Easter again. And a welcome break from the monotony of life in the new house. The Italian Easter Egg is one of the most beautifully presented objects you will ever see. Not for Italians the milk chocolate egg wrapped in flimsy coloured foil that is difficult to peel off, packaged in cardboard boxes that can be stacked easily one on top of the other in supermarket aisles. No, the Italian Easter Egg is wrapped in top quality aluminium foil, glossy paper, or even chiffon, and tied with a decorative ribbon, with huge fans and waves of corrugated fabric as high as the egg itself, poking out of the top. They generally hang from lengths of string, like Christmas cards, in local salumerias. Aesthetically lovely but totally impractical which, come to think of it, is an accurate description of many things Italian.
I love shopping for Easter Eggs in Italy. They are unwieldy and difficult to transport, but I enjoy the admiring gazes of tourists as I walk along the street clutching multi-coloured eggs that I have bought for everyone I know, from secretaries to sisters-in-law. Materialistic Brits and Americans would be disappointed on breaking them open. No surprises; no jokes; no plastic light sabres or mammoths. Just delicious, high-quality chocolate in a flamboyant package that reflects the joy that this time of the year is supposed to bring.
Armed with five such eggs – a large one for my future parents-in-law, and one for each of the girls – I made my way to Giovanna’s house on Good Friday, in the afternoon after work, for Good Friday is not a holiday in Italy. The eggs were placed with all the others on top of the sideboard, along with all the other delights that Giovanna’s mother had prepared for the Easter feast. Not tonight, however, for Good Friday is a solemn occasion. Tonight is for Mass, for processions and wakes, for self-restraint. The same goes for Saturday, for Christ is dead and lying in the tomb, and it would be wrong of us to gorge ourselves and indulge in gluttony.
On Sunday morning, however, it’s a different story. Christ is risen and the church bells ring. Priests beam from their pulpits and congregations beam back at them. Winter is over and we have the whole of spring and summer to look forward to, not to mention the build-up to Christmas. Another full nine months before January and February inflict their miseries on us once more.
Back at my in-laws flat, the smell of good, wholesome Italian home-cooking wafted from the kitchen. I was not allowed to help, of course, being a man, and so I would sit out on the balcony with Giovanna’s father. We would drink an aperitif together or, perhaps, a beer. We would smoke a cigar, or listen to some music. And then he would drift off, I would read the paper and all was right with the world.
On this particular Easter Sunday, with Pucci, now several months old snoring gently under my chair, I felt as contented as a man can feel. At about two o’clock in the afternoon, the feast began. An antipasto of olives, provola cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and olive oil, salami and anchovies. Then spaghetti, with rich tomato sauce, basil and parmesan cheese – simplicity in itself, but utterly delicious. After that came a plate of grilled meats, lamb and goat with hunks of bread to mop up the juices. A salad of fennel and radishes followed, to clean the palate, and then came the desserts. An egg was opened and slices of pastiera were handed round and washed down with sweet, sparkling wine. The pastiera, along with the casatiello, which we eat for supper with many a glass of light red, is far and away my favourite among the Neapolitan Easter culinary treats. Sweet and heavy and full of fattening things, it is guaranteed to bring on an afternoon of slumber, even without the generous glass of after-dinner brandy I always enjoy with Giovanna’s mother.
Ingredients for 12 people:
1kg of short pastry
700g ricotta cheese
400g cooked wheat
80g candied citron peel
80g candied orange peel
A pinch of cinnamon
4 decilitres milk
30g butter or lard
5 whole eggs plus 2 yolks
1 sachet vanilla
1 tablespoon orange flower water
Put the cooked wheat, milk, butter and the zest of one lemon in a saucepan and heat for ten minutes, stirring thoroughly until it becomes creamy. Mix the ricotta, sugar, five whole eggs plus two yolks, sachet of vanilla, tablespoon of orange water and mix of cinnamon together thoroughly in a blender. Now add some grated lemon peel and the candied peel cut into small cubes. Mix everything together with the cooked wheat. Roll out the dough until it is about ½ cm thick, butter a round, ovenproof dish (about 30cm in diameter) and line it with the pastry. Trim off the excess pastry, roll it out again, and cut it into thin strips. Pour the mixture into the pastry, level it off and decorate the surface with the pastry strips to form a grid. Brush the pastry with beaten egg yolk and cook the pastiera in an oven for an hour and a half at 180°, until the pastry is golden. Leave to cool before serving and sprinkle with icing sugar.
The casatiello, a type of rustic pie filled with cheese, salami and eggs, is a perfect “light” supper to end a day that has, for the most part, been spent spanking the liver:
Ingredients for 6 people:
50g grated pecorino cheese
150g cubed provolone cheese
100g cubed salami
6 hard boiled eggs
150g pieces of pork fat
Salt, pepper and water
Make a sort of dough from the flour, yeast, lard salt and water. It should be similar to the sort of dough you use for making bread, but a little softer. Leave it to rise in a warm place for a couple of hours – it should just about double in volume.
Once it has risen, roll it out until you have a rectangle about ½ cm thick, cut off a ball of pastry for later use, and brush the remainder with lard. Cover this base with the cubes of provolone cheese and salami, along with two of the hard-boiled eggs cut into segments. Sprinkle with pecorino cheese and plenty of pepper. Roll up the dough with the ingredients inside, and put it in a buttered ring-mould. Arrange the remaining four hardboiled eggs, unshelled, on top of the casatiello, and secure them in place using pastry “straps”, made from the ball cut off previously. Leave the casatiello to rise further for another four to five hours, and then cook in a pre-heated oven at 180° for around one hour. The casatiello can be eaten warm or cold.
Easter Monday, or Pasquetta is traditionally spent out in the countryside, enjoying a picnic with your extended family. The roads are congested and tempers fray as Neapolitan families colonize every last spot of green, stuff themselves silly with whatever has been left over from Easter Sunday, plus one or two new dishes made especially for the occasion, snooze in the afternoon sunshine – provided that the sun is shining, of course – and then pack everything – apart from the plastic cups, plates, knives and forks, which are left wherever they happen to be, for someone else to clear up – back into the car and head off back for home, complaining bitterly about the traffic.
I can’t quite put my finger on why, but there is something about the traditional Neapolitan Easter Monday that I really don’t like, and I’m grateful that Giovanna’s family prefer more solitary picnics at other times of the year, and tend to spend Easter Monday as if it were a re-run of Easter Sunday, with another huge meal early in the afternoon, fish-based this time, a cuddle on the sofa until supper time, and another helping of divine casatiello before bed.