When Stefano was young, there were no packaged cookies, biscuits or other breakfast treats in his home. His mamma, Maria, prepared everything homemade. Breakfast was crostata, or rustic olive oil cake called pizza dolce, with a small glass of warmed whole milk darkened with a splash of caffè.
Some mornings, Maria would prepare la zuppa della strega for Stefano, his brother Marco and his sister Debora. Crusty bread was soaked in warm milk, with a bit of espresso, sugar and sometimes cocoa to sweeten it a bit. Frugality was behind this breakfast creation; it was a way to consume day-old bread. But Maria made it fun by giving it a mysterious and peculiar name – zuppa della strega, witch’s soup.
Stefano has carried this tradition forth in the States. On weekend mornings he’ll prepare a bowl of zuppa della strega for 8-year-old Luca, who devours it with the same delight that Stefano did when he was that same age.
January is the season of witches in Italy. La Befana is a folklorish, witch-like old woman. On the eve of January 6th, the holiday la festa della Befana, she rides on a broomstick from house to house and leaves treats inside stockings left out by Italian children As the date suggests, this holiday has its origins in the Christian Epiphany, and it marks the end of the Christmas holiday. Con l’Epifania, tutte le feste si porta via.
La festa della Befana is even more eagerly anticipated than Christmas by young Italian children. When Stefano was young, the Befana would leave him and his brother and sister home baked treats, clementines, sugar candy that resembled black coal, and sometimes a little bit of chocolate. The Befana was a universal symbol for motherhood, and so after waking up and finding their treats in the stocking, Stefano and his siblings would give auguri to their mother, much like one would on mother’s day. There was plenty of teasing about the Befana‘s homely appearance, too.
As has happened to so many holidays, la festa della Befana has become more commercial since Stefano was young. Stores theme-based stockings stuffed with chocolates and toys have largely replaced the homemade treats of Stefano’s youth.
Unchanged, though, is the large open air market celebrating la festa della Befana in Rome’s Piazza Navona. During the weeks between Christmas and la festa della Befana, the piazza is filled with stalls selling candy, toys, miniature Befana dolls and more. There are amusement park rides, live street artists and more to delight young and old alike. Whenever we are in Rome over the holidays we make sure to bring the kids for a day of fun.
Here, the Italian cousins enjoy ciambelle in front of Piazza Navona’s Fontana del Moro on la festa della Befana in 2010.
Ingredients for zuppa della strega
Day old bread
Break the bread into small pieces, and place them into a small saucepan. Cover then with milk and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Once the milk comes to a boil, remove from heat and transfer into a bowl. Add sugar to taste, and espresso or cocoa, or both. Stir, and enjoy warm.