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Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pasqua in Italia: traditions and memories!

Cari amici,
Next Sunday it will Pasqua “Easter”.

I have so many wonderful memories of this Holiday and of this period of the year, where we all are full of energy, so alive since the Spring finally there after the long winter.

Easter is known as "Pasqua" in Italy, and as any holiday tradition it is a must that it is celebrated at the table amongst family members, relatives and friends. Actually there is an Italian saying which says: "Natale con i tuoi e Pasqua con chi vuoi" which translated means: 'Christmas with your family and Easter with whoever". In my family it was always a great time to spend with family and extended family, indeed family friends. It was also the time that I was going with my parents to my paternal grandparents near Rome.
As in most formerly Catholic countries, Easter in Italy is a sacred season, accompanied by several traditions and cultural customs. Easter Sunday remains a special family time, and even those families that do not attend Easter services still get together for family dinners. For those that attend Mass, new clothes in the latest spring fashions are often the norm. It was always fun to go shopping with mom and dad for the Easter clothes and shoes and I will never forget the great joy of knowing of all the great time that was coming ahead: those great times with my family that has a precious and unforgettable place in my heart forever and that have created unforgettable and precious memories!!
This most holy week begins for many Christians on Palm Sunday, “La domenica delle Palme", where we receive palm fronds at Mass. Traditionally, a Sunday before Easter. The palms are artistically woven and decorated with red ribbons, the olive branches are spray painted gold or kept their natural color. Many of the people who receive palm weave the fronds into crosses to wear, or to place on the graves of there departed loved ones. A visit to cemetery is traditional, and purchased palm ornaments, or spring flowers, are also used to decorate the graves.

On Good Friday, the day that Christ was crucified, many communities in Italy, from large cities to tiny villages, remember the day with Passion processions. In some places, the Cross is carried, in others, people reenact the Stations of the Cross, la Via Cruces. In Rome, the Pope himself, leads a procession that begins at the Coliseum.
Easter celebration in Italy is marked by many rites observed throughout the country that have their roots in ancient pagan rituals.
Among the myriad of Easter traditions in Italy, Scoppio del Carro in Firenze, meaning explosion of the cart, is the most spectacular one. For over 300 years the Easter celebration in Florence has included this ritual, during which an elaborate wagon, a structure built in 1679 and standing two to three stories high, is dragged through Florence behind a fleet of white oxen decorated in garlands.
A huge explosion will be detonated Easter Sunday in front of the magnificent green– and white–marbled neogothic church in Florence's centro storico. Instead of running in fear from a terrorist's bomb, though, thousands of spectators will cheer the noise and smoke, for they will be witnesses to the annual Scoppio del Carro—explosion of the cart.

The pageantry ends in front of the Basilica di S. Maria del Fiore, where Mass is held. During the midday service, a holy fire is stoked by ancient stone chips from the Holy Sepulcher, and the Archbishop lights a dove–shaped rocket which travels down a wire and collides with the cart in the square, setting off spectacular fireworks and explosions to the cheers of all. A big bang ensures a good harvest, and a parade in medieval costume follows. If you ever are in Firenze for Easter, you will love it!!

Tradition and ritual play a strong role in Italian culture, especially during celebrations such as Easter, the Christian holiday based on the pagan festival called Eostur-Monath. No matter what date Ester falls on, there are many ceremonies and culinary customs that are religiously upheld.
At Vatican City there are a series of solemn events that culminate in Easter Sunday Mass. During the spring holy days that center around the vernal equinox there are also many other rites practiced throughout the country that have their roots in historic pagan rituals.
Some traditions are regional. Here a few I’ve been lucky to experience so far:

Tredozio, in the Province of Forli-Cesena in the region of Emilia Romagna on Easter Monday the Palio dell'Uovo is a competition where eggs are the stars of the games.
Merano, town and municipality in the province of Bolzano: The Corse Rusticane are conducted, fascinating races with a special breed of horses famous for their blonde manes ridden by youths wearing the local costumes of their towns. Before the race, the participants parade through the streets of the town followed by a band and folk dance groups.
Barano d'Ischia, a municipality in the province of Naples, on Easter Monday the ‘Ndrezzata takes place—a dance which revives the fights against the Saracens.
Carovigno, a town and municipality in the province of Brindisi, Puglia, on the Saturday before Easter is a procession dedicated to the Madonna del Belvedere during which the 'Nzeghe contest takes place: banners must be hurled as far as possible.
Enna, a city and municipality located roughly at the center of Sicily: religious rites dating back to the Spanish domination (fifteenth through seventeenth century) take place in this Sicilian town. On Good Friday, the different religious confraternities gather around the main church and over 2,000 friars wearing ancient costumes silently parade through the streets of the city. On Easter Sunday, the Paci ceremony takes place: the statue of the Virgin and that of Jesus Christ are first taken to the main square and then into the church where they stay for a week

All of these religious events lead up to the celebration of the Resurrection with High Mass and family gatherings on Easter Sunday. You must know by now that we love our food and for Ester we really cook some great dishes.
When Easter Sunday arrives we wake up early to get to the stove and start preparing elaborated meals. Lamb is a common meal along with various types of breads. The most important dish is Agnellino, roasted baby lamb. Eggs feature prominently in the day's dishes, in both soups such as Brodetto Pasquale, a broth-based Easter soup thickened with eggs, and various kinds of breads, both sweet and savory. But on the Pasqua table are special stuffed or layered pasta dishes such as lasagna and manicotti. Salads, fruits and desserts will follow the main course.
Also here the menus are different accordingly the region you are.
The minestra di Pasqua, the traditional beginning of the Neapolitan Easter meal, or anyway more on the south of Italy, indeed also at my paternal grandparents.
Other classic Easter recipes include carciofi fritti (fried artichokes), a main course of either capretto o Agnello al forno (roasted goat or baby lamb) or capretto cacio e uova (kid stewed with cheese, peas, and eggs), and carciofi e patate soffritti, a delicious vegetable side dish of sautéed artichokes with baby potatoes, all recipe I was enjoying in my family of my father side, down in Rome where I got to spend most of my Esters.
A holiday meal in Italy would not be complete without a traditional dessert, and during Easter there are several. We children finished our dinner with a rich bread shaped like a crown and studded with colored Easter egg candies. La pastiera Napoletana, the classic Neapolitan grain pie, is a centuries–old dish with innumerable versions, each made according to a closely guarded family recipe. Another treat, and the most eaten in my family, is the Colomba a sort of sweet bread covered by crystallized sugar and almonds shaped in one of the most recognizable symbols of Easter, the dove. The Colomba cake takes on this form precisely because la colomba in Italian means dove, the symbol of peace and an appropriate finish to Easter dinner.

Although we do not decorate hard–boiled eggs nor have chocolate bunnies or pastel marshmallow chicks, the biggest Easter displays in bars, pastry shops, supermarkets, and especially at chocolatiers are brightly wrapped uova di Pasqua—chocolate Easter eggs—in sizes that range from 10 grams (1/3 ounce) to 8 kilos (nearly 18 pounds). Most of them are made of milk chocolate in a mid–range, 10–ounce size by industrial chocolate makers. Le Uova di Cioccolata con sorpresa that we children very much liked!! Perugina or Kinder eggs are the most popular.
Some producers distinguish between their chocolate eggs for children (sales numbers are a closely guarded secret, but the market for these standard quality eggs is said to be shrinking with Italy's birthrate) and expensive "adult" versions. All except the tiniest eggs contain a surprise. Grown–ups often find their eggs contain little silver picture frames or gold–dipped costume jewelry. The very best eggs are handmade by artisans of chocolate, who offer the service of inserting a surprise supplied by the purchaser. Car keys, engagement rings, and watches are some of the high–end gifts that have been tucked into Italian chocolate eggs in Italy.
When Easter is over, we are not done celebrating. The Monday following Ester is called "Pasquetta" alias "Little Easter" and is a day we spend outdoors celebrating the mild temperatures and the natural wonders of spring. We will head towards the beach or the country, pick- nicking, roasting meats on charcoals and enjoying fresh green salads.
Traditions vary greatly from place to place, for instance very popular in the south are the pani pasquali, Easter breads funny enough almost not consumed in the north of Italy. These are not the standard breads one buys day-to-day in Italian bakeries, but rather something more: Breads that contain cheese, breads that contain sausage or salami, breads that contain hard-boiled eggs...
They're regional, nothing of this sort is made in Tuscany, for example, or in Venice.
Practically every family in Italy has a variation of this recipe, traditionally baked shortly before the holiday .
Sweet and festive, Italian Easter Bread serves as an attractive circular nest for colored Easter eggs, and is sometimes topped with colored sugar or sprinkles.
Serve at Easter breakfast with coffee, or after the holiday dinner meal with round of espresso or a dessert wine.
Here below is a recipe I love to make, and that remind me of my paternal grand mother Maria.
Italian Easter Bread Recipe

3 cups flour 
1/4 cup sugar 
1 package active dry yeast 
1 teaspoon salt 
2/3 cup warm milk
2 tablespoons butter, softened 
2 eggs 
1/2 cup chopped mixed candied fruit 
1/2 teaspoon anise seeds 
5 colored Easter eggs
Recipe Instructions:
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 cup flour, sugar, yeast and salt. 

2. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and beat in milk and butter. 

3. Add 2 eggs and 1/2 cup flour; beat 2 minutes on high. Stir in candied fruit and aniseed and mix well. 

4. Beat in remaining flour to form a soft dough. 

5. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.
6. Place in a greased bowl, cover with a damp cloth and let rise in a warm place until double in volume. Punch down the dough and divide into two pieces. 

7. Roll out each piece into a 24-inch rope. Loosely twist ropes and "nest" colored eggs into openings. 

8. Cover and let rise until doubled.

9. Bake at 350 degrees F for 30 minutes or until golden brown. 

10. Remove from pan and let cool before serving.
Serves 6-8.
Easter is a celebration of Spring, rebirth and the end of a long Lenten fast and a longer winter. In Italy or in America it is a time for peace, hope and joy. Eating good food, sharing the holiday with family and friends and enjoying the new warmth of the longer days is a wonderful way to mark the end of another winter.
So I can only wish you now to have a Happy Easter with your loved ones. Buona Pasqua a tutti cari amici.
And stay tune for my next week blog about a very special night that I had at the Annual Gala of the Cellini Lodge of the OSIA where I was honored last Friday.
 Love always,

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