Easter Monday: What’s that?

Pastiera napoletana
Rustici (savory pastries)
Valle fiorita

It’s a holiday in Italy.   Called Pasquetta or Lunedì dell’Angelo. A day dedicated to feasting outdoors. The great after-Easter picnic, which always happens since the weather usually cooperates.   In Southern Italy, that is. A tradition that is fairly recent, dating back to the period right after World War Two, when the government decided to extend the Easter festivities by one day, so that people could relax and enjoy Easter without the stress of having to go back to work on Monday. Damn good idea, I’d say, can we adopt it? Anyway, I, having been raised in Italy in a less traditional way than most Italians, had not experienced this customary picnic until I was about sixteen or seventeen. And not with my family. We were staying in my father’s country house (his almost two-hundred-year-old ancestral home) in Colli, in the tiny region of Molise, something we did sometimes for Easter, as the weather was more pleasant and that little mountain village wasn’t as frigid (ancient stone house with no heat: not a cozy picture, believe me!). So, the day after Easter, some far-removed relatives of my father asked me to join them on their traditional Pasquetta picnic at Valle Fiorita, in the countryside nearby. Sure, why not, better than hanging out with my family doing nothing, or possibly bickering with my siblings. Allora, my father’s cousin and his daughter, a girl a couple of years younger than me with whom I occasionally hung out, came to pick me up in an old Fiat, and off we went toward the outskirts of the village, along bumpy and dusty country roads, till we reached – almost by magic, I thought, since I didn’t pay much attention to itineraries – a green valley, smiling cheerfully emerald under the sun, surrounded by woods. Pretty for sure…but there was nothing there. Now what? Well, ‘what’ arrived promptly. A small crowd of participants began pulling up in cars and motorcycles, all carrying baskets, containers, pots, and bags of groceries. Before I could get my bearings, folding chairs were opened up, a huge pot (a cauldron?) was removed from the trunk of a car and set on the grass, while some of the men began building a fire. As I was waiting for the salame and prosciutto sandwiches to be distributed, like at a proper picnic, I was surprised to see that the cauldron was being filled with water (from where?) and set on the now lively fire…while the women were tearing open packages of pasta. What? Yes, indeed, another pot brimming with sauce was bubbling already over another fire, and tables (from where?) were being set with tablecloths and napkins! I was stunned: we were going to have freshly cooked pasta at a picnic in the middle of a forest! And so it was. Spaghetti with some kind of tomato sauce (I think, I didn’t really pay much attention to these things as a teen, just focusing on boys, fashion, boys, romantic novels, boys, nail polish, boys…), with parmigiano, clinking glasses of red wine, followed by lamb chops cooked alla brace, on a makeshift grill, vegetable contorni, then the thick and golden frittate di Pasqua, special tall frittate made with dozens of eggs, filled with all sorts of meats and cheeses, aromatic of nepitella (a type of wild mint that grows in the mountains), cooked at length on the stove, till they looked like solid cakes, to be sliced with a knife (no diet food this, nor easily digestible, but quite delicious), green salads, plus, of course, the leftover pastiera and other Easter sweets, and, naturally, strong sweet coffee for all, freshly brewed in the little army of moka caffettiere brought along by everyone. A gargantuan meal, which bore no resemblance to a picnic. A long afternoon spent, after, lying around on the grass, half dozing, half listening to the soccer game on the radio (the men), washing all the (real) dishes and flatware and cleaning up the valley (the women). Us kids? Off into the proximity of the picnic area, with friends or boyfriends, a fairly reckless motorcycle ride down the country path, hanging on for dear life to a friend of a friend of a cousin who had this cool red Vespa…Never experienced it again, this incredible Easter Monday picnic that wasn’t a picnic, but, damn it, still can’t get it out of my mind, even after decades, wishing that, well, I knew then what I know now, and actually had a clearer memory of the bounty of the food and how it was magically created in the middle of the woods. Instead of the color of somebody’s eyes. Ma così è.

( I originally wrote and posted this memoir on April 1, 2013.  Re-published here because I didn’t have the time to write a new one.  Simple as that.)

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Pasqua: Chocolate Eggs, Pastiera and Newborn Hope for All

Easter should always be sun, new blossoms and church bells.

The large Perugina chocolate eggs waiting in the wings, resplendent in their colorful wrapping. Growing up in Italy, they were the highlight of the holiday for us kids.   Those ‘amazing’ surprises inside (trinkets) would gift us a few IMG_3107hours of happiness, no matter how trivial.

On Easter day, my father would carefully unwrap the largest egg, precisely cut off the top, remove the sorpresa, and hand us each a good-sized chunk of the delectable cioccolato fondente. Then he meticulously re-wrapped the egg and stored it away. Period. The rest of the egg would be handed out a little bit each day, at the end of the pranzo. No chocolate overdose for us, that was for sure. Just enough to (barely) satisfy our cravings, and to look forward to the next serving. A reasonable method of controlling calories and greed. And, yes, it worked.

Easter should be new white shoes, pink, straw-yellow or light green dresses, with just a pastel cardigan over them.

A plate of home-made tortelloni, lavish chubby dough bundles, stuffed with Swiss chard and ricotta, served in a melted butter sauce, abundantly sprinkled with parmigiano reggiano, an explosion of gustatory ecstasy.  A butter-tender capretto slowly roasted with rosemary and garlic, on a bed of brown-crusted potatoes.

And, to end our feast, a large golden Pastiera, redolent of orange blossom water, cinnamon, vanilla, dIMG_3123eliciously heavy with ricotta cream, candied orange and wheat berries. Creamy as a dream, the exotic flavors insinuating into our very souls. Memories that cannot ever be erased, too strong and poignant to disappear into the loss that is time.

Easter should be an almond and coarse sugar-encrusted yeast colomba to wake up to. The aroma of fresh coffee emanating from the trusty moka.   The sun seeping through the blinds, the sky clear and ridente.

Walking to church in our new clothes, smiling to the crowd.

Welcome back, Jesus, please take care of our fragile world.

Happy Easter to all, Buona Pasqua, my dear readers!

Le uova di cioccolato, la pastiera e il ritorno della speranza: Buona Pasqua!

 23 marzo 2016

Pasqua dovrebbe essere sole, boccioli e la colomba con la crosta di mandorle e granella. Vestiti nuovi, scarpe bianche, l’uovo di Pasqua in attesa in sala.IMG_3107

Flashback: I tortelloni belli pronti, laboriosamnete preparati da mia madre il giorno prima, una decina di piatti ricolmi, nei vari angoli della casa, finanche nello studio di mio padre, fagottini paffuti, farciti di bietole e ricotta, vestiti di burro fuso, un’esplosione di sapori golosamente modenesi.  Il parmigiano grattuggiato a mano, una montagnella di candido profumo.

La folla in chiesa, la messa troppo lunga, gli sguardi segreti (c’è lui?), la confessione il giorno prima, già quasi annullata da nuovi peccatucci…

La tavola imbandita in sala, il profumo del capretto arrosto, aromatizzato da rosmarino e aglio, incorniciato dalle patate croccanti.  Un vinello leggero, un mezzo bicchiere anche per noi ragazzi (Non vi ubriacate!)

La Pastiera, grandissima, dorata, profumatissima: fior d’arancio, vaniglia, canditi, cannella, ricotta cremosa, grano tenero, tante tante uova, regalo annuale delle suore amiche di famiglia, le stesse che a Natale ci coprivano di cerchi di struffoli spettacolari, mostaccioli, roccocò, la pasta reale e la regina dei dolci, la Cassata.

I balconi apertIMG_3123i, il cielo ridente, il mare calmo laggiù, il mio golfo risplendente di nuova speranza.

Today: La nostra chiesa americana, artisticamente moderna, che dà sul fiume Hudson, ampio quanto un lago in certi tratti, chiaro e armonioso di primavera, ma sempre imponente, echeggiante di tanta storia che ha viaggiato sulle sue correnti poderose.

Gli alberelli timidamente in fiore, l’erba verde chiaro, fragile, acerba. I coniglietti di cioccolato dappertutto, cestini di fiori e di caramelle, felicemente portati dall’Easter Bunny; caccia alle uova colorate nei giardini delle chiese, nei parchi pubblici. Centinaia di bambine felici, vestite di rosa e giallo, coi cappellini di paglia, i maschietti in abito e cravatta, tutti a correre sui prati, cadono, si rialzano, si macchiano le scarpette di vernice, le braccia ricolme di uova di plastica, il grande tesoro.

Pasqua dovrebbe essere il richiamo alla vita. Rialziamoci anche noi, spezziamo le catene del passato, guardiamoci di nuovo intorno, afferriamo la speranza a cui avevamo rinunciato.

Bentornato, Gesù, prendici per mano, ricostruisci questo nostro mondo così gravemente ferito.

Happy Easter, Buona Pasqua, carissimi lettori!

Easter Monday: What’s that?

It’s a holiday in Italy.  Called Pasquetta or Lunedì dell’Angelo.  A day dedicated valle fioritato feasting outdoors.  The great after-Easter picnic, which always happens since the weather usually cooperates.  In Southern Italy, that is.  A tradition that is fairly recent, dating back to the period right after World War Two, when the government decided to extend the Easter festivities by one day, so that people could relax and enjoy Easter without the stress of having to go back to work on Monday.  Damn good idea, I’d say, can we adopt it?  Anyway, I, having been raised in Italy in a less traditional way than most Italians, had not experienced this customary picnic until I was about sixteen or seventeen.  And not with my family.  We were staying in my father’s country house (his almost two-hundred-year-old ancestral home) in Colli, in the tiny region of Molise, Pastiera for Easter 2013something we did sometimes for Easter, as the weather was more pleasant and that little mountain village wasn’t as frigid (ancient stone house with no heat: not a cozy picture, believe me!). So, the day after Easter, some far-removed relatives of my father asked me to join them on their traditional Pasquetta picnic at Valle Fiorita, in the countryside nearby.  Sure, why not, better than hanging out with my family doing nothing, or possibly bickering with my siblings.  Allora, my father’s cousin and his daughter, a girl a couple of years younger than me with whom I occasionally hung out, came to pick me up in an old Fiat and off we went toward the outskirts of the village, along bumpy and dusty country roads, till we reached – almost by magic, I thought, since I didn’t pay much Easter 2013 Dessertsattention to itineraries – a green valley, smiling cheerfully  emerald under the sun, surrounded by woods.  Pretty for sure…but there was nothing there.  Now what?  Well, ‘what’ arrived promptly.  A small crowd of participants began pulling up in cars and motorcycles, all carrying baskets, containers, pots, and bags of groceries.  Before I could get my bearings, folding chairs were opened up, a huge pot (a cauldron?) was removed from the trunk of a car and set on the grass, while some of the men began building a fire.  As I was waiting for the salame and prosciutto sandwiches to be distributed, like at a proper picnic, I was surprised to see that the cauldron was being filled with water (from where?) and set on the now lively fire…while the women were tearing open packages of pasta.  What?  Yes, indeed, another pot brimming with sauce was bubbling already over another fire, and tables (from where?) were being set with tablecloths and napkins!  I was stunned: we were going to have freshly cooked pasta at a picnic in the middle of a forest! And so it was.  Spaghetti with some kind of tomato sauce (I think, I didn’t really pay much attention to these things as a teen, just focusing on boys, fashion, boys, romantic novels, boys, nail polish, boys…), with parmigiano, clinking glasses of red wine, followed by lamb chops cooked alla brace, on a makeshift grill, vegetablescontorni, then the thick and golden frittate di Pasqua, special tall frittatemade with dozens of eggs, filled with all sorts of meats and cheeses, aromatic of nepitella (a type of wild mint that grows in the mountains), cooked at length on the stove, till they looked like solid cakes, to be sliced with a knife (no diet food this, nor easily digestible, but quite delicious), green salads, plus, of course, the leftover pastiera and other Easter sweets, and, naturally, strong sweet coffee for all, freshly brewed in the little army of moka caffettiere brought along by everyone.  A gargantuan meal, which bore no resemblance to a picnic, a long afternoon spent, after, lying around on the grass, half dozing, half listening to the soccer game on the radio (the men), washing all the (real) dishes and flatware and cleaning up the valley (the women).  Us kids? Off into the proximity of the picnic area, with friends or boyfriends, a fairly reckless motorcycle ride down the country path, hanging on for dear life to a friend of a friend of a cousin who had this cool red Vespa…Never experienced it again, this incredible Easter Monday picnic that wasn’t a picnic, but, damn it, still can’t get it out of my mind, even after decades, wishing that, well, I knew then what I know now, and actually had a clearer memory of the bounty of the food and how it was magically created in the middle of the woods.  Instead of the color of somebody’s eyes.  Ma così è.