In which we discover the fascinating truth of how 1001 Nights, brave yet mischievous sicilian maidens, the patriachy, apple dumpling and Lucrezia Borgia are all connected. This episode also contains revelations about the startling effects of pear varyenky and the surprising divination abilities of pel’meni.
Mischief & Morals
So what did you think? They are two very different tales, one collected from the oral tradition by a folklorist in 19th Century Sicily in the Sicilian language and another a moral tale almost certainly invented by a woman who founded the first free kindergarten in Tennessee and used this tale in her teaching. They do have something very much in common though and that is dumplings which will play a huge role in today’s episode. There’s a pun here somewhere but I might be a bit too dumping focused at the moment to see it.
Before we take a look at our first story we should take a quick peek at the person who collected it – Giusseppe Pitrè. Pitrè grew up in Sicily, a doctor by profession and a folklorist by inclination. He went to the lengths of collecting them in their original Sicilian language which is possibly why the collection is not as discussed in the English speaking world as it ought to be. I don’t have too much time here to dedicate to Pitrè as the there are a lot of conflicting opinions about how much value he brought to folklore but if you are interested there are couple of texts in the suggested reading that might be a good starting off point.
Clever Maiden Alone at Home Kills the Patriachy
So – The Thirteen Bandits has some really interesting and unusual features. The ATU index classifies it as ATU 956B – ATU 956B Clever Maiden Alone at Home Kills the Robbers presumably based on the second part of the story although it is missing the part which often features in those stories where one of the robbers returns, disguised to extract his revenge. Another unusual feature is the bold heroine who is as adventurous as any male protagonist (although that is tempered by her very female interest in sewing).
As Sicily has such a patriarchal structure this could be considered surprising but perhaps they existed to counter the male domination of everyday life. You can see how women might want to create a fantasy where they gain the upper hand over men. This tale was actually told to Pitrè by a woman from his home district who might have felt more comfortable sharing that tale with him due to his familiarity.
1001 Nights on Tour
Did you also notice any similarity to one of the earlier stories I looked at from 1001 Nights? I thought you might have done. The section of the story with the bandits sounds very similar to the situation that Marjiana has to deal with in Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves with the thieves hidden in the oil barrels. There just happen to be less of them. So why does a Sicilan folk tale collected from the oral tradition have any passing similarity to an Arabian tale from 1001 Nights? There are a couple of popular theories.
The first theory which Pitrè agreed with is that Galland’s collection of was very popular across Europe and that was a particular popular tale which found its way into the Sicilian Tradition. Sebastiano Lo Nigro in his collection of Sicilian folktales maintains that both Ali Baba and Aladdin and his Lamp were introduced to Sicily via an eighteenth century English translation. Italo Calvino agreed with Pitrè that French storytellers might have told tales from 1001 Nights in northern Italy in the 19th Century and that several of the tales he was told when he was collecting bear the hallmarks of the French version. That might account for sections of stories being adopted and added into traditional tales which then might form part of the local oral tradition.
Conquests have Consequences
The second theory which is perhaps more conjecture is that individual stories that appear in 1001 nights can be traced back to the Arab conquest of Sicily in the 9-10th Centuries via the oral tradition rather than via the literary tradition. As the stories that make up the collection existed separately in the Arab tradition you can imagine how elements of those tales could have slipped into the local tradition. One problem however is that recent research confirms beyond without all doubt that the tales of Ali Baba and Aladdin did not form part of the original manuscript collection translated by Galland and originated from the oral tradition as performed by Hanna, the Syrian storyteller who shared them with Galland. There is further information about this theory in The Arabian Nights in Transnational Perspective which is a fascinating read.
There are other Sicilian tales that share this element of the Ali Baba tale including Teresa (Trisicchia), The Nuns (li batioti) and Sister Sosizzedda (Soru Sosizzedda). Teresa also includes the variant where one of the robbers returns, disguised to extract his revenge to fulfil even more of the requirements of ‘The Clever Maiden Alone at Home Kills the Robbers’. There is also another Sicilian tale mentioned by Francesca Maria Corrao in her essay ‘In and Out of the Arabian Nights: Memories of Oriental Tales in Sicilian Folklore’. It is known as Cicirreiddu which is the derogatory name of the shepherd protagonist. The name means Little Pea and this variant is very similar to the Ali Baba tale in 1001 nights down to the brother being sewn together by a cobbler and the thieves seeking revenge hidden in oil barrels. This essay also appears in The Arabian Nights in Transnational perspective, details are in further reading if you’d like to seek it out.
Bandits Have A PR Problem
We should also swiftly address how the thieves are represented here. They are not in the slightest bit considered folk heroes. Everyone in the tale is happy to out manoeuvre them, cheat and even steal from them. They also receive their comeuppance at the end. Sicily was a poor place and did not profit from many of its occupations, its people suffered from the deprivations of bandits and thieves.
An Apple Dumpling Aside
After all that discussion about our first story it feels unfair that I have so little to say about the second one. The Apple Dumpling is very much a moral tale with an unsubtle message and though it takes various elements from familiar tales in Grimm it lacks complexity and history. I do like it however, its a sweet story and I enjoy the journey and the fixation on that apple dumpling. I also enjoyed putting it next to its older, more complex cousin. Who knew that two tales that start with a desire for dumplings could be so different?
A Dumpling Definition
Shall we talk about dumplings now? It is a huge topic, never let be said that I’m unafraid to tackle a food subject of which there are hundreds of thousands of variations and recipes across the globe. We should probably start with a definition even though that must by its nature be broad. I went to the OED first which wasn’t super helpful unless I wanted to restrict my research a little to much: ‘A kind of pudding consisting of a mass of paste or dough, more or less globular in form, either plain and boiled, or enclosing fruit and boiled or baked. (Originally attributed to Norfolk.)’
This is very much a definition for the English version of the dish and it doesn’t even seem to cover that very well. ‘Dumpling’ was also chosen by English speakers to describe items that they didn’t have a name for including the many types of filled dumplings or pastas of Asia and Europe. This has become very much common parlance across the world now so we might need to look for a broader definition. The one I have chosen is from Wai Hon Chu and Connie Lovatt from The Dumpling, A Seasonal Guide – “A dumpling is a portion of dough, batter, or starchy plant fare, solid or filled, that is cooked through wet heat, and is not a strand or ribbon.”
That might not apply to our traditional baked apple dumpling normally but I managed to find an apple dumpling recipe by Hannah Glasse (or at least in her book which is not necessarily the same thing at all) from 1751 for a boiled apple dumpling so all is well.
Its all about Italy
Having mentioned that it is a huge topic with a very long history I thought I might need to focus on the dumplings of a particular country and I think Italy (in our modern concept of it as united country) is a good choice especially as that is where our story is from. In the interests of transparency I will visit some other countries later in order to look at the folklore of dumplings. See I hadn’t forgotten.
A Small British Detour
I’d just like to get British suet dumplings out of the way first. They are wonderful, filling and yet still fluffy cooked in a rich stew where they steam in the savoury scents of the flavoursome broth, absorbing some of it through their bottom sides which are submerged in the tasty liquid. I imagine that Delia Smith and even Jamie Oliver have excellent recipes. I use the one on the side of the Atora packet, it always works perfectly especially if you take my Nan’s advice to handle them as little and as lightly as possible before adding them to the stew or casserole. If I’m feeling a bit fancy sometimes I add herbs or a smidge of English mustard powder.
The first actual suet dumpling recipe appears in ‘A new present for a servant-maid: containing rules for her moral conduct’ dubiously attributed to Eliza Fowler Haywood who wrote a book of a similar name but it appears highly unlikely as they are very different books. I suspect a completely different Mrs Heywood wrote our cookery book, the literary style is very different to that of Eliza Fowler Haywood who was a novelist and playwright and died 15 years before the cookbook was published.
A Swift Return to Italy
Where was I? Right, Italian dumplings. There’s going to be some controversy here, it can’t be helped. Italian regions are rightly very proud of their culinary outputs and don’t like them to be misidentified so I can’t help but get some Italian people a little miffed. I’m also going to mention Marco Polo only once to mention that the theory that he brought pasta back to Italy from China is highly unlikely considering there are cookbooks containing pasta recipes long before he travelled for the first time.
A Dumpling Journey
There are several theories about how filled pasta and filled dumplings travelled from their place of origin across the world. The Silk Road plays a big part in some of them, the Mongols in another. One is China Centric and one believes that filled pasta originated in the Middle East (around Turkey) and travelled outward with their traders.
There are some really interesting papers and books about this, some of which I have listed in further reading. We may never know, humans seem to be better at recording wars than dinner. Lets hope future archeology research will solve the mystery.
From Gnocchi to Frescos
We should probably start by mentioning gnocchi, made of a potato dough without filling they are very popular in the north of Italy. They are a cousin in a way to the canederli which are very popular in the Tyrol. So popular in fact that they appear in medieval frescoes of the chapel of Castle d’Appiano near Bolzano in northern Italy.
“The type of dumpling represented in the fresco is canederli, a large ball of dough made of stale bread and milk with the addition of bacon, beetroot, fresh cheese, spinach, mushrooms or even fruit, ricotta cheese and sugar, boiled in broth or water.” – Dumplings, Barbara Gallani
Filled pasta in Italy appears to exist earlier than most people think. I read an encyclopaedia of pasta so you don’t have to. I might be exaggerating a little. I definitely went straight to the stuffed pasta sections due to time constraints and I can’t wait to go back to look a the other sections. Pasta is fascinating as well as incredibly tasty. The information collated by Zanini de Vita is that while stuffed pastas are associated with the kitchens of the courts of northern Italy of the 1500s the probable first written source appears in Liber de ferculis of Giambonino da Cremona that has a Arabic recipe for a sambusaj which is a triangular piece of pasta filled with meat. This recipe is from around 1100. This document appears in the appendix of probably the oldest medieval cookbook entitled Liber de Coquina which dates from around 1285-1304.Sicilian cooks had been cooking Arabic recipes in their kitchen since the conquest
There are significant seafaring links between between Sicily and Genoa which is the area which prides itself on the origin of ravioli. There are even mentions of the word raviolo in early documents exchanged between the Sicilians and the Genoese. I’m just going to leave that there and progress to the fact that it was during the 12th Century that a square dumpling made of a filling sealed between two layers of thing pasta started appearing in Genoa and spread to Parma and Venice and then out to other regions of Central Europe where filled dumplings are very popular.
They were very popular at medieval trading fairs and different fillings and shapes started to appear. The fairs held in Genoa harbour were very popular with sailors and foods spread out from there across the mediterranean.
A Very Relevant Text for these Times
They became popular amongst the courts of various regions of Italy and were famous enough to appear in the Decmeron by Giovanni Baccaccio in 1353. The book is structured as a frame story containing 100 tales told by a group of seven young women and three young men as they shelter in a secluded villa just outside Florence in order to escape the Black Death, which was afflicting the city. One of the tales contains a fantastic land as described:
“And in those parts there was a mountain made entirely of grated Parmesan cheese, on whose slopes there were people who spent their whole time making macaroni and ravioli, which they cooked in chicken broth and then cast it to the four winds, and the faster you could pick it up, the more you got of it. And not far away, there was a stream of Vernaccia wine, the finest that was ever drunk, without a single drop of water in it.”Giovanni Boccaccio – The Decameron- Eighth Day, Third Story
There are also recipes for ravioli in An Anonymous Tuscan Cookery Book from around 1400 and Libro di cucina/ Libro per cuoco(14th/15th c.)(Anonimo Veneziano) amongst others. Definitions of what exactly each shape was started to appear from 1612 and different versions developed in different regions. Some even developed without the pasta wrapping, Tuscany still has a ravioli gnudi.
Dumplings are Excellent Travellers
Ravioli and other filled pasta dumplings have not got any less popular in fact they started to be made by the middle classes and then working people and as travel to Europe became more accessible their popularity has continued to grow with travellers and the Italian diaspora across the world. It is more usual across the north of Italy but the are southern versions.
Sicily in fact is one of the places where these filled pasta dumplings are less common than their dried pasta cousins. They do exist however but are more likely to be filled with ricotta or aged sheep cheeses sometimes with greens or herbs dressed with olive oil or a sweet tomato sauce balanced with wild fennel. So that is what you can picture our heroine eating with her friends as our story starts.
Did you know there was folklore about dumplings? I can’t mention it all or this would have to be a two part episode at the very least. There are even two stories to explain the shape of tortellini. One suggests that a an attempted peeping tom of an innkeeper in looked in at Lucrezia Borgia (the femme fatale, illegitimate daughter of Pope Alexander VI) through a keyhole when she was getting changed but all he could see was her belly button. He was so inspired by her gorgeous belly button that he invented tortellini in her honour. That must have been some belly button.
The second story is supposedly more ancient and contradicts the current version of the history of filled pasta but suggests Venus and Jupiter feasted at an inn near Bolgogna and after one drinky too many stayed over in a shared room and the innkeeper (another peeping tom) peered through the keyhole but could only see Venus’s belly button and then created a filled pasta shape. I suppose if anyone was going to have a gorgeous navel then Venus would be that woman.
The Outstanding Fertility of Pear Varyenky
The other folklore about dumplings that I found fascinating concerns Ukrainian varenyky which you might know better by their polish name pierogi.
‘The magical function ascribed to varenyky is further evident from ritual behaviour observed in the Podillia region: ‘The head of the household would clasp a loaf of bread under his arm, sprinkle the courtyard and cattle with water blessed during the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, and then inscribe a small cross on all the doors with chalk, while the children followed him carrying a bowl filled with pear varenyky – “to insure that the cattle would be as full as these varenyky”.’ The plump dumplings function as sympathetic magic, imitating the hoped for pregnancy of domestic animals and women of the household. The pregnant or full-hipped shape of pears would seem to explain the specific use of this filling in this context.’The Magic of Dumplings: Bringing Pierogi into the (New) World – Naomi Guttman and Franklin Sciacca
Divination via Pel’meni
There are also superstitions attached to pel’meni, Russian dumplings which share some significant similarities with varyenky and pierogi but are much smaller than polish pierogi tend to be.
I learned the following from Siberian Stuffed:A Profusion of Pel’meni – Sharon Hudgins part of Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012 – Wrapped & Stuffed Foods
‘Whenever some of the dumpling dough is left over, many cooks make a ‘surprise’
pel’men’ or two, with a totally different filling (cheese, mushrooms, whatever), which is cooked in the same pot with the regular pel’meni. Whoever finds a ‘surprise’ dumpling in his or her portion of pel’meni at the table will have good luck. It is even said that in tsarist times the royal cooks were instructed to hide precious stones within certain pel’meni served to the tsar’s guests.’
‘Similarly, some cooks hide a button, a ring, a coin or a garlic clove inside a pel’men’, along with the regular filling – again, as a predictor of good luck for whoever finds it. Certain ‘surprise’ pel’meni fillings supposedly predict specific futures, too: a coin means wealth, sugar means a successful year, greens bring you joy and a dumpling of solid dough brings you luck’.
‘In the region of Perm, young maidens would get together to make pel’meni with a variety of different fillings, which were all then cooked together in the same pot. Each pel’men’ filling carried its own prediction about the future: a pel’men’ filled with flour foretold marriage to a rich husband; a meat filling meant an easy life, whereas a black pepper filling meant a hard one; and a pel’men’ stuffed with wool predicted as happy life sometime much later in the future.
Pel’meni dreams have their own meanings, too. Before going to sleep, Tatar girls in the Perm region would eat pel’meni filled with salt; whoever appeared in their dreams to drink water would become that girl’s fiancé. If someone dreams that he is sitting at a table set with a large portion of pel’meni, then he’ll soon meet old friends. If a person dreams of making pel’meni himself, it means that he is alone in life or lacking the comfort of a family. When a young woman dreams that she has made bad dumplings that stick together or fall apart, it means that her boyfriend has picky eating habits and will criticize her cooking.’
A Never-ending Dumpling Story
I have barely scratched the surface of the history and folklore of dumplings in Europe and haven’t even begun to properly look at Russia, China, India, Japan, Korea, the mainland and maritime countries of South East Asia, Central Asia, Western Asia, Africa or both North and South America. Hopefully you feel that I’ve done justice to Italy at least although thinking about it I have been very ravioli focussed. I haven’t even mentioned the many types of unstuffed dumplings or touched on the significant contribution of the Sephardi jewish community to fillings for some of these filled pasta dumplings. The Encyclopaedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini de Vita or the A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy and The Book of Jewish Food by Claudia Roden or the Food of Italy by Claudia Roden will fill in some gaps if you’d like to find out more.
Return to the World Varyenky
If you’re still here would you like a recipe? Its for varyenky. I made them at Christmas whilst I was recovering from Covid. We’d gone over the number of days where it was likely that our condition would suddenly deteriorate to needing hospitalisation and the fear was starting to subside. When we’d felt like eating we’d been living off the contents of a M&S Christmas hamper and various items of cheese and charcuterie from the fridge. So I felt a desperate need to make something that would feel like it was nourishing. There sadly wasn’t a chicken in the house for soup and I didn’t want to risk infecting a delivery driver. I made my own farmer’s cheese for this with some milk of dubious date and went ahead. The steps took me about 2 days as I felt quite poorly still but without Covid, I think a long afternoon would do it.
Varyenky with Two Fillings
- Mushroom and Sauerkraut filling
50g dried mushrooms
- Cheese and Potato filling
250g floury potatoes cut into pieces
3 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, finely sliced
250g crumbly fresh farmer’s cheese
A grating of nutmeg
Plenty of salt and pepper
- Dumpling Dough
250g self-raising flour, plus extra for dusting
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp vegetable oil
150ml warm water
- To Serve
*crispy onions (the ones from a packet/jar)
*small handful fresh dill, to garnish
- For the mushroom and sauerkraut filling, soak the dried mushrooms in 300ml water and set aside to infuse for 1 hour.
- Drain the sauerkraut in a colander
- For the dumpling dough, sift the flour into a large mixing bowl and make a well in the centre. Fill the well with the salt, oil and water. Using your fingers, gradually stir the flour into the wet ingredients, until the mixture comes together as a soft dough.
- Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for 5-8 minutes, or until it is smooth and glossy. Wrap the dough in a clean tea towel and set aside to rest in a cool room for at least 20 minutes.
- For the cheese and potato filling, boil the potatoes in a pan of salted water until soft enough to mash (about 20 minutes). Drain well and set aside to cool.
- Remove the dried mushrooms from the water using a slotted spoon, reserving the water. Finely chop the mushrooms.
- Heat the butter in a frying pan over a medium heat. Add the sauerkraut, mushrooms and the reserved water. Bring the mixture to the boil. Continue to boil the mixture until all of the liquid has evaporated, then remove from the heat and set aside until cool.
- Heat the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the onions for 4-5 minutes, or until crisp and browned.
- When the potatoes have cooled, transfer them to a large bowl and crumble over the cheese. Mash until smooth, then stir in the fried onions until well combined. Add nutmeg and season well Set aside.
- To shape the pierogi, roll out the dough onto a lightly floured surface to a thickness of 3mm. Cut 10cm/4in rounds from it using a pastry cutter.
- Place one teaspoonful of the cheese and potato filling into half of the pastry rounds, and one teaspoonful of the mushroom and sauerkraut filling into the remaining pastry rounds. Brush a little water around the edge of each pastry round, then fold the edges together to create a bulging semi-circular dumpling, pressing the edges together to seal. If you have a dumpling cutter/gyoza press now is the time to use it.
- Poach the vasryenky, in batches if necessary, in a deep-sided pan of boiling water for 3-4 minutes, or until they float to the surface.
- To serve, pile the varyenky onto serving plates and serve the soured cream in small bowls alongside. Sprinkle with the fried onions and the dill.
Dumplings, A Global History Barbara Gallani
A Plain Cookery Book for the Working Classes – Charles Elmé Francatelli 1852
The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand and Vilna to the Present Day (1997) – Claudia Roden
A-Z of Pasta by Rachel Roddy
Food of Italy Claudia Roden
Marco Polo and His Chinese Pasta: Legend or Fact? | CulinaryLore
The Decameron – author Giovanni Boccaccio(1313–1375)
The Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson and Tom Jaine (2014).
The Dumpling, A Seasonal Guide – Wai Hon Chu and Connie Lovatt
The White House Cook Book (1887) by Mrs F. L. Gillette and Hugo Ziemann
Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, Artusi, Pellegrino trans. Murtha Baca and Stephen Sartarelli
The Story-teller by Maud Lindsay
Caterina the Wise and Other Wondrous Sicilian Folk & Fairytales by Giuseppe Pitré, translated and edited by Jack Zipes
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales – Volumes 1-3 Edited by Donald Haase Dodoens
Oretta Zanini de Vita, Encyclopedia of Pasta (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009)
The Arabian Nights in Transnational Perspective, various authors
The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitrè – edited and translated by Joseph Russo and Jack Zipes
A new present for a servant-maid: containing rules for her moral conduct Eliza Fowler Haywood 1771 (1756)
Wrapped & Stuffed Foods – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2012:
– Barbarian Heads and Turkish Dumplings:The Chinese Word Mantou – Fuchsia Dunlop
– Mantı and Mantou: Dumplings across the Silk Road from Central Asia to Turkey – Aylin Öney Tan
– The Magic of Dumplings: Bringing Pierogi into the (New) World – Naomi Guttman and Franklin Sciacca
– Siberian Stuffed:A Profusion of Pel’meni – Sharon Hudgins