Benevento is the name of a city and province in the region of Campania in Southern Italy. The city predates the Roman Empire, having been a city called either Malies or Maloenton belonging to the Samnite tribe of ancient Italic peoples. The Roman name for it was Maleventum. “Male” means “bad” in Latin/Italian. (Think of the malocchio, or evil eye.) When the Romans conquered it in 268 B.C., they changed the name of the town to something that would represent their future success there, as was their custom with places that they conquered. So Beneventum, “bene” meaning “good,” was born. The idea of witches being in this area goes back to pre-Roman times. And although the town got a new positive name, the legend of the witches remained and grew stronger through the years. According to Raven Grimassi, an expert in the field of Italian witchcraft, witches from all of Italy would congregate under one particular walnut tree in Benevento for their festivals. In 662 A.D., Saint Barbato, bishop of Benevento, wanted to convert the local pagans, so he cut down their sacred walnut tree, among other things. But the witches planted one of its seeds, and the tree which grew is standing in Benevento today. Women who were put on trial for witchcraft confessed to worshipping Diana or gathering for festivals under this tree. (According to Grimassi, the walnut was sacred to some Roman gods, including Diana.) The likeliest story is that pagan rituals from the time of the Samnites continued to be carried on here even after the Romans and Christianity dominated.
But this legend of the witches of Benevento gathering around the walnut tree is the inspiration for the logo of the famous Benevento liqueur, Strega. “Strega” means “witch” in Italian. Strega liqueur is a blend of 70 herbs and spices. It gets its yellow color from saffron. Father and son Carmine Vincenzo Alberti and Giuseppe Alberti created it in 1860. In the early 1900s, it became famous for its advertising posters.
Today, one can drink Strega or use it in baking like in the Pane Degli Angeli cake I blogged about before.
If you are in Benevento, you can visit the museum and store. At the store, you can buy Strega liqueur or chocolates, torrone and cakes made with it as well as other liqueurs like limoncello and Sambuca. You’ll find it refreshing after your search for the infamous walnut tree.
–Dina Di Maio, author of Authentic Italian: The Real Story of Italy’s Food and Its People, available at Amazon.com