Pigs to panzerotti: an intriguing second night of Christmas


On the second night of Christmas, our Monopolitani friends bundled us into their car and trundled us off to what they described as a living crèche.

The idea of a manger scene come to life was puzzle enough for us, but imagine our surprise when the first tent held not baby Jesus but two young boys having a good time demonstrating a hand-cranked hay cutter.

O.K, so we’re not talking Bethlehem here. We underestimated the time period by 1900 years and the location by a continent. But why quibble? In an expansive recreation of early 20th-century life in Puglia, the Chiesa e Madonna del Rosario in the Monopoli countryside revealed ever more old-time charms.

Many of them centered on preparing food and wine, always of interest to us. A barefoot couple stomped grapes and the juice trickled into a barrel.  Nearby, volunteers handed out the finished product.

A donkey slowly pulled stone wheels in a circle to grind olives to a paste before the mash was moved to a pressa, a huge screw-like device that extracted the oil. Women joked with each other as they kneaded dough for cartellate cookies in a wooden tray, to be formed by hand and fried, a treat of the season.

A greengrocer sang out the merits of his winter produce.

And locals crowded in to watch the butcher slice dainty pieces of lardo and offer tastes.

Away from the food scene, a craftsman demonstrated, in miniature, the art of building ancient beehive huts known as trulli.  A blacksmith shaped molten steel into horseshoes.

Women sang as they scrubbed laundry against wooden washboards and students painstakingly wrote out homework.

The night brought back memories for our friends – one recalled his mother using a washboard when he was a child, another said her mother still makes sauce from the pomodori Regina, small round tomatoes clustered on a vine.

And all of them couldn’t wait for the fried specialties of the evening, panzerotto, a turnover with mozzarella and tomato sauce inside, and pettola, a sweet similar to a doughnut hole.

Our tour was coming to an end. We stopped in a narrow passage. There, priest Don Pasquale told us of growing up in Contrada Cozzana, where no one had much save the riches of the land and the love of their families.

We departed contemplating the lessons of the season. As we rounded the corner to leave, the holy family appeared. Bethlehem at last.

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