Pasqua in Toscana
The great annual drama of death and resurrection starts, of course, on Good Friday. Most towns have large processions, some involving hooded men carrying crosses or statues, some beating drums and singing. Particularly pious country households erect small wooden crosses covered with lights. These are lit up at the traditional time of the Resurrection and Easter Sunday is an occasion of great festivity. Festivity in Italy, as we have already noted, is synonymous with food and plenty of it.
In Tuscany, as in other parts of Italy, lamb is the usual Easter speciality. The Cerottis have kept a nice plump young lamb for themselves from the flock that has been sold to local butchers. Andrea slaughters the lamb two or three days before it is required for cooking. Sunday luncheon is the great festive meal and Silvana has planned to make a large dish of lasagna al forno followed by a leg of lamb which will be accompanied by a dish of fave al prosciutto.
First of course will come the crostini, this time of butter softened and mixed with crushed anchovies or anchovy paste to a smooth pomade spread on the rounds of bread and topped with a home-preserved caper. The proportions of anchovy to butter will depend on how much you like the flavour of the salty fish. The meal will end with a walnut and an apple crostata.
The leg of lamb is cooked over the open fire, but before it is laid over the embers Silvana makes slits in the flesh and fills them with a mixture of chopped garlic, chopped rosemary, coarse salt, black pepper and sometimes a little chopped fat prosciutto. Today she omits this last ingredient as the lamb is very young and tender and will not need the added fat. Then she coats the leg well with her good olive oil and puts it in the grilling rack. This is a sort of double-sided metal rack with legs on both sides that hinges to make a sandwich around the meat and is designed to be turned over and so cook both sides of the meat. They are easily and cheaply available in all the Italian weekly street markets and make a good job of cooking small items like sausages, preventing them from rolling around and dropping into the fire. There are all sorts of implements for cooking over the kitchen fire, from elaborate turning spits in decorative wrought iron, powered either by clockwork or elec- tricity, to heavy square iron trivets which are simply placed over the ashes. Even these trivets can be complicated; some are round and rotate so the food nearest the body of the fire can be turned around to the front so that everything cooks evenly. There are also small triangular and circular trivets solely to balance pots and pans upon. Silvana sticks to the simple varieties and has a good selection of small and large trivets around the fireplace.
ROAST LEG OF LAMB - Arrosto di agnello
She watches the progress of the lamb's cooking carefully. First she heaps brightly burning embers under the rack so that the meat is sealed quickly, turning the joint as required, then the embers are left to die down a little to let the lamb cook through. If the fire becomes too dull a small shovel full of fresh embers enlivens it. At the side of the fire she has a saucer of olive oil ready and using a sprig of rosemary as a brush she bastes the leg frequently. After the meat has sealed she sprinkles on more coarse salt and once or twice a few drops of wine vinegar. This she is convinced gives flavour and makes the meat tender. Tuscans like their meat highly seasoned, highly salted and well cooked, preferring a rich salty crust to the moist pink flesh that is preferred in France.
To serve with the lamb Silvana decides upon fave con prosciutto, young tender broad beans cooked with olive oil, garlic, sage, prosciutto and stock. To make this she softens the garlic and colours the prosciutto (cut into small dice) in the olive oil, adding a leaf or two of fresh sage for flavour. These ingredients she does not allow to brown, especially the sage. Next she adds the shelled beans and turns them in the oil and prosciutto mixture. Finally she adds a rich stock to cover and allows them to simmer away until tender. Silvana usually has a pot of stock bubbling over the fire. In her busy farmhouse there are always chicken legs and gizzards available and she extracts the goodness from them with the addition of a carrot or two and some celery leaves and a few herbs. She does not keep stock but makes it freshly whenever she needs it.
In the square dining-room the table is laid for the Easter meal with the best gold and white china on a green checked cloth; large matching checked napkins lie on each plate. Flasks of red and white wine stand at each end of the table and on the tinello there are bottles of spumante, sparkling dessert wine and a large colomba, a dove-shaped panettone. This is the yeast-lightened sponge sold at Easter and Christmas time which comes in several varieties, though the traditional sort is of the lightest sponge imaginable covered with veiling sugar. All Italians buy several panettone at every festive opportunity and enjoy them with a glass of sparkling wine. The ones sold at Easter time are in the shape of doves or lambs; those at Christmas look rather as if they have been cooked in old-fashioned jelly moulds. As well as the panettone there are dishes of almond macaroons, a gift from a sister-in-law, and a large bowl of fruit. Apart from these things Silvana has made the traditional Sunday crostata; most Tuscan country households round off their large Sunday lunches with this solid dessert. The crostata is a sort of tart, the base and the covering latticework made of soft rich pastry bordering almost upon cake, and the filling is sometimes jam or in this case home-grown walnuts crushed and mixed with honey into a paste. Silvana has also made one with a filling of soft apple slices
The guests arrive and group admiringly around the succulent lamb sizzling gently over its bed of embers. The air is full of the scent of young beans, sharp and appetizing. Soon the signal 'a tavola' is given and everybody sits down to enjoy their Easter lunch, from the piquant anchovy crostini to the last wine-soaked macaroon.