A Paschal Party : Festivities: In San Biagio Platani, a tiny village in Sicily, Easter is celebrated with feasting, soccer games and a fair measure of pomp and circumstance.
In Sicily, Easter begins almost as Good Friday ends. The church bells that were silenced by bonds of black cloth are loosened so they can ring out over the countryside. As the time for joy approached, I went off to see the triumphal arches decorated with breads and fruits in San Biagio Platani, a tiny village in the Sicilian interior high above Agrigento.
I discovered that arriving on the Saturday night before Easter is a bit like arriving at Cinecitta in Rome during the construction of a movie set. Half the town was busily hammering or sawing.
Forklift trucks were hoisting into place enormous decorative medallions made of bread. Women were threading oranges and lemons, bay leaves and branches of rosemary into the latticework edging the street, and little vans rumbled up the stone streets bringing supplies to groups of hard-working men. Electric drills droned in the background, while one of the men explained that the tradition of the arches started sometime early in the 18th Century to decorate the main piazza--the setting for the Incontro, the meeting of Mother and Son.
The Incontro is the heart of Easter in almost every Sicilian village, where the same scene is played out again and again. Mary, the sorrowing mother, searches through the streets. She leaves her church still dressed in a black gown of mourning, while Jesus approaches from the other side of town, and they circle, each unsuspecting that the other is near.
In San Biagio Platani, the statues of Mary and Jesus are automated by internal ropes, which makes their actions a bit jerky, so once Mary sees her son she hastens toward the yearned-for embrace with arms pumping and flapping.
When the ceremony first began years ago, the village split into two rival groups, the Madunnara (named for the Madonna) and the Signurara (for the Lord). Ever since, everyone in town must belong to one side or the other. Though there is no bad blood between them, it does make one wonder what the Church thinks of this particular competition and of the Easter soccer game between the two teams (even if it does combine the two religious passions of the country).
In the beginning, the two groups squared off to see who could create the most beautiful arches for the sacred meeting place of Mary and Jesus. Every year they dreamed up new decorative schemes. Then they decided to extend the arches by embellishing the street leading up to the great meeting place, weaving reeds and branches of split willow into screens that edge the street.
The arch at the piazza is the supreme triumphal proclamation of Easter, while the arch at the opposite entrance represents the front of a church. The avenue between them is the nave. Plans for their architecture, their sculptured decorations and the cadence of their forms are shrouded in secrecy until Saturday night, when the wraps come off.
These preparations take time. There are breads to be baked, masses of fruits, rosemary and bay leaves to be collected. And the quantities! More than 1,800 pounds of oranges, 400 pounds of sugar, and enough flour to make more than 10,000 pounds of spectacular decorative breads. One year the women created a mammoth gate almost as tall as Ghiberti’s church doors, with Biblical scenes sculpted in bread.
Of course, the entire population of San Biagio Platani walks along the streets on Saturday night, admiring the arches and comparing the work of the two teams. There are no prizes but popular consensus weighs heavily.
Last year, one team constructed an airy lattice work of delicate onion domes that rose 30 feet, like a vision out of the Arabian Nights. Whole trees of rosemary and bay leaves marked each end of the street. Columns crowned with capitals of bread marched along its edge, alternating with decorative arches outlined in glossy laurel leaves and filled with oranges, lemons and dates.
Not to be outdone, the rival team created a cathedral-like space with Gothic arches, columns, cupola, rose window and vaulting. To decorate its walls, they sculpted 13 mammoth breads in the forms of the events of the Passion--the Annunciation, even the Crucifixion and Resurrection--each eight feet high and constructed of more than 200 pounds of flour.
Each of the two streets meets the piazza with a triumphal arch that is shaped to look like the front of a church. To decorate the top part, the Madonna’s team constructed a picture of the Madonna and Child entirely out of tiny pasta shells, dried peas and beans, and then hung hundreds of small shiny breads, formed into such symbolic shapes as peacocks and doves, angels and stars, palms and flowers. The legend, Viva Maria Santissima, was written in lentils on a background of tiny pastine-- rice-shaped pasta--a delicate communication in food not meant to be eaten.
A charming, if apocryphal, story attributes this dish to a poor woman who had sold all the family lambs and goats to get food for the winter. When Easter came, she didn’t have any of the traditional food, so instead she used ingredients she had on hand, a vast quantity of eggs from her hens, and cheese freshly made from sheep’s milk, to create a new dish. Tagano is the name of the terra-cotta container in which the dish is cooked. The unusual flavorings of saffron, cinnamon and mint make this a lovely and haunting pasta dish. It is made on the Saturday afternoon before Easter, although it is meant to be eaten at the Easter Monday picnic. Tagano has a rare advantage: It can be made ahead and served later at room temperature or reheated slightly before eating.
10 eggs, beaten
2 3/4 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh mint
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 large dash saffron dissolved in 2 tablespoons chicken broth
1 pound or bit more rigatoni
1 pound or bit more sheep’s milk cheese, such as lachesos, thinly sliced
10 slices stale bread or 1 pound ground pork, optional
Beat eggs with broth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add parsley, mint, cinnamon and saffron mixture. Set aside.
Cook rigatoni in large quantity of salted water until al dente. Drain. Place pasta and cheese in alternate layers in oiled oval baking dish, preferably terra cotta. If using bread, arrange it on bottom. If using ground pork, saute lightly and distribute with cheese as you begin layering. Pour some egg mixture over each layer of cheese and pasta and, when finished layering, pour remainder over top to fill air pockets in lower strata. Bake at 350 degrees 1 hour. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
If lamb is the quintessential Easter food, then this is the dish to celebrate the holiday with. The tastes of spring sing from the creamy lemon sauce enfolding the meat. When I ate this at Regaleali, a great Sicilian wine estate in the interior of the island, I wanted to fly into the kitchen immediately and learn its secrets. I restrained myself long enough to eat an extraordinary dinner and drink wonderful wines. Then Mario Le Menzo, the family cook, gave me the recipe and showed me how he had made the dish.
ABBACCHIO BRODETTATO PASQUALE (Sicilian Easter Lamb)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, minced
4 pounds boneless lamb stewing meat, cut in large chunks
2 3/4 cups meat broth or enough to cover lamb completely
6 egg yolks
Juice of 4 lemons
1 pint whipping cream
1 1/2 to 2 tablespoons potato starch for every 2 cups liquid
Heat oil in large casserole. Add onion and saute until translucent. Add lamb and cover with broth. Cook over medium-low heat 35 to 45 minutes or until lamb is tender. Remove lamb from broth and keep warm.
Degrease broth. Recipe may be prepared in advance to this point. Chill broth and remove fat when it has solidified. Reheat lamb at 350 degrees 30 minutes.
Heat broth. Remove from heat and whisk in egg yolks and lemon juice, mixing well. Over very low heat, slowly whisk in cream. Increase heat to medium and slowly stir in potato starch, whisking well to prevent lumps from forming. When sauce thickens, add lamb. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately. Makes 8 servings.