Perhaps many of you will think about the word ‘Salute’ as ‘Cheers’ while drinking, but it is not so even if some glasses are raised during this anniversary that is among the most felt by the Venetians. If you came to Venice on November 21st, you might think that the Venetians are very devout seeing the huge amount of people that queue up in procession towards the Basilica of Madonna della Salute. Seeing the date of the party and comparing it with the date of publication of this article, you can find that the festivities have been there, and all of us of Venice Kayak and Classic Boats Venice have honored the party, and also the traditional dish or the castradina.
But this is another story, indeed the recipe and the legend have the same story, the same origin related to the terrible plague of 1630. If you want to make the comparison with Covid, knowing that the comparison between the pandemic of the corona virus and that of the plague is difficult to sustain, in fact with a mortality of 25% and about 47000 deaths in Venice alone ( if we also include Murano, Malamocco and Chioggia the death toll rises to 97000) thanks to the bubonic plague disease. The plague was a scourge that hit Europe at a rate of almost 50 years and claimed victims like no war could do (in some areas of the world it was usually 50% of the population died) therefore the governments were equipped to face it and Venice was among the most advanced countries in facing it.
The first health ministry in the world was established, the very word of lazaret was created, the first hospitals were established for the whole population without distinction of census and, among other things, was designed the first health mask for the use of the medical body of the lazzaretti from which has evolved that is now so common. Not if it is possible to say if all this may have alleviated the suffering during the plagues, but certainly all the population benefited from it later. Venetians cite for example the first state hospital in the world is based on the model of those first Venetian hospitals, which was established at Campo San Giacomo de l’Orio. That of 1630 was so devastating that it also killed the Doge shortly after having laid the first stone for the construction of the Basilica dedicated to the Virgin Mary to ask for her intercession for the end of the plague (according to: https://www.comune.venezia.it/).
The population was exhausted and had to eat only cabbage, the only meat available was the one that could pass the controls: it had to be cured and smoked. This type of meat was supplied by the inhabitants of Dalmatia population of the Croatian and Slovenian coasts but of neo-Latin language and culture, Venetian subjects and dedicated to sheep breeding in particular. In these areas it was already used to smoke and brined meat in order to preserve the meat for a long time, especially to deal with sea trips. The ships coming from Dalmatia, in order to avoid the quarantines (among other things conceived by the Venetians themselves always in the period of the pestilence) did not dock to the port (the current shore next to San Marco) but they approached it and threw from them the legs of mutton castrated to shore and then distributed to the population.
The meat had to be cooked for a long time and combined with the cabbage in order to enrich the flavor and create a hot soup. Today as then for the feast of the Salute, the Venetian butchers procure meat from Dalmatia retracing the same commercial streets of 5 centuries ago and in the streets of Venice you can smell a pungent and invigorating smell at the same time, a smell that brings us to that time where in every house there was mourning. Aware that the fathers of our fathers and mothers of our mothers came from the population spared from the plague every year towards the end of October the castradina is ordered and between 20 and 21 November we go on pilgrimage to the basilica of Our Lady of Health. On the return from the church family and loved ones gather in restaurants or homes for once a year consumes this dish, a soup with a strong taste and accompanied our ancestors daily for three long years.
I still remember when as an altar boy I had to go to Mass officiated by our parish priest in the Basilica of Our Lady of Health. In fact every single parish of the diocese of Venice has the right to officiate at a Mass in one of the altars and it often happens to pilgrims to attend half a dozen masses at the same time. The pastor had asked weeks in advance who was available, as the organization had to be perfect. They met with the parishioners inside the church and from there began the procession directed towards the basilica. In front of the group, the pastor proceeded with the relics of the parish, followed by the cross and the banners of the parish itself. Behind the banners the parishioners sang hymns for the dead, along the way the crowd opened to allow our passage, also because perhaps ours was not the most powerful parish in Venice but it was named after Saint Pantalone, protector of doctors and nurses and in periods of pandemic medical personnel takes on a particular relevance. When we arrived in the basilica we had to wait in a large sacristy among the canvases of Tintoretto and other artists, I still remember the wonder that lodged in me admiring so much beauty not yet aware that that beauty originated from suffering. Tintoretto too, by the way, died of that plague.
Then came the moment of the mass and we entered the basilica among the clerics who told us to hurry along the narrow passages that would lead us to the altars used to officiate mass in our parish it was difficult for us 9 year old children in front of thousands of people. The eyes of the parishioners were focused on us and in addition to them we saw the heads and lit candles that each person held in their hand, the emotions were so strong that we felt an instant sense of duty. The faithful were so close that parents often tied their children to themselves. That human river proceeded slowly and orderly towards the icon of the Black Virgin and at her feet they had to offer candles with the effigy of the Madonna herself.
I still remember with affection that I had to get a candle with votive decorations and bring it to my grandmother because she could not go in person and when I brought she was so happy that I was able to bring and light a candle for her. I am aware of telling you about a world that no longer exists, but the memory of a people must be handed down, perhaps now few Venetians go in procession (and I am among those) but I continue to perpetuate the ritual of the preparation that requires at least two cooking stages and three cooling stages in order to degrease the meat and then combine the meat with cabbage.
To prepare the castradine it takes two days of cooking, at least three weeks notice for the order and, depending on the diners, one or two days to be tasted. What dwells in every home is the pleasure of being together with loved ones or friends to remember with joy such a sad moment as that of the pestilence so long ago. Many think that the most felt festival by the Venetians is the carnival, but it is a simple and gross mystification, as the feast of the Venetians is that of the Madonna della Salute. As you have been able to read for us at Venice Kayak, it is fundamental to make Venice and its lagoon known, because you know that only if you love and respect these traditions, you can pass them on.