April 19th, 2011
The flavor and textures of Pastiera di Grano, chewy grains and creamy ricotta baked in a slightly sweet crust, are of another world. You might even say a bygone world, one where households practiced the Arab art of distillation to capture the heady scent of citrus blossoms, where fresh ricotta was a seasonal luxury, and where sweets appeared only at holidays.
Long before Italian immigration to America, the cooking of southern Italy and her islands already reflected centuries of ethnic cross-currents. The folk culture of southern Italy, at the center of the Mediterranean, included customs stemming from pagan Greek and Roman practices as well as the later rituals of Byzantine Christianity and Roman Catholicism. Added to the mix were traditions of Jewish and Muslim communities, whose influence lingered long after the terrors of the Inquisition and Spain’s domination of southern Italy.
Every group had its beliefs and superstitions, but over time the significance of many symbols became blurred or they took on new associations. What was sacred for one group might also acquire spiritual or magical importance to another. This is especially evident in food: while one community might make a certain dish to mark the birth of Christ, another might serve it at Easter, to celebrate His soul’s triumph over death.
Even if their original symbolism has been forgotten, certain special-occasion recipes have persisted virtually unchanged as long as the main ingredients have remained available. And whether we are talking to Romans or Sicilians, Jews or Christians, when we ask cooks why something is done in a particular way, our informants usually answer: “All the old-timers did it” or “that’s the way my grandmother taught us.”
And so it is with this pastry. Search cookbooks or the Web and you will find very little variation in the recipe, regardless of its names—pastiera di grano, pastiera napoletana, pastiera di Pasqua, or simply “Easter pie.” What we want to explore today is the history and symbolism that infuse this pastry as much as the orange-flower water and cinnamon.
A grain of wheat represents the most basic form of life, a seed, which contains the potential for replication within itself. It is no wonder that societies that grow grain have long used a seed to symbolize fertility and rebirth. The ancient religions of Egypt and Mesopotamia had their myths of deluge and survival, based on the seasonal flooding of the Nile, Tigris, and Euphrates rivers whose waters were essential to the agriculture and civilizations of the Near East.
Christianity borrowed and built upon those myths. Everyone in the ancient world understood that the land could re-emerge to produce bountiful harvests after cataclysmic floods. And so, the Evangelists could use the agricultural metaphor to demonstrate that Christ could suffer a mortal death and be resurrected. A single grain of wheat could lie dormant, hard, and dry over a winter and yet sprout in the spring…
Around the Mediterranean, and throughout the Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Middle East are ritual dishes that include whole grains—not ground into flour to make another food—but boiled and left whole. What is interesting is that all are foods made to be shared, and all mark actual or mythical passages of time.
Most communities of the Middle East, whether they are Muslim or Christian, know some form of the dessert Turks call aşure, or Noah’s Pudding, a complex and variable mixture that may include boiled wheat, barley, rice, beans, and dried fruit. Scented with rose-water and garnished with nuts and pomegranate seeds, it is traditionally made on the somber occasion of Ashura, the 10th day of Muharram (in the lunar Islamic calendar) to commemorate the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Small bowls of the pudding are distributed to neighbors, relatives, and friends, regardless of their creed.
In contrast, the Jews of Aleppo, Syria (who now live outside that country) serve sliha—sweetened, spiced wheat-berries garnished with walnuts and pomegranate seeds—as a festive treat, shared by family and friends on the appearance of a baby’s first tooth.
Greeks make a similar dish, kolyva (koliva), which is served during the first week of Lent, on saints’ feast-days, and also to mourners at funerals. The custom is widespread throughout countries where Eastern Orthodoxy took hold, including Russia and Ukraine, where the Slavic kutja, often containing poppyseeds and apples, is served at Christmas, Easter, and at funerals.
Cuccia (which sounds a lot like kutja), is the boiled whole wheat appearing in Sicily, which may be savory or sweet. Cuccia, salted and dressed with a little olive oil, seems like monastic or Lenten fare compared to the cuccia with honey, candied fruits, raisins, cinnamon, orange rind, chocolate, and ricotta. That extravaganza is made to enliven the shortest days of winter and is associated with feast of Santa Lucia, December 13th.
Because they give us important clues about the development of Italian regional cuisines, we should remember Italy’s links to Greece. What the Romans called Magna Graecia, Great Greece—the island of Sicily and much of the Italian ‘boot”—received Greek settlers as early as the 8th century BCE. Hellenic culture flourished in the region well into the Middle Ages for southern Italy maintained both religious and commercial connections with the great Greek-speaking city of Constantinople. A later influx of Greeks came as the Ottoman Turks pushed into Asia Minor, mainland Greece, and the Balkans. Even now in the 21st century, the provinces of Calabria and Puglia have small, assimilated Greek populations, known as Griko.
But before we come back to Italy, we must detour, turning East, to the Byzantine Empire, where in the middle of the 8th century AD a battle raged within Christianity over the use of sacred imagery.
The Commandment, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image…” had not prevented the churches of Asia Minor and Constantinople, “the Second Rome,” from being lavishly decorated. Glittering mosaics, frescoes, and painted panels depicting Christ, the Virgin, Old Testament figures, angels, and myriad saints adorned domes and walls. But when an imperial decree banned the use of images for veneration, many of these magnificent mosaics and frescoes were destroyed or defaced by fanatical Christian Iconoclasts.
Largely removed from the political fray, some monastic orders that wished to continue to create and worship icons fled the Empire. They sought refuge under the protection of the Western Church, whose authority emanated from Catholic Rome, not Orthodox Constantinople. One order of nuns left Asia Minor with the relics of Saint Gregory the Armenian, also known as Gregory the Illuminator.
Upon their arrival in Italy, the nuns were granted a building site upon the ruins of a temple dedicated to the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres (whose name is the source of our word “cereal”). In gratitude for their safe arrival, the sisters dedicated their new convent, in what is today a bustling quarter of Naples, to their protector, San Gregorio Armeno.
Today the neighborhood around the convent is filled with shops making and selling presepe—-the famous carved Neapolitan Nativity figures, that now include everyone from the Holy Family and the usual Magi, shepherds, sheep, and camels to the Obamas and Michael Jackson. Did the icon-loving sisters simply land in the right 8th century neighborhood or did their presence make this a favorable place for artisans? It’s impossible to know, but clearly, the iconoclasts did not prevail and the craft of imagery, sacred and secular, is flourishing.
The convent itself is now far better known for pastiera di grano than the relics of an Armenian saint, and we can’t resist theorizing how this came to be. The founding sisters of the convent of San Gregorio Armeno were well educated, many of them from noble Greek Byzantine families. They would have been steeped in the foundational myths of Greek culture and certainly would have understood the significance of their building site. The legends of Ceres, whom they knew as the Greek goddess, Demeter, were already familiar. Ceres’ daughter, Proserpina, was exiled to the underworld for a quarter of each year (winter) when her mother mourned the girl’s absence. But each spring, Proserpina was released and Ceres, whose cult was associated with death and rebirth, celebrated by bringing the world into bloom.
Pagans and early Christians alike kept faith with the elemental rhythm of the seasons, forces far more powerful than politics or religion. No activities ignored the agricultural calendar. Christian cycles of propitiation, pleas for intercession, and celebrations grew over pagan calendars with their seasonal rites.
Naples is surrounded by the verdant pastures of Campania, and the sisters might well have been inspired to celebrate Easter with some of the region’s abundant spring dairy products. The first nuns of San Gregorio would also have remembered the whole grain puddings of their old home in Asia Minor, where all the ingredients of Noah’s Pudding were available long before the advent of Christianity or Islam.
Like many of the convents of southern Europe, San Gregorio gained renown for its confectionery, which the nuns sold to support their institutions and charitable activities. Costly delicacies like marzipan, nougats, crystallized fruits, and pastiera, are labor-intensive and thus best left to specialists like the sisters, for whom cooking was a devotional act.
It’s impossible to say which visionary first baked ricotta with whole grains into a dense pie. But all you really need to know is that pastiera is as rich in history as it is in taste.
If the women in your family made their own Pastiera di Grano, then you, too, may want to perpetuate the tradition. Whether you soak and boil your wheat kernels or seek out tins of imported Italian grano cotto, cooked wheat (a short-cut now as common in Italy as it is in America), you’ll need to be prepared—and patient. No matter which recipe you use, you must invest the time to do it right.
For an excellent recipe that begins with raw wheat, please see.
Michele Scicolone’s Web Site.
If your are using precooked wheat, please see the instructions given by:
The Academia Barilla Web Site.
But if your family, like many, always bought their pastiera from the local Italian bakery, right now, early in the week leading up to Easter, is the time to put in your orders.
To our local readers: All the ingredients for your homemade Italian Easter feast, including tins of grano cotto, are available this week at Piccolo Market in Sarasota, Florida.
Piccolo Market owner, Josephine, is still accepting phone orders for her magnificent pastiera di grano and savory, salume-studded pizza rustica. This year, the shop will also sell single slices of pizza rustica by weight.
Mille grazie to our friend, Tigrane d’Ybreo—a veritable pastry wizard, who obliged us by making his pastiera in time for us to take the photographs for this post.
Buona Pasqua a tutti!
2128 Gulf Gate Drive
Sarasota, FL 34231