January 17 is a date of great symbolic importance. It’s the day of the catholic feast of Sant’Antonio Abate, one of the most popular saints of Italy, the patron of domestic animals, but also of butchers and salami makers. On this day, according to tradition, the Italian Carnival begins, that period of the year during which, since unmemorable time, it’s “licet insanire,” transgressions are tolerated and good, rich food is celebrated and, along with this: cooking.
The cult of Saint Anthony “of January”, who was a hermit who lived in Egypt in the 13th century, is rooted in earlier pagan feasts, le sementine (that celebrates the end of the sowing season) of ancient Rome in honour of Ceres, the Goddess of the Earth.
The sacred and the profane as well as Celtic and Latin rites are mixed together here. Therefore this occasion is celebrated in Italy, from north to south, on January 17th in many different ways. The devotion to the saint is very strong in Pinerolo, in the Province of Turin, in the Province of Como, in Lombardy and in Emilia Romagna.
On the other hand, in the south on that evening “fires” are lit, “focaroni,” “focarazzi” or “focaracci” – bonfires, people congregate in crowds around these pyres to give hommage to the saint who, according to legend, banished the devil and took dominion of the fires of hell. This is what is done in Puglia, Sardinia, Campania e Abruzzo.
In the latter, in the town of Scanno this feast has been celebrated since the fourteenth century until recently with great, steaming pans of sagna (home made pasta) and ricotta in the town square, while in Lanciano a holy representation was held. Also in Lazio, especially in the towns of Nepi and Velletri, in the area of Tuscia, the feast still has strong gastronomic characteristics. In general, almost all the celebrations of 17th January ended with a collection of food products that the entire community then consumed collectively.
Elsewhere, in Guastalla in Emilia Romagna, the fried gnocco (gnocco fritto) is the king of the feast. Saint Antonio has always been represented by a suckling pig (by a wild boar in Celtic countries) whose meat was the most highly esteamed ingredient of a meal at the Italian peasant’s table. Once, many rural communities collectively raised a piglet that they then butchered and ate on that day. Ancient fairs, such as that of Lonato, in Lombardy, that used to be held on 17th January but today have fallen out of use, were completely a celebration of cooking and eating of pork, of which in peasant tradition, as it is of common knowledge, nothing went to waste.