Italy does many things well, and one of them is knowing how to stretch out a holiday. For example, Easter, a one-day holiday in the U.S. is at least four days of feasting here. They began Friday evening in Lecce, where I'm staying. Family, friends and visitors met and mingled in the piazze. Groups gathered and flowed out of the city's wine bars, caffes and eateries chatting, laughing and enjoying each other's company until late in the night.Chocolate eggs wrapped in an assortment of pastel colors brightened every shop windows. The partying doesn't end until Tuesday morning. Easter Monday, known as Pasquetta (little Easter) is the final day of feasting before everyone has to go back to work.
I've spent most of the four-day holiday eating many of the traditional holiday dishes of the region, and yes, the chocolate eggs, too, and learned a little about some of the other Easter traditions of Salento. I like that many of the Easter holiday food "musts" are sweets. Of course lamb, usually with potatoes, is the usual main dish of the day, but it wouldn't be considered Easter without the special bread speckled with cubes of pancetta; it's made similarly to the Neapolitan Casatiello. In the sweet category, Almond paste lambs are a must. Two types of cookies are also part of the dessert table. One, known only in Pugliese dialect as cudduri, is shaped into various forms (hens, women, baskets or hearts) and then baked with a boiled egg attached to the "pouch." The other are called pittedde (also dialect) and are little baskets filled with jam. Rounding out the sweet table are the chocolate eggs. They were traditionally given to the children and filled with a little surprise, but now they are elaborately designed and wrapped and gifts for those special to you, of any age.
Is your mouth watering yet? If not, below I'm giving you a glimpse of the rest of our Saturday feast. Once again I was speechless about the spread of food Luigina and Tommaso greeted us with as they welcomed us to their home for a pre-Easter feast. After we were completely sated with course after course of one scrumptious dish after another, Tommasso pulled out bottles of his home made digestivi. I lost count after the fourth.
The meal included three types of bread cooked in their wood burning oven. Tommaso manned the oven, entertaining the children and letting them help. Inside, Luigina started us with fried pittule and chicory in pastella. Our first course was a traditional dish, La tria with wild broccoli. The pasta, which you could say was like a wide-cut fettuccine, was made two ways, boiled and fried. The fried pasta goes on top of the dish to give a nice contrast of textures. Our second course included meatballs which we sopped up (known as fare la scarpetta in Italian) with the Easter bread.
On Easter Sunday, I spent the morning at the seaside town of Gallipoli. The sun came out in full force, only emphasizing the pastel blue of the sky and the deep turquoise of the Ionian Sea that surrounds Gallipoli's historic center. Most of the people dressed in their best church-going dresses and suits and strolled the streets after mass. Streamers of balloons in primary colors hung above us. People offered us glasses of sparkling wine and tastes of the cuduri, a cookie baked with a hard boiled egg nestled on top.
We witnessed a village tradition, "the burning of the witch." I have to say I'm not too comfortable with this tradition. I have red hair, am left handed, have a sixth sense that is always right (if only I'd listen to it more) and know this would have been my fate had I lived during the time of Savonarola. In Gallipoli and small villages in Puglia, starting on Ash Wednesday they hang dolls that look like witches. These witches represent our sins. Via our repentance during the 40 days of Lent (Although St. Joseph's Day and eating zeppole don't sound like much repentance to me), the witch gathers all our sins and they consume her. After mass on Easter, she is burned. The burning symbolizes a washing away of our sins and a rebirth.
Easter Monday, rolls around and it's still a holiday and another day focused around food. Known as Pasquetta (little Easter), friends and family gather for a picnic, either seaside or in the countryside. After a food-focused weekend like this and then a serene picnic under the olive groves, how can you not fall in love with Puglia, minus the witch burning, I guess?!!
Join me in Puglia in 2013! For a food lover's culinary tour, we'll cook with Italian mammas, with chefs, and with families like Luigina's. We'll also be eating and exploring our way through the region, its traditions - both food & cultural, and making delicioius dishes like those above!
For tour details, check out this page: Food Lover's Culinary Tour in Puglia
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