Pasqua and Pastiera: the sacred and the profane

In Naples, pastiera is more than an Easter sweet treat: it’s a religion in itself. Just find a couple of Neapolitans, and gently turn the talk to the subject of which flavours are essential to the “true” pastiera. The conversation will erupt into thunderous imprecations, as one person will swear by millefiori, and the other by orange flowers. One will insist that the wheat be cooked, the other that it must be soaked first.

It’s hard to understand the ferocity with which the Neapolitans, who until not so long ago battled with hunger on a daily basis, try to claim a badge of tradition for recipes that can’t (and shouldn’t) be set in stone. It’s a bit like trying to understand why people support their choice of football team. Whether for lack of certain ingredients, or lack of means to buy them, or for ever-changing tastes, there’s no such thing as the one true pastiera.

Of course, there are some well-documented historical reasons behind this phenomenon. Some associate pastiera with the siren Parthenope; others think it has something to do with the wives of Neapolitan fishermen, who have left their mark all over the local culture, their roots perhaps running deeper than anyone else’s. Whatever the truth, we can find traces of the pastiera at least as far back as the seventeenth century, when the smell of spring flowers, eggs and ricotta wafted from the cloisters of San Gregorio Armeno, as did the touch of flour required for the pastry. Even before then, Naples was famed for its rustic tarts, both sweet and savoury, with provola cheese at the heart of them.

And another given is the chaos of Naples’ streets on Easter Thursday and Good Friday, when the scent of millefiori can be smelled literally everywhere. Even today, when you can find pastiera practically all year round, people don’t forget that the liturgical calendar took and still takes precedence over the culinary one. Because pastiera is always great, but eating it a day or two after baking, as is traditional – there’s nothing like it.

 

The destined day arrived, and oh sweet heavens: what festivities there were to behold, and what a banquet. Where did all these pastieras and casatiellas come from, all those stews and meatballs, all those maccheronis and ravioli? It was enough to feed an army.”
[Gianbattista Basile, La Gatta Cenerentola]