Culture
Fruit, nuts & wine: Do you know the traditions of San Martin?
Discover the traditions of the feast of St Martin in Malta and their origins

Melanie Drury

St Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier with a good heart. After cutting up his cloak to assist a poor beggar on the street, he had a dream which led him to convert to Christianity. St Martin's feast, locally known as il-festa ta’ San Martin, falls annually on 11 November, the same as Remembrance Day (or Poppy Day).

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The Christian tradition

Right up until the Middle Ages, there was a tradition of fasting for forty days before Christmas, starting on the 11th November, the day of St Martin. This fasting period was therefore known as Quadragesima Sancti Martini and later this period became known as Advent. Traditionally, people ate and drank heavily on the eve of St Martin as a final indulgence before the fast.

The patron saint of winemakers

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The indulgence in food and drink was apt if one considers that St Martin is the protector of wine makers and tavern owners. Traditionally, farmers would enjoy the first wine tasting from the previous summer’s harvest on St Martin’s day. The rhyme F’ San Martin jiftħu l-inbid u t-tin. San Martin ikisser it-tin u Katarin tisqih mill-fin, translates as: On St Martin’s Day the wine and figs are opened. As St Martin breaks the (lumps of) figs, Katarin serves him the finest.

The fig box

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Figs are also largely associated with St Martin. Traditionally, this precious winter dessert was also first opened on St Martin’s day, along with the wine. Sun-dried figs (tin imqadded) were prepared in August according to the family’s secret recipe and packed in a wooden or tin box lined with paper. Layers of sun-dried figs, chopped toasted almonds, fresh bay leaves and fennel seeds were pressed and sprinkled with anisette, ending with a layer of bay leaves.

Dried fruit and nut goodies

In fact, it’s not just figs that are synonymous with St Martin. All the traditional recipes related to the feast include figs, as well as walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and oranges. Some of these traditional festive goodies include il-borza ta’ San Martin (St Martin’s goodie bag) and it-torta ta' San Martin (St Martin's tart).

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The ‘bag of St Martin’

The bag of St Martin traditionally includes an apple, an orange, a tangerine and a pomegranate, as well as walnuts, hazelnuts, chestnuts, almonds and figs. A glazed ‘St Martin’s bun’ is typically included as a sweet.

In the past, the bags of St Martin were also distributed to the poor, their size depending on the giver’s wealth. Even today, children receive a cloth bag full of fruits and nuts. Some consider the bag a symbol of the charity displayed by St Martin, while other sources claim it originates from the indulgence before the fast.

Traditional sweets

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A popular traditional feast sweet is it-torta ta’ San Martin (St Martin’s tart) that’s made from a mixture of fruit and nuts similar to that in the bag, perhaps with a hint of cinnamon. The aforementioned St Martin’s bun or il-hbejza ta' San Martin, a glazed sweet bread with liquorice and sugar on top, is also popular with young and old.

The rhyme of St Martin

Due to the association of St Martin’s feast with an abundance of dried figs, fruit and nuts, another traditional and better-known rhyme goes:

Ġewż, lewż, qastan, tin, kemm inħobbu ‘l San Martin!
“Walnuts, almonds, chestnuts, figs; oh how I love Saint Martin!”

The games with nuts

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One important detail is that the nuts in the bags (except the almonds, sometimes) are still in their shells. Children did not covet their bag only for the goodies to eat but also for the many games to play with them.

Hazelnuts and walnuts are not simply to crack open and gulp down, but can be used as pawns or marbles in games! For example, ‘Kastelli’ or ‘castles’ involved placing three hazelnuts as a base for one on top; if it got knocked down by a walnut, the hazelnuts go to the winner. Children saved the nuts to play for a long time before actually eating them.

St Martin’s summer

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Typically, around the feast of St Martin, the Maltese islands experience a spell of fine weather. These days are dubbed ‘St Martin’s summer’ and traditionally, the bright days of sunshine that are evocative of summer are celebrated with a swim! The good weather also offers good prospects for the feast celebrations in the villages of Bahrija and Tarxien.

The traditional St Martin’s Fair in Bahrija

St Martin of Tours is the patron saint of Bahrija, and an annual fair on the Sunday closest to 11 November. Il-Fiera ta’ San Martin is a centuries-old tradition. It began as games to win lambs or rabbits, but evolved into a variety of entertainment for all the family, including a rabbit show, a poultry competition, pony rides, food stalls, live music and prizes. St Martin himself, first as a young Roman then as an old bishop, roams around as you roast your chestnuts on an open fire.

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San Martin in Tarxien

Tarxien has only recently reentered the scene with its own St Martin’s fair after many decades of absence. Folklore and tradition take centre stage in a varied programme that includes music, band marches, dancing and bingo. There’s also opportunity to indulge in traditional food and drinks, such as rabbit dishes, aniseed-infused coffee, and imbuljuta, a cocoa-and-chestnut traditional hot drink.

See St Martin in Gozo

In Gozo, the feast is less pronounced. However, there is a beautiful 1912 painting of St Martin by G Vella at the Nadur Parish church. The painting depicts the young valiant soldier Martin giving his cloak to the poor old man.

4th November 2019


Melanie Drury
Written by
Melanie Drury
Melanie was born and raised in Malta and has spent a large chunk of her life travelling solo around the world. Back on the island with a new outlook, she realised just how much wealth her little island home possesses.

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