February 06, 2012


Saint Josephine Bakhita

Yesterday was World Nutella Day! For the sixth year running, Nutella lovers united and celebrated by eating it, cooking with it and drooling over it. Sounds a little far-fetched, but this ‘holiday’ was actually started by two Italian aficionadas and now has over 30,000 Facebook fans and 5,000 Twitter followers.

If you’re not familiar with Nutella, it’s a yummy, chocolate hazelnut spread that was first created in the 1940s by Mr Pietro Ferrero, an Italian patisserie maker and founder of the Ferrero company. World War II rationing meant that cocoa beans were in short supply. To extend the chocolate ratios, Mr Ferrero mixed toasted hazelnuts with cocoa, cocoa butter and vegetable oil to create 'Pasta Gianduja', which was originally sold in loaves. In 1949, Pietro altered the original recipe so it could easily be spread onto bread and then became known as 'Supercrema Gianduja'. In 1964, reflecting one of the main ingredients, it was renamed Nutella.

Pietro Ferrero and Original Nutella

Tying Italy to Black History was not that easy. There are approximately 1,000,000 African immigrants in Italy, and the ‘notable’ ones are mostly actors and sports figures. However, one whose story really intrigued me was that of Saint Josephine Bahkita.

Josephine was born in 1869 in Darfur, Sudan to a wealthy family. Her uncle was the village chief, and she had three brothers and three sisters. In 1877, at the age of eight, Josephine was kidnapped by Arab slave traders. Forced to walk about 600 miles in her bare feet to El Obeid, Sudan, she was bought and sold twice during that journey. Over the following twelve years, Josephine was forced to the Islamic faith, resold three more times and then given away. During that time, she was treated very poorly, and once beaten so badly, she was unable to move from her straw bed for a month. She was also permanently ‘scarred’ 114 times, by razors, all over her body. The trauma of those years caused her to forget her own name, so she accepted the one, which her slavers gave her, which was ironically, ‘Bakhita’, which is Arabic for ‘lucky’.

In 1883, Josephine was sold to an Italian Vice Consul, Callisto Legnani, who was kind to her. For the first time since her captivity she was able to enjoy some peace and tranquillity. Two years later, when Callisto himself had to return to Italy, Bakhita begged to go with him. When they arrived in Genoa, Italy, Callisto gave Josephine as a ‘present’ to the wife of a friend, Signora Maria Turina Michieli, living just outside Venice. She lived there for three years, and when the Michieli family decided to move back to Sudan, Josephine was left in the care of Canossian Sisters in Venice, when she refused to leave and was supported by the convent, who complained to the authorities.

On November 29, 1889 an Italian court ruled that, because Sudan had outlawed slavery before Josephine's birth, and because, in any case, Italian law did not actually recognize slavery, she had never legally been a slave. For the first time in her life, Josephine found herself in control of her own destiny; and she chose to remain with the Canossian Sisters. Josephine converted to Christianity; and on January 9, 1890 Josephine Bakhita was baptized with the names of Giuseppina Margherita and Fortunata (which in Arabic stands for Bakhita). In 1896 she took her vows, welcomed by the future Pope Pius X; and In 1902, she was assigned to the Canossian convent at Schio, in the northern Italian province of Vicenza, where she spent the rest of her life. She spent most of her time visiting other convents and helping to prepare young nuns for missionary work in Africa.

Josephine as a Canossian Sister

Josephine’s gentleness, calming voice, and ever-present smile became well known and Vicenzans still refer to her as Sor Moretta ("little brown sister") or Madre Moretta ("black mother"). Her special charisma and reputation for sanctity were noticed by her order; the first publication of her story (Storia Meravigliosa by Ida Zanolini) in 1931, made her famous throughout Italy.

Her final years were marked by pain and sickness. Although confined to a wheelchair, Josephine retained her cheerfulness. She died on 8 February 1947. For three days her body lay on display while thousands of people arrived to pay their respects. Calls for her canonization began immediately; and the process officially began in 1959. Forty-one years later, on October 1, 2000, she was canonized by Pope John Paul II at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome and became Saint Josephine Bakhita. Her ‘Feast Day’ is on February 8 – the day of her death.

St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Josephine’s story is a remarkable one that highlights two lives in Sudan and in Italy. Still suffering so much conflict, her Sudanese people have adopted her as the only Patron Saint of Sudan.

Nutella was first created during Josephine’s final years, on the same soil; but no doubt, worlds apart. Perhaps on February 8, her Feast Day, you might want to try this recipe:

Nutella Stuffed Brioche French Toast
By Nook & Pantry, Adapted from Cook’s Illustrated

· 1 egg
· ¾  C milk
· 3 Tbsp flour
· 1 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted (and more for frying)
· 1 Tbsp granulated sugar
· 2 tsp vanilla or almond extract
· Pinch of salt
· ½ tsp cinnamon
· Half loaf of brioche; cut into 8, 3/8 inch slices
· Nutella, a few tablespoons
· Powdered sugar (Icing sugar) for serving

Whisk the egg, milk, melted butter, flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt and vanilla together until a smooth, thin batter is formed.

Spread some Nutella on half of the brioche slices and then top with a second slice of brioche, forming 4 Nutella brioche sandwiches about ¾ “ thick.

Add a tablespoon of butter to a nonstick skillet over medium heat.

To ensure even soaking of the bread, pour only half of the batter into a flat dish and soak both sides of 2 brioche pieces. You may not use up all of the batter but this way you don’t oversoak the first two bread pieces, leaving you with not enough batter for the second two pieces.

Once you have soaked the first two slices, remove and start frying them. Pour the remaining half of the batter into the dish and soak the next two pieces of bread.

Fry the French toasts until crisp and brown, about 1 ½  to 2 minutes on the first side, flip then fry the second side until crisp and brown also, another minute or so.
Serve with powdered sugar.

Sources: World Nutella Day, Wikipedia, The Vatican, Google, Bing, Nutella, Nook& Pantry 

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