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Thursday, April 5, 2012

Easter in Italy: Festivals, Feasts and Slow Food

Easter Bread of SardiniaEaster Bread of Sardinia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
By Ashley Bartner

In Central Italy's region of Le Marche we are all abuzz for Easter! The butchers began taking orders for lamb days ago, our neighbor Pia has made dozens of the traditional Easter bread slowly cooked in a wood burning oven and the villagers are ready for the festivals of Holy Week.
Slow Food
Le nonne (the grandmother's) are busy baking crescia di pasqua, a local Marche Easter bread in two types: sweet or dolce and the more common savory, brusca. What is becoming an annual tradition of mine, I stopped off early Wednesday morning at our neighbor Pia's house to visit with her and marvel at the 50 + loaves she had rising about the house (using over 200 eggs and about 6lbs of cheese). The most incredible scene was in the bedroom: the special dolce (sweet) bread was snuggled up, wrapped tightly under layers of blankets (including an electric blanket) in their bed! Kept warm, safe & sound to rise slowly. Before electric blankets they used coals from the fire.
Other pots were nestled about the house around the fireplaces, stove & couch all huddled together. After a day of rising I returned that afternoon, Olavio had built the perfect fire for the bread in their outdoor wood burning oven. Twenty five loaves of bread in at a time - now that's an oven! I had timed it just right, arriving as they are pulling out the first loaf of bread! Pia admired her work & the beautiful toasty golden color - brava!

We are all eager to taste the bread - so we closely follow Pia into the main house. She has cut into 1 sweet & 1 savory for us to compare. I have eaten the savory cheesy version many times - its nice, dry & crumbly perfect with a glass of wine. This was the first time to try the dolce/sweet version - which is a bit like panetone but much better! "I'll just take a little skinny slice, I'm not really hungry", but after a quarter of a loaf I realized I couldn't stop eating it! That paired with the deep red wine & the homemade visciolino (cherry liquor) everything was going down nice & easy. I returned home (with a bit of a buzz) in awe of these ladies & the work they put forth to offer up these loaves of bread as gifts to lucky family & friends. I was also so very thankful that I too had a nice bundle of warm bread to take home.
The Festivals
Then comes Good Friday (with a proper fish dinner of course) where almost every village celebrates with living scenes of the stations of the cross and a candle-light procession through town. Religious or not it is always a sight to see. Visit Cantiano for its absolutely amazing play of the Passion. Talk about a production - gorgeous Romans arriving on horseback to an incredibly huge stage in the center Piazza of town, flowing costumes, huge cast, complete with lights, music and some serious over acting! In nearby Cagli the scene was a bit more intense with over 350 barefooted, cloaked & hooded men make their way through town with torches, unchanged ritual since the 16th century.
The Feasts
Saturday we eat lightly because Easter Sunday lunch at Doctor Gaggi's house we will be fed a feast among family & friends. Traditionally we eat a big breakfast with salami, blessed boiled eggs with salsa verde and crescia di pasqua. Then for lunch cappelletti in brodo and lamb, of course, must be on the menu. I would be remiss not to mention that the boiled eggs are actually brought to our local priest to be blessed!
But in Italy we're not done celebrating on Sunday... The most popular feast day is actually Lunedi di Pasqua or pasquetta, Easter Monday is when friends gather (most in the countryside) for a long leisurely lunch & for an Italian that means heading home around 7:30/8pm. They say Easter is for your family, Easter Monday for your friends (or who you choose). This year we are choosing to spend the day with our friends for lunch atop Mt. Nerone. For the first time on Lunedi di Pasqua we are the guests, normally we are serving lunch for 20+ hungry Italians, it will be nice to do nothing but eat - the proper way to celebrate the day!
Buona Pasqua!

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