Life & Culture

Buon anno with a Seder

In Italy Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with unique flavours and style. Victoria Prever meets two food writers who want to share their heritage


The family gather round the table for the Seder, with plates filled with a colourful variety of symbolic foods. It’s Pesach, surely? No — in Italy, Rosh Hashanah gets an entire Seder service to celebrate the arrival of a new year, involving several foods — or simanim — over which blessings are made for the coming year. Plus on the table you’ll find a personal crop of verdant wheat.

“We all get involved in preparing the nine foods to put on everyone’s plates,” explains Silvia Nacamulli, caterer, cookery teacher and author of soon-to-be-published recipe book and memoir Jewish Flavours of Italy. So important are the celebrations to her and her family that even when living abroad for many years (in Israel and now London) the mother-of-two would return to her family in Rome to share them each year. Since the birth of her twin girls nearly 11 years ago she has mostly remained at home for Rosh Hashanah but stays faithful to her family’s traditions.

On everyone’s plates, she tells me, are fig, fennel, leek, pumpkin, date, chard, pomegranate, fish and lamb’s brain. “We all say the blessings, one person reading the Hebrew and another, the Italian,” says Nacamulli, explaining that the foods have a range of symbolic meanings: “The fig, fennel and pomegranate are for a sweet new year and to multiply our merits; there are wishes to proliferate (like fish); and more serious ones on the date, leek, chard and pumpkin, which represent the eradication of our sins and destruction of one’s enemies. Then there’s the lamb’s brain blessing … that we may be the head and not the tail.”

As kosher lamb’s brains are scarce in London, Nacamulli recalls that the first year her mother visited her for Rosh Hashanah, after the birth of her girls, she came prepared with a frozen lamb’s brain in her suitcase. “She wanted to make sure we would have the proper Seder, so she brought that plus red mullet from her market and figs from their tree because she thinks they taste better. This is how I grew up!”

Benedetta Guetta, author of Italy’s only Italian Jewish kosher food blog, Labna and of cookery book, Cooking alla Giudia, also celebrated her new year the same way. The food writer was born and brought up in Milan, the second largest Italian Jewish community, but now lives in Santa Monica, Los Angeles where she runs her own coffee shop, Lovia, specialising in challah-based sandwiches. She laughingly describes her boisterous Rosh Hashanah family gatherings involving her parents and four siblings — each with their own family — as “a wild mess”.

Although specific foods appear on the Seder plate, there are no rules as to how they should be prepared. So, each family creates its own traditions. Many cook the spinach (interchangeable with chard) and leek into two different frittatas, serving each person a small square. Pumpkin is often served fried or roasted.

Nacamulli’s family’s recipe for their fish uses red mullet with pine nuts and raisins, which are also said to be lucky. Guetta’s family prepares three types of jam — apple, pumpkin and quince. “We bless them too for a sweet new year.”

Unlike Ashkenazi tradition, the sweetness doesn’t run to the bread on the table. Although the Eastern European style challah, the enriched plaited loaf, is now available in Italian Jewish bakeries, it has no history in Italian cuisine. “Two generations ago, they wouldn’t have known what it was,” says Guetta.

In her book, Nacamulli shares her sister-in-law Loredana’s recipe for the simple, round, unsweetened loaf that would have traditionally graced an Italian Shabbat and festival table. On the next page is Nacamulli’s own recipe for the traditional Ashkenazi challah developed since she moved to London, although she has not abandoned her traditional version, baking one or other recipe on alternate Shabbats.

Even if there is challah, don’t expect to find chicken soup on the festive menu, although it will make an

appearance on the Nacamulli table over the chagim. “My mother makes chicken soup about once a year, for Yom Kippur, when we eat it before and after the fast.”

Just as Ashkenazim weave honey and apples into festive mains, the Italian Seder foods often become ingredients in the dishes served at an Italian Rosh Hashanah meal. “My mother makes a pumpkin risotto,” says Nacamulli, who also serves the autumnal orange gourd mashed or in ravioli served with butter and sage. Guetta explains that tortelli di zucca (pumpkin-filled tortelli), although known as a dish from Mantua, probably had Jewish origins, as Jews adopted the humble pumpkin into their recipes long before the locals, who despised it and took longer to add it to their cuisine.

There’s a history of Jews being early adopters of vegetables perceived by Italians as beneath them. Nacamulli says that many ingredients now staple in Italian recipes were brought to the table by Jews, who had migrated from the south of the country after being expelled from those regions. “Although recipes like aubergine melanzane alla parmigiana is not technically Jewish, aubergines have a special place in Jewish cooking.”

She explains that’s because Jews who had lived in Sicily since the Roman times had learned to cook and appreciate aubergines, which became a staple in their diet. When they moved north, the bulbous purple fruit was looked down upon as a food for the poor — and Jews. It was only in the 20th century that it became more widely eaten across Italy. One aubergine dish in particular — the Sicilian caponata di melanzane alla Giudia (Jewish-style aubergine caponata) — indicates this connection.

Beyond the Seder, there are also customs attached to the table decorations for an Italian New Year feast. At the start of the chagim season, families cultivate corn and wheat seeds by scattering them on a plate or pot of compost, and watering them daily. The verdant, grassy display that sprouts is kept until Succot. “It is considered a good omen and symbolises prosperity, and they look so gorgeous” says Nacamulli.

The traditions of the Italian Jews (whose country was recently voted as the best place in Europe to be Jewish) are even more special in the context of how long they have survived.
Nacamulli proudly tells me that Rome’s Italian community is the largest in Italy and one of the oldest in the world: “The Jews have been living in Italy for over 2,000 years, and Rome, in particular, is home to the oldest continuous Jewish community in the Western world.”
She explains in the book that the Jews arrived in Rome long before the differentiation was made between the descendants of Jews in the diaspora. So they are considered neither Sephardi nor Ashkenazi but referred to as Italkim. As well as their distinctive foods, they have also retained a different liturgy — the Italian rite.

The recipes in her book — which is packed with interesting facts about the history of Italy’s Jews and of her own family — have been passed down from her ancestors. “We can trace back 16 generations on my mother’s side. Her family almost certainly settled in Northern Italy in the 16th century. My father’s family lived in Venice for around 200 years after moving from Corfu.”

Her mother’s family survived the Holocaust thanks to the kindness of their former housekeeper of 16 years, who bravely risked her and her husband’s lives by taking in her great-grandparents, her parents and uncles and aunts in her home in a small town outside of Rome. They escaped death several times and her mother (who was two years old when they went into hiding) still visits schools all over Italy to share her story.

According to Nacamulli, the culinary history of Italian Jewish food is a melting pot of traditions from many different Italian regions. The most recent addition being the Libyan community, from where Guetta’s father’s hails. “Italy has a big Libyan community. The Jews had to leave because of pogroms, and they chose Italy as it had been an Italian colony. In a single month in 1967, Italy helped more than 6,000 Libyan Jews immigrate to Rome.”

Libyan Jews have played their part in shaping the Italian Jewish menu and, for Guetta, part of her family’s festival food — recipes she includes in her book. “I wanted to record some of the Libyan community’s recipes. Dishes like hraimi (Libyan spiced fish) — the Shabbat and festival dish for Libyan Jews, which has become a regular dish in the homes of most Roman Jews.”

Both women have written their books to try to preserve a fascinating food culture that has grown up over centuries and of which they are proud. This year, Nacamulli doesn’t know if she will be spending her New Year with her parents: “I have lots of catering to do — it’s a very busy time for my food deliveries — and they will not decide until the last minute.”

Benedetta will be celebrating with her Israeli partner and his daughter in their US home with perhaps a little less noise than her Italian celebrations of old.

Jewish Flavours of Italy by Silvia Nacamulli is published by Green Bean Books this autumn

Cooking alla Giudia, A Celebration of the Jewish Food of Italy by Benedetta Guetta is published by Artisan Division of Workman Publishing

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