This is the excuse I have been waiting for so I for one will be declaring a holiday in my household on the 6th January to celebrate the Feast of The Epiphany and will remain at the table for just one more day.
Of course, the 6th January is also Twelfth Night in the UK. However, in the main we seem to have lost sight of this traditional feast when we are supposed to remove all the Christmas paraphernalia and embrace the austerity of the first month of the year when three mysterious wise men made their way from the East by following a star.
Therefore I think it is every reason to adopt the Italian story of La Befana and celebrate the end of this festive and gastronomic season with a sugary baking session and the ritual of hanging up stockings to be filled with candy and sweet treats.
Where does all this come from? Well, it is a charming story that has survived the centuries based on the fact Three Wise Men or Magi came in search of the baby Jesus bearing gifts.
In Italian lore the Three Wise Men were unsure of their way and knocked on a cottage door in the hope they might receive direction. It was a simple dwelling and the door was opened by an old woman who apologised profusely that she had no idea where they might find the baby and sent her strange visitors on their way. The Three Wise Men did ask the woman to accompany them as they knew it would be a significant meeting. However the crone declined saying that she had too many things to do and the magi went on their way.
Later that night the old woman began to regret her decision and went out in search of the manger herself. Unfortunately she had no luck although she scoured the landscape high and low bearing gifts for the child.
Realising she had lost her opportunity she stopped every child she came across and gave them small presents in the hope one might prove to be the Christ child.
Therefore on the night of January 5th Italian children put out special stockings for La Befana who will fly down each year and fill the stockings with small toys and sweets if they have been good and coal if they have not behaved.
Cities and towns all over Italy celebrate in different ways. In Urbana there is a four day festival; races and regattas are held in Venice and there are processions and living nativities in Milan and Rome for example.
So when the festivities draw to a close it is worth stopping to consider the legend of La Befana and take the opportunity to punctuate the end of this Christian festival and maybe celebrate with an Italian sweet or two. Nougat, honey, dried fruit, nuts; especially sugared almonds are a must. You might also want to try your hand with Pizzelle which are composed of a thick-ish batter and can be cooked with a waffle iron if you have one and then shaped into cones. When they are cool these are then filled with something sweet, creamy and fruity (I could think of many suggestions to fit the bill!) Salame Dolce or chocolate sweet salami which makes a beautiful dinner party dessert and Crostate are other traditionally Italian alternatives that could add to your festival of sweetness.
Toasted Panettone or a very British bread and butter pudding made with said bread is a great way of using up any of this sweet bread that may be hanging about. You could eat a few Amaretti and Cantucci washed down with the odd glass of sweet dessert wine. So, if you really want to end the Christmas festivities with a promise never to eat again you might want to gorge on marzipan delicacies which come in all kinds of colours and designs. Certainly an almond paste pig will bring good luck so it’s worth putting one in the stocking hung up for La Befana and beginning your diet on the 7th!