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Easter in Piedmont

& the singing of the eggs

The small village of Verduno, in the northern Italian region of Piedmont, is situated on a cliff that dominates the large valley of the Tanaro River. In this region, the culture has been developed from the cultivation of the grapes. It is the changing of the seasons that marks the rhythm of life of its inhabitants.

Here at Easter, there is an ancient custom known as cantare le uova – ‘singing for the eggs’. Easter coincides with the beginning of spring, when work in the fields recommences slowly. The desire to remain outdoors after the winter torpor, arises once more. During the days preceding Easter, the local youth gather into groups and go from farm to farm in the hope of receiving fresh eggs in exchange for their songs. Spontaneous group bands together armed with unusual musical instruments (saucepans and lids), and with large baskets, plant themselves at the front door. Here, amongst the chickens scratching about in the courtyard and the dogs barking, they began to sing: ‘We have left our homes in the light of the fading day to come and greet you and wish you a good day’.


Il rito di questua delle uova, più spiccatamente pasquale è quello piemontese di CANTÈ J’OV – CANTÈ J’EUV.

Begging for eggs is just a pretext as the expected reward is the invitation to come in and brighten up the evening; maybe sharing a bottle of wine and something to eat. Tradition dictates that the bands are composed of the following set characters; the Viandante (traveller) with his flowing overcoat and his wide-brimmed hat, the Contadino (peasant) in raggedy work clothes, the Signore (nobleman) who patronise the shabby and lame Frate (monk). It is the latter who has the task of blessing the generous donors and looks after the egg basket, which aren’t so much donations as a repayment is due for the provided entertainment. The rhyming stanzas of the songs, which celebrate the most significant events of the family they are visiting, are not always well received. Thus, the egg seekers are not always invited in and this outcome can’t go unpunished.  When this occurs the Frate performs a lively curse along the lines of: che si secchi il culo delle tue galline – ‘may your hens’ arse dry up’. According to tradition, these eggs on the day of Pasquetta (Easter Monday), are used to prepare large frittata that will be eaten up during the celebrations in the piazza – the village square.  The now milder night carries sense of renewal in the air, and in the same way, the eggs, which symbolise rebirth and fertility, will bring baby chicks in the aia – farm courtyard – and something more to eat.

Try this Piemontese Easter recipe!

Salame di Papa

A typical piedmont easter treat:

Among the many sweets typical of the pasticcera of Piedmont that are prepared for Easter, we find the luscious Salame di Papa – ‘The Pope’s Salami’. It is a sweet chocolate salami that was once prepared by housewives, especially in the winter season. The dessert was served to guests in the afternoon and evening with a small glass of Moscatello or dry Marsala. Its name probably derives from the fact that when a dish is good it is called boccone del prete – ‘the priest’s bite of food’, and when you eat well it is said to ‘eat by God‘ or ‘by the Pope’.

The recipe

Ingredients:
– 200g butter
– 200g dry biscuits like Arnotts ‘Nice’ biscuits
– 300 g sweetened cocoa powder
– 300g hazelnuts
– 2 tbsp orange or mandarin liqueur
– 1 egg yolk

Method:
– Firstly, toast your hazelnuts in the oven, then grind them in a blender until chunky
– Add your biscuits to a bowl and with a rolling pin, crush them until they are crumbled
– Soften the butter and in a large bowl, incorporate all the ingredients one at a time; crushed biscuits, toasted hazelnuts, egg yolk, sweetened cocoa powder, and orange or mandarin liqueur
– Knead all the ingredients and note that if the dough is too hard, add a little more liqueur. If the dough is too soft and sticky, add more crushed biscuits
– Continue to knead the dough, trying to form it into a shape similar to that of a salami
– Once you’re happy with the shape, let your wonderful chocolate salami rest in the fridge overnight
– Finally, remove the salami from the fridge half an hour before serving, slice it thin and accompany it with a glass of Asti or Moscato Passito

Winter roadie!

For almost 20 years, New Zealand winter season has been the perfect time to visit family in Italy and lie on the beach. But for the past few years, we have decided to turn to our childhood winter activity: skiing. As last year, we planned to drive down to the deep south (from Auckland), instead of flying. Four days to reach our favourite winter destination, Wanaka, and discovering some new exciting parts of NZ along the way.

Activities for our first day included strolling along the incredibly clear water at the blue springs, at Putaruru, and the Redwood Treewalk at night in Rotorua. Suspended high above the forest floor, we walked across bridges and platforms, illuminated by floating lanterns designed by sustainability champion David Trubridge.

The morning after, heavy rain along the desert road prevented us to appreciate the view of the majestic volcanoes of the Central Plateau, but as our ferry entered the Queen Charlotte Sound, we were welcomed by jumping dolphins and we were rewarded with a picture perfect; colourful and clear sunset. South Island was welcoming us.

The ocean road from Picton to Kaikoura was beaming with wild life. Marveling at the close encounter with the noisy, clumsy, smelly but nevertheless intriguing seals was a highlight. The fresh crayfish served at the roadside beach caravan was the perfect lunch spot.

Day four is the final leg, Christchurch to Wanaka. As we drove across the passes, the excitement escalated. Lunch on this day was at the ‘Fairlie Bakehouse’ to eat only the best pie in the South Canterbury region. It would be rude not to take a brief stop at Tekapo to admire the unreal colour of the lake. This is also the first encounter with the smell of snow and the vastity of the Mackenzie country.

The arrival to Wanaka feels like a warm welcome back to what we consider our winter home. Last year we have spent 3 entire months here and this has allowed us to live the town and its surrounding as the locals do. Adam and Eve’s breakfast croissants, the espresso at the Coffee Shack, the relaxed lunch at Federal diner, the fresh beer after a rewarding day of skiing at Treble Cone… But our favourite experience remains the freshly baked scones paired with a glass of mulled wine at the ‘Wineglass café’ of the Edgewater resort.

Mulled wine, vin brule’ in Italian, is very popular in almost every town of the Italian Alps and is part of my childhood memories. Although I never really drink it in Auckland, I have brought the recipes with me from Bormio, the ski area I used to go as a child in the Valtellina region.

Vin Brûlé

Ingredients:
– 1 litre of full-bodied red wine (the Italian Primitivo is my fave but Syrah works well)
– 7 cloves
– 2 cinnamon sticks
– 3 aniseed
– 1 lemon (for the zest)
– 1 orange
– A pinch of grated nutmeg
– 3/4 cup sugar

Method:
In a wide but low saucepan place the sugar, grated lemon rind, sliced orange, spices and then pour the wine. Bring the wine slowly to boiling point, stirring continuously.

Shortly before the boiling point, remove the pot from the stove and let it stand for approx. 2 hours or overnight so that the spices can infuse. Strain the spices, reheat and enjoy.

NOTE: For a non-alcohol version try the cherry juice!

Easy as pizza dough – what can go wrong??

The decision to move to New Zealand was the perfect opportunity to realize my dream of opening a cooking school to both share my love for cooking and at the same time to keep the link with my homeland. As I would later explain in the introduction of my book:

‘Cooking… is the subtle thread which united my diverse family, as well as the only proven method of communicating the continuity of our traditions to my daughters, by recreating that special atmosphere made possible only when you are seated around the table with those you love’.[1]

I completed the qualification at the Institute for the Promotion of Italian food Culture and I was very confident in my knowledge. Or so I thought.

On our way to New Zealand, on July 1998, while we were waiting for the container with all our material belonging to get to our new home, we stopped in Greece to farewell the Northern Hemisphere summer and then we arrived in Sydney. We booked a B&B in North Sydney where we intended to visit the area, but soon both Martha and Giulia got sick and we were forced to stay inside for a few days. Our lovely hosts were very intrigued with our choice of leaving Italy to move to New Zealand, a country they consider ‘20 years behind the rest of the world’ and very impressed with my plans of opening a cooking school. As it happens, they loved Italian food, so, they decided to host what would be my first ‘Italian cooking class’.

Making pizza in our outdoor pizza oven

What a perfect occasion to wear my ‘chef hat’ and test my ability to share a trick or two. Pizza and fresh pasta were the easier and most popular choice. In theory, these recipes do not require any special ingredients, even back in 1998. Our guests kindly agreed to take me to the grocery shop and even advised me on what type of flour to buy. The fresh pasta dough proved simple enough and my hosts managed to find a sort of antique pasta machine that egregiously did the job. Then it was time to make the pizza dough. Fresh from my course on elaborated brioche and bread variety, I felt that making pizza dough could pose no threat. Under my professional supervision, everyone began kneading the dough which, strangely, began to rise even before adding the yeast. Its consistency was different from what I was used to, but after all, we were cooking ‘down-under’ and minor differences were to be expected. No big deal. Little did I know that something called ‘self-raising flour’ existed, and that it already contains a raising agent. Instead of a thin and crusty pizza, the result was an Italian version of a British scone, topped with tomato mozzarella and basil.


[1] Raffaela Delmonte ‘The Fragrance of Basil – Food and Memories of my Italian Childhood’ – Penguin 2002.

“Of that magical day (my wedding), I remember three things”

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele – Milan, Italy

‘In the shadow of Milan’s imposing cathedral, beneath the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in one of its many elegant restaurants, I enjoyed the most romantic dinner I’ve ever had, and a foretaste of all the adventures to come.’

This is how my book ‘The Fragrance of Basil – Food and Memories of my Italian Childhood’ mysteriously ends, after the description of my first date with my husband Paolo. The picture of our wedding announcement is the clue of the first of our adventures:

19 September 1993
Holy Monastery of SS. Cyprian & Justina – Athens, Greece.

Yes, we got married in Greece, but it was far from a typical Greek wedding with hundreds of guests. Actually, there were no guests at all.

Of that magical day, I remember three things: The sound of my racing heart, the colour of the sky at sunrise and the sweet taste of the bread after the wedding ceremony. The taste of the bread was unlike any other taste I ever experienced. A mix of aniseed and marzipan, butter and citrus. When I ask what kind of bread it was, I’m told it’s Tsoureki, the Greek variation of the Easter celebratory breads which belong to the Christian tradition; ‘Panettone’ in northern Italy being the most famous.

Tsoureki – A typical Greek Easter bread

At Easter, Tsoureki is shaped into three braids with three red dyed eggs to symbolize Christ’s resurrection. But Tsoureki is also prepared in Greece throughout the year as a delicious coffee companion. Its unique rich flavour is due to two aromatic spices used in this traditional tsoureki recipe, mastic and mahlab, which give a really characteristic flavour and smell.

Mastic, known as ‘the tears of Chios’, is a natural resin of an evergreen bush related to the pistachios plant, for which the island of Chios is famous. It’s taste is a combination of fennel, aniseed  and vanilla, which can be used if mastic is unavailable. Mahlab, or mahlepi, is the seed of a wild cherry found along the coast of the Mediterranean sea. It’s taste is strongly linked to that of marzipan and it is essential for the Tsoureki.

We make this bread almost every Easter with my three daughters (when they’re in the country that is!). I found Mahlepi in the Greek shop called ‘Taste Greece’ in Browns Bay, Auckland.

Dyeing our eggs at home for our Tsoureki bread

Raffaela’s Greek wedding Tsoureki Recipe

  • 80g butter (room temperature)
  • 100ml cream
  • 80g sugar
  • 3 medium eggs, at room temperature (150g)
  • 450g bread flour
  • 10g of fresh compressed yeast (1 and ½ tsp of dry yeast)
  • Zest of 1 lemon, grated
  • ½ tsp of ground mastic (or ½ tsp fennel, ½ tsp aniseed and ½ tsp natural vanilla essence)
  • 1tsp ground mahleb (or 1 teaspoon almond essence, but it is not the same!)
  • 1 egg and 1 tbsp water, for glazing

Method:

Melt the butter with the sugar in a saucepan, on very low heat. Do not allow it to boil. Remove from the heat and add the cream. Allow to cool down for a few minutes then add the yeast and stir until dissolved.

Pour into a large bowl and whisk in the whole eggs, one at the time.

Add the flour, the ground mastic and mahlepi, grated lemon rind and stir the ingredients to combine. Then, tip onto a floured surface and knead for few minutes. The dough remains quite soft, but not sticky.

Cover the dough with a reusable beeswax wrap (we don’t like plastic, remember!) and allow it to rise at room temperature for about 2-3 hours, or until it doubles in size.

Gently deflate the dough with your hands and cut into 3 equal portions. Take one piece and roll it a little bit with your hands. Hold it with your hands from the edges and shake to stretch the dough into a rope. Form the other two ropes than braid them together and transfer the bread onto a large baking tray.

Allow it to rise for about 1 more hour at room temperature, until it almost doubles in size.

In a small bowl add the egg yolk and 1 tbsp water and whisk with a fork. Brush the top of the bread with the egg, being careful not to deflate it.

Optional: Boil three eggs and dye them red (we bought our natural red dye from a Russian shop, Marusya, in Albany – Auckland). Once boiled, gently press each egg into the bread.

Bake in preheated oven at 180C for about 30-40 minutes, until nicely coloured.

If you make this at home, i’d love to hear how you went. Take some photo’s and send them through, or tag my Instragram so I can see them!