey from a Kibbutz north of Haifa Israel; the distinctive smokey flavor of the honey balanced out the sweet dried fruits nicely.
Venetian Haroset is a staple at our Seder and the Seder of many of my students and friends. I am not at all suggesting that you abandon your Bubbie’s Haroset, but why not add Venetian Haroset to your Pesach Seder along with a little history of Jewish Venice.
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- 1 cup golden raisins, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
- ½ cup dark raisins, soaked in warm water for 30 minutes
- 6 dried figs, ends trimmed and and minced
- ½ cup of dried apricots, minced
- 6 dates, pits removed and chopped
- 1 cup lightly toasted skinned almonds, coarsely chopped
- 1 cup lightly toasted pine nuts
- 2 Tbs of Kosher for Passover Liquor or Grappa
- Grated rind from one large orange
- ⅓ cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- ½ to ¾ cup of superior quality honey
- Combine the prepared fruits and nuts, add the orange juice, orange rind, and Liquor. Mix together well, the dates will break down to a paste like consistency and act to bind the mixture.
- Once thoroughly combined, begin to add the honey starting with ½ cup. The amount you need will depend upon the plumpness of the fruit, especially the dates. You want a paste that holds together nicely and can be taken easily with a spoon. Additional honey may be added once the mixture sits for a day or two.
- Cover and refrigerate until needed.
The high counters of Italian grocery stores were covered with treasures, and the tall glass jar of croccante always caught my eye. The word croccante translates to the adjective crisp or crunchy, but the noun croccante is so much more that that. Essentially a brittle of deeply caramelized sugar with nuts or seeds, croccante has a history dating back centuries in Italy. The dolce is popular at holidays and celebrations, each region having their own specialty generally depending upon the local nut harvest.
This is definitely one of my go to salads each winter once my blood oranges are ready to be harvested. The salad typical of Sicily, makes for an dramatic presentation and it couldn’t be easier to compose….