I only have a few food memories of the British Easter. There were, of course, holiday specialities, but not all that many.
There were hot cross buns, filled with currants and raisins and marked with a cross, which we used to eat on Good Friday.
And there were eggs, not just chocolate Easter eggs but also pasche eggs (note the Romance etymology), characteristic of the north of England in general and of Cumbria, the county I come from, in particular. These are hard-boiled eggs dyed with onion skins and wrapped in strips of gauze to create attractive marbly patterns.
My mother was a master of the art, an art that would make the house stink of onions for days on end.
It was the custom to offer our pasche eggs to any neighbours and relatives who came to visit during Holy Week, and people would offer us theirs when we went to visit them.
We kids used to compete to see who could collect the most. How simple the world was then. Today in the high-tech age, I doubt a child would be happy to receive a hard-boiled egg as a gift. He or she would likely crack it over your head.
Cumbria is a county of fells and lakes and sheep. Lamb and mutton, especially from the local Herwick breed, often appeared at the table. “There’s nothing better,” my dad used to say, “than a plate of roast lamb, fresh mint sauce and new potatoes with a knob of butter on top.”
We used to eat a lot of lamb in the spring. When it was served on Easter Sunday, as a kid I used to imagine it was for seasonal as opposed to religious reasons.
In reality, the dish’s seasonality happens to reflect theology. If the consumption of lamb, a symbol of Christ crucified, at Easter is a Christian tradition borrowed from the Jewish, it’s also true that the festival happens at the best time of year for enjoying its flavour to the full.
A dish doesn’t end up on the table by chance, and Easter is one of the periods in the liturgical calendar that most influences the food calendar through recipes packed with symbolism and significance.
In Italy the tradition of eating lamb at Easter is kept alive especially in the historically pastoral regions of the Centre and South. It was there, in Puglia – in the province of Taranto to be precise – that I spent my first Italian Easter.
Good Friday I remember as a particularly busy day. In the morning, in the city of Taranto itself, I attended the Procession of the Mysteries in which brothers in peaked caps trudged barefoot through the streets, dragging the statues of the Our Lady of Sorrows and the Dead Christ behind them to the sound of dirge-like music. In the evening up at Ginosa, in the Murgia hills, another procession of another Madonna evoked the same atmosphere, lugubrious, gloomy but totally unforgettable – for me at the time exotic even. It was like being in a TV documentary.
Then there was the food: on Easter Saturday cocule, small balls of potatoes, pecorino, breadcrumbs and eggs cooked and served in broth; on Easter Sunday, the inevitable roast lamb with, among other things, the unusual carduncieddhi, baby Spanish oyster – the thistle, not the mollusc – cooked with black olives, capers, anchovies, grated pecorino and breadcrumbs; and cuddhura, bread loaves shaped to look like lambs and dotted with hard-boiled eggs. The ovine leitmotiv ran over into the desserts: the agnello pasquale, for example, a lamb-shaped cake filled with faldacchiera, a sort of zabaglione, and chocolate.
It was a lot for a teenager from the North of England brought up on died hard-boiled eggs to swallow – and to digest.
When I came to live in Italy, I got married and was gobbled up by my wife’s family, who by pure coincidence hailed from Taranto. On one occasion, after the long ritual of Easter lunch, my dad, who was visiting, let his imagination wander. “Talk about lambs to the slaughter. Just imagine how many have been eaten here in Italy today. Hundreds of thousands, millions, even. Poor creatures!”
A few years later, he died and my father-in-law travelled with me to England to attend the funeral. Driving through the Cumbrian countryside, he was impressed by the number of sheep. “The look tasty!” he said.
The episode made me reflect, first on the cyclical nature of history, then on how approaches to food can be very different.