Earlier this year, I decided to book a holiday in Italy. I’ve never been (I know, I know – shush my dears), and I’ve always wanted to explore the beautiful cities and villages (and not to mention food nirvana) of this historical land. Being me, I decided that visiting one place in Italy wouldn’t be enough: in my enthusiasm to “conquer” multiple parts of the country I have arranged for half a week in Ostuni, Puglia in southeast Italy, and the other in Florence, Tuscany in central Italy. Words cannot describe how psyched I am at the mere prospect of visiting these places, let alone staying in them for few days, and I’m thrilled I’ll be getting a tiny taste (metaphorically and literally – though not the actual bricks, of course) of these spots in just a few months time.
It is this impending trip to L’Italia that inspired me, in light of the Easter period, to take a look at the sort of food made, shared and munched on in this country during this holy week. Italy is known for its pizza and pasta, but surely there are recipes beyond these that celebrate this holiest of Christian holidays?
For perhaps the obvious reason that the Vatican City is the centre of Catholic Christianity, Easter is one one of the most important holidays celebrated in Italy during the year. Across the nation, religious processions, services and rituals are held throughout a whole week to respect, mourn and celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Known In Italian as Pasqua, celebrations last from Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter Sunday) all the way to Monday – “Easter Monday”, or Pasquetta. Each place has its own traditions and special services: in the Sicilian town of Enna, thousands of white-hooded friars carry statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary throughout the streets. In the central Italian city of Chieti, in the region of Abruzzo, what is considered the oldest religious procession in Italy is performed on Good Friday, the day Jesus was crucified – thousands of hooded and silent men and children walk solemnly through the town, lit by torches, and carrying a large wooden sculpture of the crucified Jesus and his mourning mother the Virgin Mary, known as “Our Lady of Sorrows“. In this procession, known as Processione del Cristo Morto il Venerdì Santo, they are followed by a marching orchestra and choir performing the “Miserere”. In Florence, on Easter Sunday, an old cart is filled with fireworks and set on fire in the middle of the town.
Spending time with loved ones is very important at Easter too. Like Christmas (and, perhaps, Thanksgiving), it’s a time of the year where family and friends come together for the day and celebrate the resurrection with each other and though food (yay): from their lavish eggs (dense chocolatey things that are often colourful with candy glaze, and with little surprises inside) to their large feasts. There’s even a phrase, “Natale con i tuoi. Pasqua con chi vuoi” – “Christmas with your family. Easter with whomever you like.” Basically, Easter is like chilled version of your other family holidays.
Like all other countries, the sort of spreads put out for Easter lunch vary from region to region in Italy – owing to different types of foods grown throughout the various provinces. Of course, thanks to modern-day technology, regional delicacies are now eaten or known throughout the country, meaning the more foods are (quite rightfully) being celebrated and noshed on. However, as spring marks the first season for fresh and early produce – young cured meats, cheeses and seasonal vegetables – the same sort of ingredients appear in all the Italian Easter lunches. Generally, lamb and eggs are served in some dish or combination, and (of course) some form of cheese. Beautiful desserts are the highlight of the Easter table, and here is where the greatest variety appears throughout the country – from the Napolese Pastiera Napoletana, the Calabrian ciambelle, the Friulian Pinza Gorinziana and the famous Lombardy Colomba.
For this week’s recipe, and in honour of my stay in central Italy, I looked into the sort of food and traditions had in this region at Easter. I was interested in feasting on a lighter meal, as a change from the usual leg of lamb and fat-oozing roast spuds (not to mention giving my stomach more room for chocolate eggs…). I discovered this lovely recipe from the Abruzzo region, which seemed a perfect traditional meal to make – relatively light and easy to make, it also has that wonderful holy connection too, as Chieti sits within this province and has one of the most solemn Easter celebrations in Italy. The history behind this recipe is fascinating. According to the blog, Life in Abruzzo, this recipe has routes in South Mediterranean and Israeli cuisine. It’s key ingredients are shoulder of lamb, egg and lemon. Besides the well-known association of lamb and egg with Easter tide (rebirth and spring), the inclusion of lemon not only adds flavour to this dish but apparently aids digestion – after 40 days of abstinence and plain eating (as quite a number of devout Christians refrain from eating certain foods, especially meat, during Lent) stomachs are much more delicate.
This carbonnara-like creation is simple but scrumptious. The shoulder of lamb is seared in a pan with a sliced onion, and then white wine added. Chuck in laurel, bay leaves and some seasoning, leave it for 30 mins and then finish by adding the mix of egg and cheese. Noice. I confess I’ve made a few tweaks by frying some carrots and celery too to make a sort of stock with the lamb and wine, but otherwise I’ve tried to keep this recipe as true to the original dish as possible. To make my dish “extra Italian”, I’ve forgone the usual roast potatoes and made seasoned polenta (just within the central Italian region, though it’s more commonly made in northern Italy) and steamed asparagus on the side. Phenomenom.
So this Easter, if you fancy a slightly more relaxed affair with your lamb (and perhaps frantically working out what to buy at the supermarket as everyone has gorged themselves on spuds and rosemary), I strongly encourage you to give this recipe a try and dip your tootsies/wooden spoon into the comforting nosh of central Italy.
Enjoy my peeps.
Agnello cacio e uova con polenta e asparagi (Lamb, cheese and egg with polenta and asparagus)
(Loosely based on a recipe by cookaround.com.)
- 2 tablespoons of olive oil
- 750g of lamb shoulder, chopped into small chunks
- 1 large onion
- 1 large carrot, chopped into tiny cubes
- 1 celery, chopped into tiny cubes
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- Large glass of Italian white wine
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 laurel leaf
- 3 sprigs of rosemary
- Salt and pepper
- 2 eggs
- 50g of pecorino cheese
- Juice of 1 lemon (or 2 1/2 tablespoons of bottled lemon juice)
- 1.9L (8 cups) of water
- 150g (1 cup) of fine cornmeal
- Vegetable stock cube
- 200g (2 packs) of asparagus
- Knob of butter
Heat the olive oil in a large lidded pan then on a medium heat fry the onions, carrots and celery together for 7-10 minutes. Add the garlic and fry for 3 minutes or until slightly browned. Transfer these fried vegetables to a bowl.
Bring the pan to a high heat and chuck in your lamb shoulder pieces. Braise them until just browned then turn down the heat to low, quickly stir in your set-aside vegetables and pour in your glass of wine. Add your bay leaves, rosemary, laurel and seasoning, stir, and then pop the lid on. Leave to cook for 30 minutes.
After 10 minutes of the lamb cooking you can start on your polenta. Pour your water into a saucepan (ideally nonstick), sprinkle the stock cube into it and bring to a boil. Add pepper and salt if you wish at this point – I like a lot of seasoning, but the stock may be salty enough for you! Turn the hear down to a simmer and gradually add your cornmeal to the water, sprinkling it in and stirring at the same time. If you have a whisk this is way easier, as it breaks up any lumps or cornmeal you haven’t quite stirred in. Once all the cornmeal is added, keep stirring now and then until your polenta can be moved around the pan in a happy ball. On my hob, this takes about 7-10 minutes.
Around 5 minutes before your lamb is ready, put your asparagus to steam. Beat your eggs, lemon juice and cheese together.
When the lamb is ready, turn off the heat but keep your pan on the hob. Pour in your egg mix and stir until your lamb and veg are fully covered, and the sauce is nice and thick. Serve alongside the polenta and steamed asparagus, with a knob of butter on the latter.