Timothy Gardner Cookery
Devotion to St Joseph, whose solemnity we celebrate tomorrow, tended to be largely private until the end of the 14th century. Around that time the Franciscans and Dominicans introduced a feast into their own calendars, with the whole Church finally catching up in 1621, when Pope Gregory XV made St Joseph’s feast a holy day of obligation. St Joseph has often been regarded, perhaps because of a connection being made with his namesake in Genesis, as the universal patron of provision and the faithful turned to him in all their temporal needs. In southern Europe people still bake fritelli or “St Joseph’s loaves” in honour of the “bread father” who provided food for the infant Jesus. There also exists a custom whereby a statue of St Joseph is “served” generous portions of food at dinner, which afterwards are given to the poor.
St Joseph’s Day almost always falls in Lent proper and has naturally been seized upon as an opportunity to escape the rigours of fasting. The popular pilgrimage to a shrine of St Joseph in northern Spain is always followed by a picnic of roast lamb – La Merienda del Cordero or “Repast of the Lamb” – for which a dispensation from the Lenten fast is available.
In Sicily, a table groaning with food is de rigueur. In the Middle Ages the Sicilians pleaded with St Joseph for rain during a protracted drought, and when they received it they held a huge feste in his honour. Sicilians go to Mass before their St Joseph’s day dinner and then process to their festive tables, decked out in flowers, breads, and all sorts of foods. The priest blesses the food, and everyone shouts “Viva la tavola di San Giuse!” The centrepiece dessert should be St Joseph’s Sfinge – an enormous cream horn, stuffed with sweetened ricotta and covered with candied fruits.
In church, an altar to St Joseph is prepared, looking rather like a delicatessen’s shop window. The altar is set up in three tiers, representing the Holy Trinity. A statue of St Joseph is placed on the top tier, usually surrounded by flowers, greenery and fruit. No meat is prepared for the altar because of the Lenten season and because meat was a rarity to the Sicilian peasants. Breads, cakes and biscuits, baked in symbolic Christian shapes, are prepared for the altar and one finds pastries in the shapes of monstrances, chalices, crosses, doves, lambs, fish and bibles. Breadcrumbs represent the sawdust of St Joseph the Carpenter, 12 whole fish the apostles and wine the Miracle at Cana.
I must not risk offending our Nigerian readers by failing to mention their national patron, St Patrick, whose feast we celebrated yesterday. He is, of course, also patron of Ireland, but for some reason he has also managed to gain a following in Styria (Austria) where he is the favoured patron of farmers. In many parts of Ireland St Patrick’s Day is regarded as the favoured time for farmers to commence sowing and planting potatoes for “St Patrick turns the warm side of the stone uppermost”.
Potatoes with chorizo (serves 4) Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a wide casserole and put on the hob over a medium heat. Soften one finely chopped onion for about five minutes, then add three cloves of finely chopped garlic. Cook for another couple of minutes. Add 400g sliced semi-dried chorizo (often called “fresh”), a bay leaf and a glass of dry sherry (or white wine, at a pinch). Slice one kilo of small waxy potatoes in half and add them. Barely cover with boiling water and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste for seasoning and place the dish, uncovered, in an oven preheated to 200°C/Gas 6. Cook for 30-40 minutes. To serve, garnish with chopped fresh coriander.