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The Joys of St Martin's Summer
by Roberta Gangi

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Malvasia.Marsala enjoys its own culinary niche, but Moscato, Malvasia and Passito - despite the inroads of these fortified dessert wines into the international market in recent years with other Sicilian wines - remain something of a Sicilian secret. Sicilians notice them on Saint Martin's Day, when these amber delights are consumed with hard biscuits (usually very hard ones containing anise seeds). More precisely, the biscuits are dipped into the Moscato.

Saint Martin of Tours was born in what is now Hungary and died in Gaul (France), where he was bishop of Tours, in 397. He was buried on 11 November and that is when he is commemorated. He is a patron of horses, mounted soldiers, tailors, wine cask makers and drunks. November is the winemaking season, and this is the obvious seasonal connection to drinking, but there was another.

Traditionally, St Martin's Day (Martinmas) marked the beginning of a period of fasting, so people ate and drank as much as possible just before the forty-day fast. Each country has its own tradition associated with Saint Martin's feast, many involving particular foods.

It is believed that Saint Martin encouraged viticulture in the Touraine region of France. It is known that it was the Romans who brought the art of winemaking to the Gauls, so that is not a surprising idea.

Saint Martin's Summer (l'Estate di San Martino) is the traditional Sicilian reference to a period of unseasonably warm weather in early to mid November. The phrase is less meaningful than it used to be since Sicily is now much warmer than it was centuries ago, or even a hundred years ago. The fact that a few days in November might be as warm as the warm month of September is not considered very noteworthy today, when most Sicilians actually look forward to some cool weather following several months of scorching temperatures. And in some years St Martin's Summer doesn't arrive at all.

This has a great deal to do with harvests and the change in seasons. In North America "Indian Summer" refers to mild weather in autumn.

In Sicily Saint Martin's Day is celebrated in a special way in a village near Messina and at a monastery dedicated to him overlooking Palermo beyond Monreale. But that's not to say that the rest of us can't enjoy a glass of Moscato on November 11th.

About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.

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