How a symbolic Jewish sweet became a traditional Italian treat
Sfratto dei Goym, baked for the first time hundreds of years ago by Jews banished from their home town in Tuscany, is now protected by the Slow Food Association in Italy as a traditional specialty.
On a trip to Tuscany last year, I visited Pitigliano, a small medieval town located on a tuff hill in the southern part of the region, overlooking a green valley. The town was known for centuries as La Piccola Gerusalemme, little Jerusalem. It was given this nickname not only for its physical resemblance to the way Jerusalem was imagined - a fortified city surrounded by a wall at the top of the hill - but also thanks to the strong Jewish community that flourished there since the 16th century.
I wrote about Pitigliano here just just before Passover, describing the narrow streets of the old Jewish ghetto, the 400-years-old synagogue, and the kosher communal matzo oven. The strong relations between the people of Pitigliano and its local Jewish community were kept throughout the years, even when the Jews were forced by law to settle only in the ghetto. Neighbors shared their food and Christian children attended the Jewish day school in town. When the Nazis came, farmers from all around Pitigliano hid the Jews in the green valley underneath.
Pitigliano became a relatively large Jewish center when Jews from nearby areas, (including Rome, Siena and Florence) seeking refuge from Papal persecution settled there from the middle of the 16th century.
But not long after, in 1622, Cosimo II of the Medici family, the grand duke of Tuscany, ordered the Jews to concentrate and settle in one small area between Via Zuccarelli and the walls over the cliffs which overlooked the valley. Landlords came with sticks, banging on the Jewish houses, evicting them into the new ghetto.
And why the depressing long story before Rosh Hashanah? Trust the Jewish spirit to turn the eviction into a sweet revenge. About a hundred years later, Jewish bakers of Pitigliano came up with a new stick-shaped pastry, filled with honey and walnuts, and named it Sfratto, “eviction” in Italian. Think of Hamantaschen (the Purim cookie named for the villain Haman's "ears"), as another example. The pastry is officially known as Sfratto Dei Goym: eviction of the Goyim.
Thin dough made with white wine wraps around a filling of honey, ground walnuts, orange zest and nutmeg, a combination that has been popular in the region since the Etruscan times. The filling is prepared by cooking the honey and mixing in all other ingredients. The pastry is shaped into a long 10”-12” roll, like a stick, and is thinly sliced when served. Although it is not very appealing in its looks (it resembles a large, dry, boring breadstick), it is so tasty. Our supply that we got in a small bakery in Via Zuccarelli was gone before we even got home.
Traditionally, the sweet pastry was served on Rosh Hashanah. In the book The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, author Edda Servi Machlin (a former Pitigliano Jewish resident) explains that serving the sfratti on Rosh Hashanah had a symbolic reason: “To ward off the possibility of future evictions and as a wish for a good, sweet year”. The goyim learned of symbolic trait from their Jewish neighbors and started serving sfratti in weddings “to ward off any marital battle."
Today sfratto dei goym is available in Pitigliano year round, but in this town that has only three Jews left, sfratto is mainly known as a Christmas cake.
Sfratto dei Goym is now protected by the Slow Food Association in Italy as a traditional specialty of the region. It is easy enough to prepare at home for this Rosh Hashsnah - and may we not be evicted this coming year!
Vered Guttman is a caterer and a food writer based in Washington DC. Growing up in Israel she took her first lessons in Jewish cooking sitting at the tables of her two grandmothers, one from Poland, the other from Iraq. In Modern Manna, Vered will share a mix of new Israeli trends and old Jewish traditions, sprinkled with a distinct Sephardic flavor. Follow Vered on Twitter @veredguttman