For us, Easter Sunday might bring thoughts of egg hunts, Easter bonnets and chocolate bunnies, but the holiday has a different feel in other parts of the world. Marked with the solemnity of its religious origins and the lightheartedness of spring’s rebirth, Easter has a long and colorful history that even retains elements of ancient Roman festivals.
Russia and Eastern Europe
Russian and Eastern European countries’ Easter celebrations are most famous for their incredibly detailed decorated eggs. These aren’t the simple hard-boiled and dyed eggs most of us know for Easter; these works of art are often meant to be displayed for years. The eggs are a hold-over from the earliest celebrations of spring’s renewal. They represented new beginnings and fertility, and adorning them with festive decorations is a practice that predates not only Christianity but also recorded history; no one’s quite sure when the practice began. However, the Romans almost certainly contributed to the custom, carrying it to all corners of the far-flung Roman Empire.
While Easter Sunday is solemn, the Monday afterward is celebratory throughout Eastern Europe. It’s tradition to spank others with decorated willow switches – think of the friendly swats you might get on your birthday or the affectionate pinch you’d get if you forgot to wear green on St. Patrick’s Day. Water-fights are also common, especially in Poland.
The dinner table almost always includes a ham, eggs and bread, often marked in the shape of a cross to honor the religious roots of the celebration. Some traditions also include cracking boiled eggs with a nail to symbolize Christ’s suffering.
Greek Orthodox traditions start with celebrations on Great Thursday with eggs dyed red and placed on altars or ikons. Easter is a more solemn holiday than it is elsewhere; traditional and devout households consider the next few days a period of mourning. On Holy Friday, church bells toll in funereal tones and flags fly at half-mast. Saturday’s observances have a distinctly modern twist; the Eternal Flame travels to Greece from Jerusalem by jet, a trip that used to be considerably longer. Each church gets its own flame that remains lit throughout the remainder of the week.
On Easter Sunday, the somber tone of the holy week is transformed to a joyful celebration. Whole spit-roasted lamb is a traditional centerpiece to an Easter feast, but any kind of lamb dish can work for those who don’t have time or space for a whole lamb. Heaps of delicacies grace every table, and the retsina and ouzo flow freely throughout the day. It’s no wonder, then, that Easter Monday is a time of restful contemplation in the Greek tradition.
The home of the Roman Catholic Church and of pre-Christian Roman celebrations of spring naturally has its own rich Easter traditions. It’s second only to Christmas in its importance socially, and for many devout Italians, it’s the most solemn feast in the liturgical calendar. Good Friday is filled with more solemn observances, including blessings from parish priests and meatless Lenten meals, but Sunday is a day for celebration.
Easter Sunday is for feasting on pork, lamb and veal as well as sweet treats in the shape of eggs. Chocolate eggs are as beloved in Italy as they are here for Easter, and the Italians have turned decorating the candies into an art form. Bakeries try to outdo each other with lavish confections and iced cakes. The colomba pasquale, or Easter dove, is a special sweetened, yeast-leavened Easter bread that is Easter’s counterpart to the traditional Christmas panettone.
Florence has a unique tradition, the Scoppio del Carro, loosely translated as the Bursting of the Cart. A cart filled with fireworks is paraded through the streets and set alight with flints from the Holy Sepulchre, bringing together a religious tradition with one that predates Christianity in a unique event that celebrates spring with a bang.
Whether you celebrate Easter as a traditional Christian holiday or as a celebration of spring’s arrival, Carlino’s wishes you Buona Pasqua!Tweet read more
Italian food is famous for its luscious tomato-based sauces and endless variations on flavorful pasta dishes, but both tomatoes and pasta are relative newcomers to Italy compared to the olive. Olives have been grown throughout the Mediterranean since antiquity, and the oil they produce is at the heart of some of Italy’s most beloved foods. It’s everything from a salad dressing to a condiment for bread to the secret ingredient that makes a grandma-style pizza crust so delicious. Understand olive oil, and you’ll understand the roots of Italian cuisine.
Types of Olive Oil
As you go down your local grocery’s oil aisle, you’ll notice that olive oil, unlike other vegetable oils, varies tremendously in color and viscosity. Pick up a bottle and hold it to the light; you’ll see shades from a lush emerald green to chartreuse to topaz yellow and even pale straw. Color doesn’t indicate quality, but it does usually show how much an oil has been processed. Pale olive oils have usually been more refined and don’t have the complex flavor and lower smoke point of darker oils.
Olive oils are also graded based on how the manufacturer produced them. The grades include:
Extra-virgin olive oil
Only oil physically pressed from the olives without chemical treatment, heating or refining can bear this “extra virgin” label. Fine Italian olive oils also pass a rigorous taste test from experts whose palates are as sensitive to nuances in olive oils as a wine taster’s. These experts ensure quality and uniformity; every extra-virgin olive oil sold in the U.S. has gone through this quality check.
Virgin olive oil
Virgin olive oil is functionally similar to extra-virgin olive oil, but it has a less pronounced flavor. Virgin oils contain no more than 1.5 percent acidity.
Pure olive oil
Blended from pressed virgin olive oil and high-quality production oil, pure olive oil is an economical choice for general use. With less than 2 percent acidity, it has a relatively mild flavor.
Produced with heat and solvent extraction as well as physical pressing, refined olive oil has very little of the oil’s characteristic flavor but has a much higher smoke point.
Olive Oil in the Kitchen
The key to using olive oil well is in choosing the right oil for the dish. The pronounced flavors, high cost and low smoke point of unrefined extra-virgin oil are perfect for dressing a salad, drizzling over crusty Italian bread or adding a grace note to a lemon cake, but it wouldn’t be suitable for oil-poaching fish or pan-searing a veal cutlet.
A good guideline to remember is that the less processed the oil, the closer to serving time the oil should be added. The fresh, grassy notes of an extra-virgin oil are perfect to dress a salad just before it reaches the table, while pale refined oil is best for low, slow cooking techniques. For dishes that fall somewhere between those extremes, a good pure olive oil is perfect. A grandma-style pizza doesn’t need to stay in the oven long to develop its uniquely delicious and crispy bottom crust, so it takes a high-grade pure olive oil or a good virgin oil that lets its taste shine
Extra-virgin olive oil has complex flavor notes that some aficionados have compared to fine perfumes, and the best of them are as valuable to connoisseurs as fine wines. Heating them destroys the volatile components that give them their nuanced flavor, so save your best oils for the table, not the stove.Tweet read more
When Marco Polo, the great Venetian explorer, traveled to Beijing in the 13th century, he supposedly brought what would become one of Italy’s most famous foods home with him: pasta. Without the Chinese contribution, the legend goes, Italians might not have their dazzling array of pastas from lasagna to linguini.
Archaeologists know for certain that noodles of some sort were first found in China. The world’s oldest noodle dish contained strands of ground, dried millet in spaghetti-like strands coiled in an earthenware bowl about 4,000 years ago in a region near present-day Beijing. Noodles older than the Coliseum are a strong argument that Chinese chefs were getting creative with pasta centuries before the rest of the world knew the joys of a plate of well-sauced spaghetti. By the time Marco Polo got there, Chinese cuisine had refined noodle dishes to a high art. He almost certainly enjoyed them while he was there.
However, the millet and buckwheat noodles in Chinese dishes aren’t much like Italian semolina pasta, and Italy’s archaeological sites boast their own tradition of pasta-making. As early as 400 years before Julius Caesar transformed Rome from a republic to an empire, people in the region were making a wheat paste, forming it into sheets or strands and boiling it. Etruscan frescoes depict what appears to be pasta-making in action. The rolling pin and cutting wheel in the painting are early versions of tools still familiar to many Italian chefs today. Marco Polo’s trip was still more than 1,600 years away when that scene was painted.
Another source for Italian pasta’s native roots is the most famous Roman writing on cooking, the Apicius cookbook. By the time the Roman guide to feasting was written sometime around the early fourth century, dishes made with sheets of finely ground wheat dough were already in it. Laganum, one of the most popular, is a clear forerunner of modern Italian lasagna, although it had to wait centuries to receive its tangy tomato layers. Cicero was said to be a fan of laganum and ate it often.
Possibly the best proof that Marco Polo was already familiar with pasta is that he already had a name for it when he came back and wrote about his travels. He described the noodles he ate in the court of Kubla Khan as vermicelli, a term he didn’t describe for his readers because he assumed they knew exactly what he described. Fortunately for historians, writing had come into fashion not only for explorers, but for common citizens. A soldier from Genoa named Ponzio Baestone left a will in which he mentioned macaroni – 16 years before Marco Polo returned from China.
Chinese dishes have their own tradition, but it’s clear that Italian pasta has home-grown roots. From the earliest Roman laganum to today’s glorious spaghetti, linguini and ziti, pasta is an Italian original. We can thank Marco Polo for plenty of other wonders, but he didn’t bring pasta to Italy because it was already there.Tweet read more