With the virus still playing a little havoc in Italy it is difficult to know just what to expect again this Easter holiday but to be sure Italians will find a way to celebrate this sacred holiday.
If you ever happen to be in Italy for Easter, you won’t see the famous bunny or enjoy an Easter egg hunt. However, Easter in Italy is a huge holiday, second only to Christmas in its importance for Italians. While the days leading up to Easter include solemn processions and masses, Pasqua is a joyous celebration marked with rituals and traditions and lots of family. La Pasquetta, the Monday after Easter Sunday, is also a public holiday throughout the country and is a day when friends gather together.
To start the very holy weekend, on Good Friday, the pope celebrates the Via Crucis, or Stations of the Cross, in Rome near the Colosseum. A huge cross with burning torches lights the sky as the stations of the cross are described in several languages, and the pope gives a blessing at the end. Easter mass is held in every church in Italy, with the biggest and most popular celebrated by the pope at Saint Peter’s Basilica. If you every plan to attend you are advised to try to secure tickets a year in advance.
Solemn religious processions are held in Italian cities and towns on the Friday or Saturday before Easter and sometimes on Easter Sunday. Many churches have special statues of the Virgin Mary and Jesus that may be paraded through the city or displayed in the main square (piazza).
Participants are often dressed in traditional ancient costumes, and olive branches are frequently used along with palm fronds (which are also scarce in Italy) in the processions and to decorate churches.
Sicily has elaborate and dramatic processions. Enna holds a large event on Good Friday, with about 2,000 friars dressed in ancient costumes walking through the streets of the city. Trapani is another interesting place to see processions, held for several days during Holy Week. The Good Friday procession there, Misteri di Trapani, lasts 24 hours.
What’s believed to be the oldest Good Friday procession in Italy is in Chieti in the Abruzzo region; it’s very moving and somber with Secchi’s “Miserere” beautifully played by 100 violins.
Some towns, such as Montefalco and Gualdo Tadino in Umbria, hold live passion plays during the night of Good Friday. Others put on plays acting out the stations of the Cross. Beautiful torchlight processions are held in Umbria in hill towns such as Orvieto and Assisi.
In Florence, Easter is celebrated with the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart). A huge, decorated wagon used since the 18th century is dragged through Florence by white oxen until it reaches the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in the historic center. After mass, the archbishop sends a dove-shaped rocket into the fireworks-filled cart, creating a spectacular display. A parade of performers in medieval costumes follows after.
Sulmona, in the Abruzzo region, celebrates Easter Sunday with “Madonna che Scappa en la Piazza”or Madonna running in the Square!
Because of its long association with Spain, in Sardinia, which is also a part of Italy, some of the Easter traditions there have a strong link to the Spanish “Semana Santa” and processions and rituals take place all over the island on “Sa Chida Santa” or Holy Week.
Since Easter is the end of the Lenten season—which requires sacrifice and reserve—food plays a big part in the celebrations. Traditional holiday foods across Italy may include lamb or goat, artichokes, and special Easter breads that vary from region to region. Pannetone sweet bread and Colomba (dove-shaped) bread are often given as gifts, as are hollow chocolate eggs that usually come with a surprise inside.
EASTER MONDAY IN ITALY: LA PASQUETTA
On Easter Monday, some cities hold dances, free concerts, or unusual games, often involving eggs. In the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, cheese is the star. Ruzzolone is played by rolling huge wheels of cheese, weighing about 4 kilos, around the village walls. The object is to get your cheese around the course using the fewest number of strokes. Following the cheese contest, there is a band in the piazza—and wine, of course.
A whole roasted leg of lamb is paired with fava-bean crostini, sautéed artichokes, and other signs of spring.
In Tuscany, a whole roast leg of lamb is the traditional centerpiece of an Easter feast accompanied by many vegetables fresh and fried. Of course, there will be several desserts all enjoyed with a bit of Vin Santo (and we are fortunate enough to have a bottle of home made Vin Santo given to us by my cousin Andrea Sandroni during one of our visits to Montefolloico and I treasure it.
Pastierra di Grano
- It is believed that this dessert dates back to pagan times when ancient Neapolitans would offer all the fruits of their land to the Mermaid Partenope in spring – eggs for fertility, wheat from the land, ricotta from the shepherds, the aroma of orange flowers, vanilla to symbolize faraway countries and sugar in honor of the sweet mermaid. It is said the mermaid would take all these ingredients, immerse herself in the sea of the Bay of Naples and give back to the Neapolitans a dessert, which symbolized fertility and rebirth in Greek mythology. The recipe as we know it today was realized by Neapolitan convents, and nuns would make it for rich nobles of the area.
I’m sure there as many versions as there are regions. We still make a version at home as I am fairly sure itis still made in many homes today, as well as bought in pastry shops. In most homes Easter wouldn’t be Easter without a Pastierra dessert, however, it is delicious to eat at any time. Wheat sounds a strange ingredient, but it really is delicious, especially with the delicate flavor of orange-flower water. Precooked wheat is obtainable from Italian food stores and orange-flower water can nowadays be found in supermarkets. (These items are also available at E. 48th Street Market.)
Following are two Pastierra recipes. One is very traditional and the other is a little easier to make. Although the second recipe can be made with pre-cooked wheat instead of the rice.
PASTIERRA DI GRANA
1 x 10-inch round shallow cake pan.
For the sweet short crust pastry:
- 400g Italian plain flour
- 3 x lg eggs
- 100g caster sugar
- 150g butter, at room temperature, diced
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
For the filling:
- 1 x 400g tin of pre-cooked wheat
- 125ml milk
- 1 x tablespoon lemon zest
- ½ x teaspoon vanilla essence
- 250g ricotta
- 5 x egg yolks
- 200g icing sugar
- 2 x egg whites
- 120g mixed candied peel
- 11.5 x tablespoons orange-flower water
- ½ x lemon zest
- ½ x orange zest
- Sieved icing sugar, to sprinkle over the top.
- Make the pastry. Sift the flour onto a work surface and make a well in the center. Add the eggs, sugar, butter and half the lemon zest (reserve the rest for the filling) and lightly blend everything together with your fingertips until you have a smooth dough. Wrap in plastic wrap, chill for 1 hour, then roll out thinly and use to line a 25 cm loose-bottomed tart tin. Place in the fridge until ready to use. Do not discard the pastry trimmings – shape them into a ball, wrap in clingfilm and place in the fridge.
- Preheat the oven to 170 degrees centigrade.
- Place the wheat, milk, 1 tablespoon lemon zest and vanilla essence in a small saucepan. Mix well together and bring to the boil. Reduce the heat and gently simmer until the wheat has absorbed all the liquid. Then leave to cool.
- Mash the ricotta with a fork and beat in the egg yolk until you get a light and fluffy consistency. Beat in the icing sugar until well incorporated followed by the candied peel, orange-flower water, lemon zest and orange zest. Stir in the cooled wheat mixture.
- Whisk the egg whites until stiff. Then fold into the mixture and mix gently together until all the ingredients are well incorporated. Remove the pastry case from the fridge and pour in the mixture.
- With the remaining pastry, roll out quite thinly and cut out 1-inch strips roughly the size of the cake tin. Arrange the strips criss-cross over the top roughly 1-inch, trimming any excess pastry and pressing the edges against the lined pastry.
- Bake in the oven for 50 minutes. Leave to cool, then sprinkle with sieved icing sugar, slice and serve.
PASTIERRA di ARANCIA
4 CUPS FLOUR
1 CUP SUGAR
2 TSPS BAKING POWDER
4 LARGE EGGS
1 STICK UNSALTED BUTTER – melted
½ CUP WHOLE MILK
1 ADDITIONAL STICK UNSALTED BUTTED – room temp
2 CUPS SUGAR
3 LBS WHOLE MILK RICOTTA
1 CUP HEAVY CREAM
14 LARGE EGGS
5 TSPS VANILLA EXTRACT
2 CUPS COOKED WHITE RICE
GRATED ZEST OF 1 LARGE ORANGE
First make the crust: Place the flour, sugar, baking powder, eggs, melted butter and milk in a large of electric mixer and beat on medium speed for 5 minutes until smooth.
Lightly butter a 10 X 15-inch baking dish. Press the dough into the bottom and up the sides of the dish as evenly as possible. Set aside. Note: if your kitchen is very warm refrigerate the pan until the filling is ready.
Next make the filling: Preheat the oven to 350º. Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer on medium speed until combined for 3-4 minutes. Add the ricotta, heavy cream, eggs and vanilla and continue beating until all are fully incorporated, scraping down the sides with a rubber spatula several times. Fold in the rice and orange zest with the spatula.
Pour the filling over the prepared crust and bake until the edges are golden brown and set but the center is still a little jiggly – 1 hour 45 minutes to 2 hours 15 minutes. Let cool thoroughly before slicing.