Monday, October 29, 2007

Strange Brew – Strega

Halloween happens to be among my favorite holidays, that is, if you can call it “holy” at all. An ancient, traditional European festive celebration of all things ghoulish and magical, it is the gateway day to the pious and somber Christian All Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day that quickly follow. All three days are each, in their own way, commemorations for the departed and where, in certain climes, a heralding of the cooler seasons, when trees drop their leaves and harvests are fewer and far between.

Everyone has their personal favorite decorations and customs to welcome the day, from ghosts, skeletons and scarecrows hanging in windows and on trees, to the ritual of going door-to-door costumed in everything from ballerina tutus to Freddy Kruger masks for the express delight of begging buckets of candy from strangers. Their beleaguered parents can enjoy their own ritual of weeding out the candy for dining suitability and dental health. Now that I am an adult, the candy has certainly lost its charm in favor of hot apple pie; a dark, sticky loaf of gingerbread; or a Devil’s Food cake. These, however, are the seasonal and charming culinary treats that set the table, but say nothing of what, for me, are the three essential ingredients for Halloween: pumpkins, black cats and witches.

Well, I have the pumpkins (and am debating whether I should go easy on myself and paint faces on their coarse and corrugated skins or if I’ll take a knife to them and cut their savage features into place). I have the black cat (Willem, a year old now, will fully appreciate what all the fuss is about). But what I don’t have is a witch, and from what I understand, witches are in rather short supply these days. I’ll just have to go out and buy one in a bottle.

Yes, I’ll just go out and buy myself a bottle of Strega, a potent and mysterious Italian liqueur/aperitif, the formula, a closely guarded secret of reportedly seventy different herbs, despite the public knowledge that it is glowing with saffron, and strongly tinctured with fennel and mint. Oddly enough, Strega is one of the few alcoholic beverages that I can drink straight or over ice or with just plain club soda. In fact, there are so few cocktail concoctions featuring Strega that I am convinced it is meant to be sipped and savored in simplicity, the better to discover the complicated and nuanced layers of its flavors and allure.

OJ? No way!

So now I have my pumpkins, my black cat, and my witch. Oh, and I have my books, too. No, not the The Legend of Sleepy Hollow with its Headless Horseman by Washington Irving, or The Raven by Elgar Allen Poe, but any of a host of esteemed novels by Alberto Moravia, Primo Levi, and Cesare Pevese, all winners of Il Premio Strega, the most prestigious award for Italian literature since 1947, when the prize was created and funded by Guido Alberti, the distiller of Strega. I’ll drink to that.

Strega - Three Simple Salutes

1 shot Strega served in a liqueur glass with or without a little water or soda, as an aperitif or postprandial digestive.

2 shots Strega over ice in a short Manhattan glass. I prefer crushed ice.

1-2 shots Strega in a tall narrow glass topped with club soda or, if you prefer, champagne. A lime twist is optional.

This post is being sent to Kalyn Denny of Kalyn's Kitchen, hosting Weekend Herb Blogging #107. Kalyn is the creator of this wildly popular food blogging event.

Been There, Done That ~

Champagne Cocktail


katiez said...

I do love it when I learn something new...
Wonnderfully written tribute to Halloween.
All Saint's Day is a legal holiday in France, Spain and Andorra (probably Ireland, too). It's the day everyone visits the cemetaries, put flowers on the graves, etc.
I'll stay home with my pumpkins...

Kalyn said...

Great post about Halloween. I have to admit that after teaching elementary school for 29 years, I am not a big Halloween fan. But this year I do have the perfect costume. At the Blogher conference was giving away t-shirts that said Blogger on the front. So I'm going to wear that, some sweat pants and house slippers, my camera around my neck, carry the laptop, and maybe wear my Blogher conference badge, and go as a blogger.

Now if I had some Strega to drink when I handed out candy, that might really be a treat. Sounds enticing. I'm not a big drinker, but I do like a few drinks that you pour over crushed ice and sip, so this sound like it might be right up my alley. Will look for it.

Nora B. said...

Hi Susan, interesting post. I've not heard of Strega before, so I am now very curious to try some.

My friend dresses up her cat and dog for Halloween! They seem ok with it, which surprised me because my cats were always very stubborn.

Lucy said...

Well, I've never tasted Strega, but I want that witch to grace my drinks cabinet now, I tell ya!

Halloween has always appealed (love all those truly, deeply pagan rituals we continue to celebrate), but it is not much celebrated here. Strega over crushed ice sounds like a damn good way to salute the holiday.

Can I just say that Kalyn as made my day with her Halloween outfit comment?

Sylvia said...

Oh Susan great post i learn about Halloween. And The strga drinks are amazing

Maryann@FindingLaDolceVita said...

I like it over vanilla ice cream :)

Nanditha Prabhu said...

it was an interesting read! this is my first halloween...and i am trying to know more about this festival as my son is fussing about halloween costumes and trick and treat!

Christina said...

Strega? I've never even heard of it. It sounds like something I MUST try!

sra said...

Nice post. This is the next commercial opportunity for marketers in India - we already see Halloween parties, etc in some circles. Right now, they're concentrating on a North Indian festival called Karva Chauth - where women fast for their husbands' long lives and prosperity - and are calling it Husbands' Day!!!

Rosa said...

Why have I never heard of Strega? Time to remedy that! You've just reminded me that I need to go out and search for some Hallowe'en cookie cutters... hmm, Kalyn, maybe I'll send Sam out as a Blogger this year! Scary!

Shaun said...

Susan, lovie - Anything with even a hint of fennel, and I am there. Have you tried sambuca? I prefer it in its darker shade, a gorgeous, heady digestif. Now I'm a little thirsty, but it is far from cocktail hour...Richly informative post, as always.

Suganya said...

Wow, Susan, you have tempted me well enough to go on a Strega hunt. With blogging I discover something new almost everyday. Willem should be on a roll.. Tomorrow is his day :). Any costumes or is he gonna flaunt his naked beauty? :D

Mishmash ! said...

I was also in two minds whether to paint the pumpkin or whether I should use my carving knife and i got to decide atleast this eve :D

Strega , totally new to me , sounds quite intriguing!

Wendy said...

Never heard of it. Will seek it out!
A small fire on my window sill has just taught me why people tend to use oversized pumpkins for lanterns...

Simona said...

A very nice weaving of different threads: well done. I don't drink, but I have tasted some products with Strega, like torrone. I like the bottle and its label. Happy Halloween. Ours is going to be a bit scary, with flying furniture and boxes galore.

Simona said...

As I was reading your post, I was also trying to remember the slogan used to advertise Strega when I was a kid. It finally came back to me as I was driving back home from the grocery store. It went like this: il primo sorso affascina, il secondo strega, i.e., the first sip charms, the second bewitches. In the translation the play on words is lost. In Italian strega means both witch (the one of the label) and s/he/it bewitches.

sagari said...

great post

Toni said...

Susan - My friend Jeanie has written to me many times of Strega. It's one of her favorites - a cure-all. She should know - she lives in Salem. Mass! I wonder if I can find some here in San Diego? Sounds like a perfect post-fire drink!

Susan said...

Hi, Katie. Thank you. I didn’t realize All Saint’s Day is a legal holiday in those countries. I love learning something new, too. Thanks!
Kalyn – Thanks. 29 years of screaming kids must wear thin after a while. Your costume sounds like a hoot. You may have to do some explaining. I still find many people don’t know what a blogger is or does. Heck, even sometimes I can’t quite define it myself!

I find when you drink less, you can appreciate it more. Too much and it really does go to your head!
Hi, Nora. Thanks. Good to see you. Each animal has his/her own personality; some are OK with the costumes while others think their “owners” are cracked. Willem will don his daily black fur coat and be done with it.
Lucy - The Strega bottle is pretty funky and would make a nice curiosity for your drink cabinet. Some find Strega too medicinal, but I love it. Even so, it is one of those heavily herbal mixtures that is often an acquired taste. Kalyn’s costume sounds like a lot of fun, and comfy, too! Sweatpants and slippers!
Hi, Sylvia. Thank you! Good to see you.
Maryann – There is a certain decadence in drizzling liqueur on ice cream. I’m with you!
Hi, Nanditha. Halloween is a festival that goes WAY back, before Christianity and has evolved a great deal. America celebrates it in a big way (and yes, it is unfortunately too commercialized), but the “spirit” of meeting the spirits and costuming one’s self can be comforting and fun at the same time. Most important thing for a parent is to chaperone/ supervise the door-to-door collecting of treats as well as picking through the goodies. Unfortunately, safety can be an issue when accepting candy from strangers.
Christina – You can find Strega in a well-stocked liquor store with other herbal concoctions like Galliano, Campari, Pernod, Cynar and Pastis. It is quite sweet, aromatic and fennel/anise/licorice heavy, although there are other flavors you might enjoy though they might be impossible to identify.
Thanks, Sra. We’ve certainly over-commercialized Halloween in the U.S. My mom remembers it as a much simpler holiday when she was a child; in fact, Thanksgiving was a bigger deal back then, though not like today. I do hope there’s a Wives’ Day, where husbands fast for their better halves' long lives and prosperity, too. ; )
Rosa – It’s these little esoteric discoveries that are so much fun. I wonder what will be harder to find in France, Strega or Halloween cookie cutters….
Shaun – Oh, yes, I know Sambuca, but only the clear. I’ve never had the black or red. Are they very different in taste? From what I know, Sambuca is flavored with anise rather than fennel, yet the flavors are so similarly like licorice. No morning drinks for you; keep that head clear for your thesis, not even a brunch Bloody Mary for you!
Hi, Suganya. The new discoveries, that is the most fun w/ blogging, I agree! Willem is feeling full of himself today; on some level he knows it’s all about him. He’ll be costumed as the black beauty he is. Maybe a costume next year, but it will probably take me a year to work on him. : )
Hi, Shn. I went with the carving, and reminded myself just how tough it is to cut through pumpkin, although not like a hubbard squash – that big blue monster is cast in concrete!
Wendy – I think we forget that jack-o-lanterns have a live candle inside. Hope it didn’t cause too much damage. More importantly, glad you caught it in time.
Dear Simona – Thank you always. The bottle and label are unique, among Strega’s many charms, the outstanding design. Happy Halloween! I can see the flying furniture! I know how tough household moves are; I have had too many in too few years. Good luck and pace yourself!
Hello again, Simona - Great backstory! And though I’m not Italian, all was not totally lost in the translation, given my highly imaginative nature! Thanks for the lovely lesson.

Susan said...

Welcome, Sagari, and thank you!
Toni - A friend who lives in Salem - what fun! I'm sure you can find Strega in your area. I'd mentioned to Christina (above) where it is most likely shelved in stores.

The Passionate Palate said...

A wonderful post - full of great information and a real feeling for this fun holiday. I used to celebrate it much more than I do today, but I am craving to get back to those days. I love the pagan meaning behind Halloween and the supposed closeness we have to the dead at this time of year. I even wanted to dress like a witch this year, but alas, I have not enough time (so maybe I'll have a Strega cocktail instead.) Like you, I hope to have just enough time to carve that pumpkin to light my front step. Happy Halloween Susan!

Susan said...

Dear Jeni, thank you for your thoughtful and "passionate" comment. Happy Halloween, dear girl. We are all closer to each other than we know. And there is light wherever we go, even if we do not see it at first.

sra said...

Wives' Day, ha ha! Women are a dispensable commodity - women who have lost their husbands are almost persona non grata, not allowed to dress normally or bless other people at weddings etc but of course, these rules don't apply to widowers. It's changing, but slowly. I also know a few people who think the fortunes of their families depend on the women!

Susan said...

Oh, Sra, don't I know it. The plight of women in many corners of the world is still appalling, disheartening and infuriating.

Lisa said...

I like your take on Halloween, Susan. And Strega—I've never, ever tried it! I must run out and find some, because it sounds intriguing.

Susan said...

Thank you, Lisa. Strega is intriguing, an acquired taste, but if you like Italian bitters and other aperitivos, you will likely enjoy this.