The bells are ringing all over town. For a minute or so, they drown out the low throaty coos of the pigeons which seem to have nested outside my window under the eaves.It’s Easter Sunday in Bra, a small town in Piemonte, northern Italy. A light rain is falling and the temperature has dropped, yet again. Well, it’s Spring, and the weather is very changeable.
Over the past week or so, I’ve been astonished by the processions taking place at night in the street outside and have wondered how Easter is celebrated here. One Friday night it was a statue of Mary (Our Lady of Sorrows) being carried along the street followed by members of the congregation; another night, it was a cross, outlined by red lights. Mind you, I’m lucky to live opposite an active neighbourhood church where the local Braidese (people from Bra) come and go frequently.
In this part of Italy, Easter is celebrated with a colomba di Pasqua (Easter dove), a light brioche-style cake made in a similar way to the better-known Christmas panettone with flour, yeast, butter, eggs and candied peel. It’s then shaped to look like a dove (colomba) and topped with sugar and almonds before being baked. It was invented in 1930 by Milanese baker, Angelo Motta, to extend the success of his industrially produced pandoro and panettone.
Given that pigeons are such a nuisance in so many parts of Italy (think Venice, Rome), I’m intrigued that these small, round-headed, round-bodied , soft birds (which belong to the dove family – and which many people consider to be pests) are celebrated in this way.
Even more curious are the Easter Sunday morning celebrations in Florence where a dove-shaped rocket flies out of the Duomo and ignites a cart covered with fireworks. Called “Scoppio del Carro,” (Explosion of the Cart), this tradition dates back more than 500 years, and involves a huge and ornately-decorated wooden cart covered in fireworks and rockets wheeled into the square in front of the Duomo on Easter morning. Once the Easter mass is finished, the fireworks are lit by a rocket shaped like a dove (colombina) with an olive branch in its beak. The dove is lit with holy fire from the mass and then flies out the front door of the church on a cable connected to the cart, setting off a chain reaction of fireworks.
But then look at our Easter celebration of the rabbit. In Australia, they’re one of our biggest pests (think rabbit-proof fence) yet the shops are full of chocolate rabbits everywhere you look at Easter.
True, I’ve seen a few rabbits in shop windows in Milan, and in some of the smaller towns around here – but I haven’t sighted a Bilby, nor a Hot Cross Bun and there is no tradition here of baking Hot Cross Buns on Good Friday.
I’ve also seen plenty of lamb, both in windows and on menus, intended for a celebratory meal on Easter Sunday along with artichokes.
Here in Piemonte, the typical Easter cake is the Salame del Papa (i.e. Pope’s Salami) which looks like a real salami. Because Catholics are not meant to eat meat during Lent, this sweetmeat was concocted by chefs to satisfy their cravings. Made with butter, biscuits, cocoa powder and hazelnuts., I found a more stunning looking version here in Bra at Al Converso, one of my favourite cafes, studded with maraschino cherries and almond paste. Sadly – for me, it looked better than it tasted.
But what most surprised me was the arrival of Luna Park in Bra about ten days ago. Suddenly one of the main parking areas in piazza Spreitenbach and piazza XX Settembre has been transformed into a bright, shiny and seductive fun fair, complete with ferris wheel, dodgem cars, carousels and fairy floss.
Yet another surprise was that last night (Easter Saturday), Luna Park was virtually empty (where were the kids?) while the church opposite where I live was jam-packed – fully of devout Braidese adults who had come to share the ceremonial lighting of the Paschal candle and take part in the Easter Vigil.
I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the candle being lit outside my neighbourhood church – and to witness a part of the solemn, candle-lit mass.
As I stood inside at the back of the church, deeply moved by the mellifluous voice of the priest and the Hallelujah songs of the choir, I reflected upon the importance of a neighbourhood church in bringing a community together – and also of the many traditional rituals surrounding food in this country, and how they bring people together.
None moreso than than the Canto J’euv (“singing the eggs”) ritual I took part in on the during the quaresimali (Lent)) on the Saturday night before Easter. According to the tradition, groups of young people walk from farm to farm at night all through the Roero and Langhe areas of Piemonte, knocking on the doors of farmers to announce the arrival of spring and singing folkloric songs in exchange for a few eggs – or sometimes a glass of wine and a few slices of salami. This ancient ritual is tied to the rebirth of nature, the arrival of spring and the agrarian cults of fertility of pre-Christian times and was in danger of being lost until Carlo Petrini, head of Slow Food and UNISG, encouraged the students at the University to take part.
I found the youthful enthusiasm and spontaneity of the students infectious and loved the amusing, sometimes bawdy songs they sang.
Felice come una pasqua as they say in Italy – which translates as “happy like an Easter”or “happy as can be.”