The joyous ringing of the campanile’s bells announces the end of the silence of La Settimana Santa, Holy Week. Chirping swallows, symbol of the most beautiful season of the year, circle the town’s piazza. The hills have reached their summit of green and blossoms adorn the vines, olive and fruit trees. This signals farewell to Winter and a warm welcome to Spring! Pasqua, the Paschal season that celebrates the passage from death to life is here. In Italy, Easter is considered one of the most important, deeply-felt solemn holidays of the year. It is the time to embrace religious, cultural and culinary traditions.
In April 1979, my husband and I, after a long absence from our native Umbria and Marche regions, decided to return. It was the period leading up to the celebration of Easter. As we neared Spoleto, the city where I was born, vivid images of my youthful years spent with my parents and older brothers came back evoking pleasant memories.
Holy Week was an exhausting time for my mom, Lina, and Nonna Maria. It was the ritual of “Spring Cleaning” to prepare the household for the annual visit of Don Andrea, the parish priest. Vested in a black cassock and white surplice he was accompanied by his acolyte. He made his rounds to bless the parishioners’ homes which were meticulously cleaned to prepare for this event.
On Holy Thursday, the start of the preparations for Easter Sunday, breakfast began with the making of “la Pizza di Pasqua,” the savoury cheese bread made with flour, yeast, olive oil, numerous eggs and large amounts of grated pecorino and parmigiano cheeses. I always missed the initial mixing and kneading as Mom started the assembly before I woke up. I did, however, witness the numerous risings of the leavened mass before it was separated and placed in pots of all shapes and sizes (whatever was available) and allowed to rise once more. A symbolic cross, cut through with a knife was formed atop each loaf before being brought to the communal wood-burning oven. As the dough rose during the baking, it came up and out over the edges of the pots. When the “pizza” was golden in colour, a large wooden paddle was inserted into the oven, placed under each pot and the loaves were retrieved. The bakers gathered around the long wooden board carefully observing the mushroom-shaped Easter specialty. Which one was the lightest, had the best colouring or the best aroma? The “pizza di Pasqua” was then taken home, not to be eaten until Easter Sunday morning.
“Venerdi Santo”, Good Friday, marked the start of the solemn, religious events recalling the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Living tableaux and pathways lit by burning torches signalled the passage of the “Via Crucis” or Stations of the Cross. The procession of “Cristo Morto” was a deeply moving experience led by cloaked and hooded clergy carrying a statue of the dead Christ through the town streets.
On Holy Saturday, baskets lined with embroidered linens were filled with the Easter bread symbolizing the Body of Christ, boiled eggs, symbol of life, salumi such as prosciutto, capocollo and salami representing the paschal sacrifice and red wine, Christ’s Blood. This generous spread would break the forty days of Lenten abstinence. Families, dressed in their Sunday best, would bring these to the church for the blessing of this food which would be taken home and shared at the traditional Easter Sunday breakfast.
On Easter Sunday morning, the family attended Mass and, after catching up on news and wishing fellow parishioners “Buona Pasqua”, they rushed home to prepare “Il Pranzo Pasquale”. This consisted of home-made ravioli stuffed with swiss chard, ricotta and veal completed with an exquisite “sugo di carne”, meat sauce and a generous sprinkle of pecorino cheese. Roasted lamb, seasoned with aromatic fresh rosemary and white wine, was accompanied by roasted potatoes, wild asparagus and fresh artichokes, pan fried with garlic and wild mint. “Colomba Pasquale, a dove shaped cake dotted with candied orange peel, topped with an almond sugar glaze and shards of chocolate, was paired with the dessert wine, Vinsanto. This was the appropriate finale to Easter dinner!
The exchange of “L’Uovo di Pasqua”, chocolate egg, is a must in Italian tradition, heralding the arrival of Spring. These can be simple and small or large and elaborate. Regardless of size or price, they are beautifully presented and all hide a “sorpresina” gift inside!
Italians know how to make holidays last. Easter is officially over with “Pasquetta” or “Little Easter”. On Monday it’s time to get together with friends and have fun. Families armed with leftovers from the Easter Sunday feast embark on “scampagnate”, field picnics. One of the ancient events of the day which I remember is “la Gara del Ruzzolone”, where cheese was the star. My Dad and other competitors launched huge wheels of very aged pecorino cheese wrapped with leather straps. They skillfully rolled them around the perimeter of the ancient walled village as spotters ran alongside and we cheered them on. The objective was to get the unbroken wheel around the course using the fewest number of strokes. The winner of the bizarre cheese tossing game took all the cheese home!
As I ponder on my beautiful memories I count myself very blessed to have the family that I have – believers and respectful of our traditions. On Easter Sunday morning, we gather as a family and share the same traditional breakfast hosted by our oldest son and daughter-in-law. ”La Pizza di Pasqua” which Teri makes rivals my mother’s. Michael’s cured cheeses, my husband’s capocollo, our other two sons’ culinary expertise and the personalized boiled eggs artistically produced by the youngest members of the family complete the breakfast menu. The ravioli which we enjoy for dinner are a collaborative effort of our grandchildren and nonna, various shapes and different sizes, with the addition of a couple of extra ingredients: lots of love and dedication to preserving tradition and creating memories!