Easter is a Christian festival but the celebration of Persephone, brought to Sicily from Greece, is much older. In Sicily Primavera (Spring) and Pasqua (Easter) are a fusion of nature and culture, family and food.
The Story of Persephone
The early Greek settlers in Sicily celebrated Spring as Persephone’s resurrection from the dead.
As legend tells us, Pluto, the god of Hades, abducted Persephone from Enna.
Persephone’s grieving mother, the goddess Demeter, plunged the island into a barren winter, until Zeus, the father of the gods, struck a bargain with Pluto to let Persephone to return to land of the living for eight months of the year. So that’s when Persephone is released from Hades, and all the world thaws and blooms.
The pagan traditions were slightly transformed and unofficially accepted into the rites surrounding the devotion to Christian saints. Offerings of bread, cheeses, and sweets, associated with pagan harvest rituals, are common in many of the present-day festivals.
On Easter morning, sunrise services throughout Italy celebrate the joy of the resurrection of Christ. Then, with equal exuberance, Italians end forty days of fasting during Quaresima (Lent) with food — and friends. Especially friends.
According to a popular saying, “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con chi vuoi” (Christmas with your family, Easter with whoever you want).
Now it’s time to celebrate the bounty of Primavera. Time for Martorana, or Pasta Reale, for fresh peas, fava and artichoke frittella and, of course, Cassata.
The glorious cassata is originally an Easter tradition, even though you can now find it at any time of the year. Its origins, however, are far from Christian.
It was the Arabs who first brought to Sicily the ingredients, but each of Sicily’s many rulers added something to the cassata mix. In Norman times, the shortcrust with which the cake had originally been made was replaced with green-tinted marzipan. During the Spanish domination, chocolate and a Spanish style sponge cake (called Pan di Spagna, or Spanish bread) were introduced. And the Baroque era brought the rich candied fruit with which the cake is now topped.
Throughout this time, nuns always made cassata at Easter, and the cake became a synonym for the festivities, indeed according to a Sicilian saying, “those who don’t eat cassata on Easter morning lead a miserable life.”
Today, cassata is a sponge cake filled with ricotta, chocolate and candied peel, topped with marzipan and intricately decorated with icing and candied fruit. It is a feast for eyes and palate, a serious threat to the waistline and one day SOON I will make my own
Sicily is famous for its spectacular celebrations surrounding Pasqua (Easter) as Sicilians head to church and take to the streets in parades to honour the most important week in the Christian calendar. Festivities continue throughout Holy Week, culminating on Easter Sunday, when families enjoy a lunch based on roast lamb and specially-prepared cakes. All over the island, in large towns and tiny villages alike, processions weave their way through narrow streets, central thoroughfares and piazze until finally they arrive at the local parish church or Cathedral.
For my Easter lunch, I will have lamb, roasted simply with rosemary, red wine and garlic.
Some scenes from Pasqua in Sicilia – Following the marching band…