Sixteen years ago, I began preparing for my first trip to Italy, the highlight to spend time in my mother’s home town in the region of Molise. I recall a guide book describing Molise as the ‘hillbillie region of Italy’, not a place for tourists but a place mostly frequented by Romans for their holidays. They preferred the region to other parts of Italy simply because of the lack of tourists.
Referring to my DK travel guide, the author describes Molise as less dramatic to its poor neighbour, Abruzzo, ‘… but life in both regions is primitive. Legends of witches persists, as do strange fertility rites and rituals celebrating the changing seasons.’ I recall stories of witches told by my Mamina (maternal grandmother) and mother, but the fertility rituals?
The people from Il Basso (southern Italy) are well versed in their superstitions. Heading west of Molise towards Naples is the town of Benevento from which a dear family friend originated. He introduced me to one of my favourite liquers ‘Liquore Strega’, a speciality aptly named after Benevento’s legends of witches who inhabited the town and area since the 7th century. Strega translates to ‘witch’.
I like to enjoy a glass of Strega with a sweet treat like screppelle, a type of deep fried donut coated in sugar. Molisani make screppelle on Christmas Eve as a prelude to the Christmas feast. A tradition that is dying in my family for various reasons, but one I want to reinvigorate and so spent some time in the kitchen with mum ensuring I took note of every detail.
My Mum and Mamina did well to keep cultural traditions alive, as it was difficult when they immigrated to Australia in the late 40’s. Unlike Melbourne where there was a large and established Italian community with italian food shops and cafes importing speciality products, as well as a families that commenced manufacturing their own produce commercially, my family endured the harsh outback of Western Australia, in the townships of Cue and Meekatharra.
Sourcing flour was easy but olive oil was unheard of. On making arrangements to bring his family out in 1948, Grandpa wrote to my Mamina to instruct her to bring olive oil with her on the 6 week boat journey to Australia. In Montorio nei Frentani, Mamina had land with abundant olive trees and she produced the oil herself. After seeking the necessary approvals, she had permission to import 120 litres into Australia.
From leaving one hardship behind and arriving to find another, traditions did survive on special occasions. Screppelle is one of my favourites that mum continued every Christmas. It’s simple, delicious and reminds me of my childhood when the warm screppelle would magically appear from the kitchen.