As Easter approached in Molfetta, people began to get excited not only about the impending processions, but also at the prospect of eating their traditional Easter food. I’ve already talked about the chunky “pizzarello” sandwich, so now it’s time to turn to the various delights that sweeten up the Easter weekend.
I was told about the ‘scarcella’ at least ten times over the course of April, by my host family, by friends and by students. It took me that long to memorize the name: without seeing Italian names written down, they seem to go in one ear and out of the other. The ‘scarcella’, I’ve been told, varies depending on the tastes of the person who makes it but it can be loosely placed on the border between the categories of cake and biscuit (a bit like Jaffa Cakes, I suppose). At Antonio’s house, I ate a fairly simple kind: a thick crumbly biscuit shaped like a big heart, or even like a dove, with a white sugar glaze and coloured hundreds and thousands. The lemon flavour was quite subtle, these were delicious with milk at breakfast time. I later sampled other ‘scarcelle’: one made by Antonella’s friend, this one softer with a lemon marmalade/jam/curd/whatever in the middle, and then one made by a local pasticcieria with the full Epicurean works. This masterpiece was filled with cherry jam and a layer of marzipan, then covered in an egg white glaze and chocolate piping.
Another sweet discovery I made this Easter was the Neapolitan “pastiera”. The pastiera is a kind of wheat tart, made with a cooked grain, ricotta, egg and candied fruit filling. I’d never heard of such a thing but I helped Antonio’s mother make not one, but two tarts over the Easter period. Number one was consumed over a week or so in little aromatic squares: I suppose it could be described kind of like a solid rice pudding flavoured with some special essence called ‘Millefiori’ or ‘a thousand flowers’. Number Two was baked a couple of days before I went to Mondovì, up North in Piemonte, to visit Mum and Dad. The pie, 50cm in diameter, was sliced and packed with care in Tupperware and cling film and a big box with Botticelli’s Venus on the front. Then it was slotted into my hand luggage, all four kilos of it, and smuggled through security at Bari airport. I looked back at Antonio with an OK sign to show that the operation had been successful. But then, nowhere in Ryanair’s Terms and Conditions is there written ‘no food, no tarts’. Had they opened my suitcase, they might have thought I was some kind of dealer for Italian baked goods. Do they even exist? If so, someone get me in touch with one, I need my ricotta fix next year.
Italians take their love of gastronomy to an extreme level on national holidays. At Easter, families gather together around a table laden with food, wine and water, for a meal lasting three hours plus, bringing together several generations. It’s great, but really not healthy or reasonable at all. Still, it only happens a couple of times a year and at Easter, any guilt that we feel should go towards the Passion of Christ, not our waistlines. Let’s forget about gluttony, just for argument’s sake…
On Easter Sunday, Antonio invited me to have lunch with his family at a restaurant in the countryside near Ruvo di Puglia, a town near Molfetta. It was an “agriturismo”, a kind of farm located up in the Murgia, the gently hilly Apulian fields lined with olive trees and vines winding up tall stakes. The landscape is full of undulating yellows, greens and browns, the hills topped with a line of hazy light. We drove along the country paths from Corato towards the Coppa Agriturismo, and when we got out of the car, I was instantly reminded of Scuderia Castello in the hills above Lake Garda. That eternal smell of horses, reminiscent of early morning feeding time, trotting after a wheelbarrow at the age of 9, almost getting our hands bitten off by a rogue piebald. Then a donkey rolling in the sun reminded me of the famous trio of placid animals that let us brush them the wrong way for hours at a time.
We headed inside the restaurant, which was a refurbished stable with cool light bricks and a high arched ceiling. There were six of us around the table: Antonio’s grandfather was particularly jovial, calling me by a different name each time (Marilena, Gioconda, Josefina, Silvia and Silvana among the many) until I just looked his way every time a girl’s name was mentioned, just in case. There was a lot of laughter and a lot of dialect and a lot of food, but that goes without saying. It started with at least eight different types of anitpasti, including roasted vegetable skewers, meats, freshly made ricotta and mozzarella, a variety of focaccia and fritelle. The highlights were some cute little toast canapés with designs of ladybirds and bumblebees. We took pictures to show Izzy, for inspiration. It was delicious but we were apprehensive about the shedloads of food still to come. The next courses were orecchiette with a lamb sauce and then some kind of crêpe stuffed with the classic combo, spinach and more ricotta. Then it was time for a walk to try and make some room for the rest, fennel, grilled meat, and finally dessert and coffee. The chocolate biscuits and scarcella remained lonely and untouched as we reached maximum capacity.
Despite this calorie explosion, Mother says I haven’t gained weight; that I’m just toned. I’m inclined to believe her rather that admit that I’m on a one way street to “paffuto”. But ah well, no one can say I’m not making the most of the local cuisine. Especially ricotta.