As the end of October approaches, the kids start thinking about their Halloween costumes, and plastic orange pumpkins start appearing in stores, it's time to begin planning for the holiday season and winter activities that involve pumpkins.
When I first moved to Italy, I was really surprised to see how much of a holiday Halloween is here. A lot of kids go out trick-or-treating. I used to think that it was a typical American or British event, and that it had just blown over here like so many other commercial events, such as Father Christmas and the Easter Bunny. But reading about its history and origins, I realised that it was more of a Roman thing. It became a really commercial celebration in the US and the UK.
Halloween goes back over 2000 years
The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced 'sow-in'), when people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off spirits. The Celts, who lived in the British Isles and northern France 2,000 years ago, celebrated their new year on the 1st of November. It was the day that marked the end of summer and harvest and the beginning of the dark winter season, often associated with death. The Celts believed that on the night before the New Year, the line between the world of the living and the dead became blurred.
By 43 AD, the Roman Empire had conquered most of Celtic territory. During the 400 years of their rule over the Celts, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic festival of Samhain. The first was called Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day in honour of Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. Pomona's symbol is the apple, and the merging of the two festivals is thought to have given rise to the tradition of apple bobbing, which still takes place on Halloween.
The pumpkin makes an appearance at Halloween
The celebrations for Halloween have always been accompanied by bonfires and games that included fire in one way or the other, like men throwing burning sticks at each other. Lanterns only appeared in the Middle Ages, first made from hollowed-out turnips and after the 16th century from pumpkins, it is a typical Anglo-Saxon part of Halloween, but in recent years it has been enthusiastically entered Italian Halloween celebrations.
The Mantua pumpkin in Italy
The pumpkin (zucca) arrived in Europe in the 16th century, probably as a seed brought by sailors from South America. In Italy, the pumpkin was cultivated in the Po Valley from the 16th century onwards, but it is likely that the pumpkin was already known in the time of the Gonzaga (16th century), as attested by the 17th century work of Bartolomeo Stefani ("The Art of Good Cooking", 1662), cook at the court of this ruling family from Mantua. In addition, pumpkins with similar characteristics (round, flattened fruit with the typical lateral grooves) appear in several frescoes dating from the 16th century (Vincenzo Campi, The Fruit Seller around 1580, oil on canvas, Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera).
Initially, the zucca was considered animal fodder and even the poorest of the poor ate it; it was certainly not part of Halloween then. Later, due to the famines that struck Europe year after year, people of all classes were grateful for the pumpkin, which was a nutritious alternative, given that it cost little to produce and yielded so much.
The use of pumpkin in cooking became popular as a stuffing for tortelli (as evidenced by the recipe for cappellacci, a stuffed pasta from Ferrara, which appears in the 1584 recipe book of Giovanni Battista Rossetti, cook at the court of Este, "neighbors" of the Gonzagas). Out of a peasant economy emerged a nutritious dish that quickly spread throughout northern Italy following the ancient tradition of stuffed pasta. Today it is a popular dish for Halloween. Children love it for its sweet taste.
The Pumpkin of Mantua
Today the pumpkin is an important part of the culture of Mantua. "L'è mei na fèta ad süca in pace che n'arost in guera" is a old saying (a piece of pumpkin in peace is better than a roast in time of war) or this one "Cun süca e fasoei as tira su i fioei" (with pumpkin and beans your sons grow big). The Mantua pumpkin is smaller than other varieties of the same species and is easily recognized the following characteristics:
- The unique, rounded shape, slightly flattened at the ends, reminiscent of a turban
- The wrinkled, gray-green rind, with a more or less ribbed surface, which is hard and difficult to peel
- The flesh is firm, compact and not very fibrous, bright yellow/orange
- A sweet, almost almond-like flavor, due to its sugar content
- The weight is usually between 1 and 5 kg.
The Pumpkin of Quistello
In recent years, another local variety has emerged: the "Cappello del Prete". To distinguish them from the Mantua pumpkin, look at the shape: the "Cappello del Prete" has two parts, an upper part and a smaller lower part, reminiscent of the "berretta" that priests used to wear (as seen in the famous Don Camillo stories, played by Fernandel). The pumpkin of Mantua is round and looks more like a turban.
The capital of the "Cappello del Prete" is Quistello, a small village of only five thousand inhabitants, located on the Secchia River. The seeds of this type of pumpkin have been preserved thanks to a handful of families. Since the 19th century, the art of growing "Her Majesty's Pumpkin" has been passed from father to son. The municipality of Quistello has applied for and received a designation of origin. Quistello celebrates its treasure and its rural tradition with the Pumpkin Festival every year in October.
Harvesting begins in September and is still done by hand when the grey-green exterior begins to turn bright orange and the large leaves and stem begin to dry. Once harvested, the pumpkin can be kept for several months. The area of Mantua where this pumpkin grows includes about 30 villages along the Po river. From September to December there is always a pumpkin festival somewhere in the area with tasting sessions, farmers' markets and cooking classes.
What can you make with a pumpkin after Halloween?
There's no dish that can't be prepared with pumpkin: baked or grilled, puréed, diced into soups, fried or grilled. Few people know that the flowers of the zucca can be used in the same way as courgettes, by breading and frying them; the seeds make a healthy snack, roasted or salted, and are known locally as brustolini. Pumpkin tortelli are traditional as part of Christmas dinner. Equally tasty are risottos, gnocchi, lasagna and numerous pasta dishes, pumpkin soup or baked pumpkin. There are also surprising jams, mostarda (chutney), pumpkin and caramel puddings and the Mantuan pumpkin tenerina Capèl de Pret, whose secret recipe is reserved for a select few. People used to say, "There is nothing of a pumpkin that cannot be used."