Archive for Easter
In my last communique, Easter was tapping on the windows asking to be let in.
Now it has passed, leaving the usual signs — peace, joy, and crumbs. I have the feeling that the crumbs are going to last the longest.
There are crumbs of a colomba, the Easter dove, the traditional spring stand-in for the Christmas panettone, in the general form of a bird and covered with almonds and bits of pearl sugar. Crumbs of the hollow chocolate Easter egg strewn among shards of its busted hulk, crumbs of a small chocolate-covered cake in the form of a bunny, with a fragment of an ear. There is still a small bin of chocolate eggs, and another whole colomba in the form of a flower frosted in pink. But you know what? I’m sugared out.
The best thing I’ve eaten since last Sunday’s feast of roast lamb and assorted sugar-bombs was set on the table last night — bought, transported, and prepared by the indefatigable Lino.
First, we had seppie in their ink, which we’d bought just-caught from the fisherman that morning, and which had passed the afternoon simmering in their black essence. We sploshed around in it with chunks of polenta, the old-fashioned kind Lino likes to make in his mother’s copper cauldron — it requires 40 minutes of almost constant stirring. These two items alone would have satisfied most mortals.
But best of all, we had something I had always heard of but never tasted: castraure (kahs-tra-OOR-eh). These are tiny artichokes, in this case being of the violetto di Sant’ Erasmo breed, but they are more than that: They are the very first artichoke, cut from the plant in order to allow its fellow ‘chokes to prosper.
You’d be right in guessing that “castraura” has something to do with castration. Linguistically, it does. Physiologically, it makes no sense, but let us not dwell on the details.
My impression is that they have become something of a minor culinary myth, in the sense of being apotheosized to the point where to meet the demand (or to justify the price), there are more castraure offered in the Rialto Market than the last reported total number of pieces of the True Cross. For there to be that many castraure, even assuming most of them come from hothouses all over Italy and not simply from local fields, there could scarcely be enough land left to grow a bouquet of begonias.
Castraure are small, as you might expect, but so are its subsequent siblings, which are called botoli (BAW-toh-lee). As far as I can tell, there’s no way to tell them apart, just by looking at them. If you have the chance, then, go buy them from the farmer, like Lino did. He saw the little morsels cut from the plant just for him, so no debates about their provenance.
You can eat them grilled, or saute’d in garlic and oil, or raw, sliced paper-thin with oil and salt and vinegar. Or raw, whole. Just make sure there isn’t any wildlife running around among the leaves. Trivia alert: Technically, they’re not leaves, and they’re not petals, either. They’re bracts. It’s a word which won’t get you very far in the kitchen, but at least now you know.
Or you can eat them breaded and fried, which is what Lino did. I’m not a huge fan of frying, since there seem to be more than 8,000 ways to do it wrong and only one way to do it right. Also, frying seems to blunt or distort the flavor of the object fried. But there was no bluntage last night.
Our little castraure were tender enough to eat whole, stem included, and best of all, they were bitter. It’s a purposeful flavor, stronger and more complex than the everyday artichokes I already love. Certainly stronger than the later-blooming botoli. If you don’t like bitter flavors, whether simple or complex, you should abandon your dream of the castraure because they will not compromise or ingratiate themselves, not even for you.
I admire that in a plant.
Here is what Easter is looking like out in the country, a/k/a Sant’ Erasmo. We rowed over to the island today to buy some vegetables from the Finotello brothers and came home not only with bitter chicory and a couple of fresh eggs but also two bussolai buranelli and hearts full of spring.
As I write, it’s 11:00 PM and the bells have just begun ringing outside. This means it’s Easter. They don’t wait till a sedate, well-bred 8:00 in the morning. In fact, they don’t want to wait at all. If nothing else could make Easter beautiful, it would be enough just to hear all the bells singing in the dark.
I had a fleeting notion of looking up some Easter poetry for you. Then I decided to just let the world speak for itself.
However you may have been observing the past six weeks of penitence, Easter is now steaming into port with the pilot onboard and will be here in three days.
Special Spring Bonus: Click here (11042001) if you would like to hear a small soundtrack of the blackbird chorus outside the window every morning before dawn.
Older Venetians remember a bit of rhyming versification which highlighted each Sunday of Lent by attaching it to one of the miracles of Jesus.
I have no information whatever on how this started, who came up with it, or anything else other than its now-fading existence. By doing some random research (fancy way of saying “asking around”), I discover that children are no longer taught this bit of lore. In fact, so far I haven’t been able to nab anyone of any age in this neighborhood who’s ever heard of it, so perhaps it’s a relic of life in long-ago Dorsoduro.
Therefore this missive may be one of the few places to acknowledge this fragment of tradition before the last traces are gone.
It goes like this: Uta, Muta, Cananela/Pane e Pesce, Lazarela/ Oliva/Pasqua Fioriva.
It is pronounced: OO-ta, MOO-ta, Canna-NAY-a/ PAN-eh eh PEH-sheh, YA-za-RAY-ah/oh-YEE-va/PAS-kwa fyoh-REE-va.
The significance of these gnomic utterances is as follows:
Uta: I don’t know. This is a bad start, but I am still researching this curious word by means of any elderly Venetians and/or priests I can find. It hasn’t been easy, which only proves that this verseology is on its last legs. Perhaps “uta” refers to one of the many healing miracles: bleeding, or blindness, or demon-possession, or paralysis, or dropsy. You can take your pick until further notice.
Muta: The healing of the man mute from birth (Mark 7: 31-37).
Cananela: My sainted sister-in-law (age 82) maintains that this refers to the meeting of Jesus with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (John 4: 4-26). She is very firm on that, even though it wasn’t technically a miracle, but seeing as the reading for the Third Sunday is, in fact, that passage, I think we can consider the matter settled.
Lazarela: The resurrection of Lazarus (John 11: 1-46). Makes a nice rhyme. Also worth remembering for its own self.
Oliva: “Olive.” Although here, as in many other places, they call the Sunday before Easter “Palm Sunday” (Mark 11: 1-11; Matthew 21: 1-11; Luke 19: 28-44; John 12: 12-19), or “Domenica delle Palme,” the fronds distributed in church aren’t palm, but olive. This is very lovely, considering the ancient link between the olive branch and peace, and the various Gospel accounts only agree on the fact that clothes were spread on the ground before Jesus’ feet. Obviously nobody has ever thought of calling it “Clothes Sunday,” so I’m just going to leave that alone. We get olive twigs, take it or leave it. In Latvia they use pussy willows.
A bit of meteorological magic holds that “Se piove sulle olive/ Non piove sui vovi” (If it rains on the olives, it won’t rain on the eggs). Meaning that if it rains on Palm (excuse me, Olive) Sunday, it won’t rain on Easter. Much as it distresses me to give any credence to this sort of thing, I have seen it turn out to be true something like 95 percent of the time. I can’t explain it.