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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

“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!

Summer festivities

Summer at Villa Romantica stands for large gatherings around the wood-fire pizza oven. It is an occasion to catch up with friends we rarely see throughout the year. The number of invitees has grown over the years, and the question, as always for us Italians, is ‘how am I going to feed them all’?

What’s first?

Martha selected a band called ‘The Recipe’ and organized a huge marquee to cover the dancing area while I planned a series of ‘eating moments’. For the early comers, the table was laid with Italian cheeses, a selection of my best bread (turmeric bread is always a favourite!) and the ‘bagnacauda’ as the center piece.

The grazing table with a selection of cured meats, cheeses, crackers, fresh fruit, sweets, and other nibbles. We decided to feature funky and antique props like my grandfathers first Pasta machine, aged grappa, and the bottle from a 1982 vintage wine (which we opened the day before).

Bagnacauda, which literally translates ‘hot dipping’, is a combination of salted anchovies and garlic – in the same proportions. It sounds almost unpalatable but trust me – it always proves to be a success. The key for its success is not to reveal the ingredients before it has been tasted by your guests! The bagnacauda, which is kept simmering in a cast iron pot, is surrounded by an array of raw vegetables to dip in. Soon after my guests started nibbling, the table became the point of attraction; my guests come to ask me what it’s made of and go back in the queue for more.

Pizza me up!

Meanwhile, the wood fired oven reached the temperature of 300’C. Most of the logs are removed, ashes are wiped off the oven floor and the first rolled pizza dough is ready to go in. Five minutes and the pizza is ready; with its thin crust and slightly burnt edges is simply irresistible. I prepared 100 doughs hoping to satisfy everyone’s cravings for Italian pizza. As for the toppings, the girls have laid a colorful grazing table, to feast the eye on.

100 dough’s lined up ready to be rolled
Our WWOOFer from France rolling out the Pizza dough
Ready for the oven!
La Pizza, ready to be devoured!!

What’s for dessert?

Now my question for this part was… which dessert can I create to surprise and delight our friends this year?  I decided to go with the crostata di frutta – fresh fruit tart, which is our family summer celebration cake. But how many did I need to prepare if there were just over 100 of us? How about making one tart but very large? Let’s say, exactly 800 mm in diameter, so I could present it on my grandmothers round antique table?

Nice idea, but how in the world would I do it? As it can’t be cooked whole (my oven’s not THAT big!) I decided to divide the base into 8 triangle-shaped cakes. Once the cakes where all ready, I realized that joining them together was not a straightforward task as the borders did not match anymore! The problem wasn’t the look; 2.5lt of runny custard cream needs to be poured onto the base. Here’s the idea I went with: a mix of oat flour, sugar and butter proves to be a perfect filler to patch the holes. Once the cake was covered with the custard and topped with berries and mint the result was stunning. If I do say so myself!


My daughter and her husband cutting the cake:
Crostata di frutta (800mm in diameter), presented on my grandmothers antique table

This was the only decent photo we got of the cake.
Crostata di frutta (800mm in diameter), presented on my grandmothers antique table

We danced well passed midnight to the rhythm of the beat, so much so that a jet-lagged tourist was on a nightly stroll and decided to follow the sound of the music… she found Villa Romantica and joined us on the dance floor!