By Doris Fenech
From late 4th Century CE to the late Middle Age, much of Western Europe including Gread Britan, engaged in a period of fasting befor Christmans, beging on the day of Saint Martin, November 11.
This fast period lasted 40 day and was therefore called "Quadragesima Sancti Martini", which means in Latin, "the 40 days of Saint Martin". This fasting time was later called "Advent" by the Church.
On Saint Martin's ave people ate and drank very heavily for a last time before they started to fast. They gave children presents, traditional a cloth bag full of nuts and sweets ("borża ta' San Martin").
St. Martin was also referred to as the protector of wine makers and the tavern owners. On the occasion of the feast of St Martin, farmers used to enjoy the first wine tasting from the previous summer harvest.
They had a saying that the new wine and lumps of figs ("tin tac-cappa"), are tasted on St Martin feast day ("F' San Martin jiftħu l-inbid u t-tin - San Martin ikisser it-tin, u Katarin tisqih, mill -fin").
Traditionally, householders proudly opened a heavy wooden box of delicious sun-dried figs ("tin imqadded"), packed in August, using their family secret recipe - clean wooden or tin boxes cover with rag paper ("karta strazza"), and pressed in layers of sun-dried figs ("tin-imqadded"), chopped toasted almonds ("lewz inkaljat"), fresh bay leaves ("weraq tar-rand"), fennel seeds ("bużbież"), and sprinkled with anisette on top, ending with a layer of bay leaves. The figs box ("il-kaxxa tat- tin"), was conserved very dearly in a dry room, as it was the only desert they consumed during the winter.
A big simple colourful cloth bag pulled with a string on top called ("il-borża ta' San Martin"), was placed near the children bedside, full of hard shelled almonds ("lewż"), walnuts ("ġewż"), chestnuts ("qastan"), figs ("tin"), apples ("tuffieħ"), oranges ("larinġ"), tangerines ("mondolina"), pomegranates ("rummien"), San Martin bun ("ħbejża ta' San Martin"), hard glazed on top and with a liquored sweet ("perlina tas-sugu"), stuck in the middle of the bun.
"Il-Borża ta' San Martin"
St Martin was one of the children favourite Saint, because his feast's celebration was considered as one of the very few times they had food treats ("cejca"). Children used to enjoy playing Maltese traditional games involving nuts -
"Kastelli", with at least 5 walnuts for each player marble balls.
"Boċċi", using hazel nuts instead of small marble balls and used a large hazel nut,
"bubun - mamma", a larger marble to hit the smaller nuts.
Nuts were also used as a winning reward when playing - ("qabża u qabda - żewġ jew fart - it-trija - il-qriba - xixu - intektkuh - ic-cipptatu"), were played with shelled almonds.
Children saved the nuts to play for a long time and ate them when they got broken.
The children showed their gratitude to St Martin by singing the rhyme - "Ġewz, Lewż, Qastan, Tin, Kemm inħobbu lil San Martin" - Walnut, Almonds, Chestnuts, Figs I very love Saint Martin.
After lunch small pieces of delicious dried figs were served as desert followed by a cup of freshly grated coffee ("kafe' mitħun"), and a piece of home made St Martin's cake ("kejk ta' San Martin"), made with a mixture of dry fruits and nuts.