Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Enzo's Pastiera Napoletana (Italian Easter Cake from Naples)

If you ask me what my favourite cake in the world is, I have one answer: “La Pastiera”.

It is an ancient cake that goes back to mythical times. It had a religious and symbolic meaning which was incorporated into Christianity. In fact the so called modern version was created by the nuns of San Gregorio Armeno, in the old town of Naples, in 1600. Its ingredients symbolise the Resurrection and the fragrance of the coming spring.

When I was in my last year at school our class decided to spend a day in Ischia during the Easter holidays. One of our schoolmates was from this island (he commuted to our school in Naples by  ferry every day). We had a great day out,  the weather was sunny and warm. We had a swim in the sea and when we found a nice place to play we even manage to have a football match. We were really full of energy. While on the beach one of our mates had an incident and his underpants were torn so he couldn’t wear them. He then wore just his trousers to  play football which was very uncomfortable kit and from then on was named the man without underpants. For lunch we had big sandwiches and beer. At the end of the day we were really happy and after saying bye bye to our friend we headed for the port to catch the last ferry back to Naples. The sky suddenly became overcast and strong gusts of wind started blowing. When we got to the ferry we were told that the sea was getting really rough and the ferry wouldn’t be able to leave. We were stranded, an entire class. With a strong sense of embarrassment we went back to our friend to ask where we could spend the night and we would catch the first boat in the morning. He had a brief word with his mother who happily gave us a roof. They had a restaurant and a few rooms so she put up all 15 of us. She fed us at night and gave us the best breakfast: coffee and pastiera. She had baked a few days before dozens of pastieras for the restaurant so lots of cakes appeared on our table.

My mother had her family recipe that she would do by heart, automatically. I asked one day  if she would  type it for me. She did it. After many years I thought I had lost it and I was really sad as she died a few years ago. Then quite recently it materialised in a cookery book. I think I had just forgotten it there many years before. So now I’ve slightly updated the recipe (for instance she used pork fat instead of butter!).

For the pasta frolla:

300 gr. (3 ¼  cups) flour + 100 gr. ( ¾  cup) for sprinkling when needed
100 gr. (3 ½  ounces) Cold Unsalted Butter, diced
100 gr. ( ½ Cup) Granulated Sugar
1 Eggs
2 Egg yolks
A pinch of salt

For the filling:

400 gr. (14 ounces) Ricotta cheese
450 gr. (1 pound) Soaked wheat for Pastiera (Available in tins or jars in some UK and US Supermarkets and Italian Delicatessen)
450 gr. (2 ¼ cups) Granulated Sugar
5 Eggs
70 gr. (2 ½ ounces) Candied peel or Candied Citron (Citrus Medica) if available
1 small Lemon unwaxed, untreated
Orange flower water or Orange Water (use the dose for about 1 kg - 2 pounds)
350 ml (1 ½ Cups) Milk
A pinch of salt

Icing sugar to sprinkle on top


To make the  Pasta frolla:

In a mixer put the flour, sugar and the cold diced butter and a pinch of salt
Blend for a short time until the mixture appears crumbly, then add an egg and two egg yolks, until you get a ball.
Put the ball in food wrap and leave it in the fridge to rest while you’re making the filling. I often prefer to make the pastry the old fashion way by hand. 

To make the filling.

Put the wheat and the milk in a saucepan.
Place on a low flame and stir it occasionally with a wooden spoon to avoid it sticking to the bottom of the pan, for 15- 20 mins to allow the wheat to absorb some of the milk.
Leave it to cool.

In a bowl place the ricotta and stir in the sugar until it is smooth.
Add 5 egg yolks and set aside the egg whites.
Grate the zest of a small lemon and add it.
Then add the orange flower water, candied peel and the vanilla essence.

Now the difficult bit as you need to line the cake tin with pasta frolla.
Take the dough out of the fridge.
Sprinkle the pastry board and the rolling pin with some flour to avoid sticking. Extend the dough to line the cake tin and keep the excess to make 10 to 15 decorative criss cross strips about the diameter of your cake tin. The dough is not really elastic (because there is only one egg white) and tends to break. It doesn’t really matter as you can join bits together.

In an appropriate bowl beat the egg whites until firm.
Add the ricotta mixture to the cooked wheat and then the egg whites. Stir until smooth.
This mix is still quite liquid.

Now with a ladle fill the lined cake tin with the mix until just below the edge.

Lay the strips on the top.  Some people like to brush the strips with egg white to make them shiny. I can’t see the point as the pastiera is sprinkled with icing sugar before serving.

Put in a preheated oven 190°C degrees (Mark 5 or 375°F degrees) and cook for about 1hr. The strips should be golden and the open squares brown and firm (but not burned!)

Now let it cool down and rest.

It’s very important that the pastiera rests for a couple of days at least. Traditionally it is baked on Thursday or Good Friday and eaten obviously on Easter Sunday.
Just before serving dust it with icing sugar.

There are special pastiera cake tins. In Naples the traditional one is made of aluminium and the cake is not removed from the tin so when you buy one from the pasticceria you should get a tin (that’s how I got mine).
You can also use a spring cake tin. Make sure to open it when the cake is cold. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lucca Springtime Flowers

In Lucca we have our very own Magnolia Drive:
Corso Garibaldi.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

A Whimsical Look at The Church of San Michele in Foro in Lucca.

Lucca city is a must on any tourist’s itinerary and when you mention to your children that there are 98 churches to visit I can hear the audible sighs of boredom so I am not going to give you another potted history of the church. If you would like to read one see Lucca day trip link.

Tourist guides enter Piazza San Michele with their parties from the west side via a dark narrow lane so that the traveller has the full impact of the splendiferous statue of San Michele, the crowning glory of the loggia. His enormous bronze wings give the impression that the saint and his two supporting angels have just landed in order to do duel with the dragon.

A potpourri of columns supports the façade archers. They are elaborately decorated with inlaid marble. Take a close look at the heads resting on the top of the capitals joining the archers. Who do you see? I am told that Napoleon and Garibaldi are up there, added by 19th centuries restorers as a joke. Running along the top is a delightful almost Beatrice Potter like frieze of playful animals.                                           

If you are not feeling like too much of a culture vulture, the rather dark interior of the church can be missed, though there is a Lippi and a Della Robbia lurking. However the more off beat art historian and storyteller should stop to find the medieval graffiti on the left side of the church. You have to look closely as another bunch of over enthusiastic restorers nearly destroyed them.

Now cast your eyes up to the back of San Michele and you will see a staircase that gives me agoraphobia from just thinking about it.

A secret reserved for those who visit after dark is that if you find the right place to stand in the piazza you can see San Michele's ring twinkling. Move outside the spot and the ring sparkles no more. From the photos you should be able to hit the right point. Here is a clue look for shop called "Principe" and follow the marble line running from the church to the bollards.

I hope you can enjoy the secrets of this gem.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Lucca is a Perfect Destination for Spring

One of the most blissful pastimes on a spring day in Lucca is taking a stroll on the wonderful Renaissance walls, soaking up the warm sun and delighting in following the trail of crocuses. While enjoying my "passeggiata" (walk) I remembered an article written by the Lonely planet in conjunction with the BBC recommending Lucca as one of the best spring destinations for 2011, this certainly also holds good for 2012. The BBC article included this beautiful quote by Hilaire Belloc.
‘The neatest, the regularest, the exactest, the most fly-in-amber town in the world, with its uncrowded streets, its absurd fortifications… everything in Lucca is good’.
I also love The Lonely Planet journalist Abigail Hole’s analogy of walking in a medieval manuscript, as indeed one can easily imagine life in a bygone era in this unspoiled, bijou city. I thought it might be useful for travelers if I reposted a day trip to Lucca, which also acts as a good introduction for treasures that can be visited in greater depth.

Itinerary for a Day Out In Lucca

Photo Flickr Ostrosky
Only recently have travelers started discovering Lucca. The citizens are taking this in good part and are happy to share this jewel that was rated second in Forbes’ list for the best place to live in Europe (2009). You can easily spot a local as they are all immaculately turned out with their designer bags and sunglasses.
From whichever direction you approach Lucca city, the first thing that strikes you are the massive 16th century walls.
I have chosen to start my tour from Porta Santa Maria.
In Piazza Santa Maria del Borgo just inside the gate you can dodge the cars vying for parking spaces and pick up maps and further information from the tourist office. Then make your way to the north end of Via Fillungo or the cardo maximus, meaning Roman Main Street that runs from north to south.  This is the luxury-shopping zone of the city.

Photo Flickr Erix

San Frediano
Just as the main part of the shopping street starts, your eyes will be arrested by an extraordinary 13th century Byzantine-style mosaic depicting The Ascension on a shimmering gold background. It’s on the façade of The Basilica of San Frediano. The campanile crowned by crenellations seems to add further richness to this structure, started in 1112.

It is worth dragging the most reluctant children inside. The 12th century font near the main entrance at the beginning of the south aisle is in the form of a fountain and the marble panels depict the stories of Moses through vivid, busy scenes (I love the one of the Israelites disguised as knights crossing the Red Sea), the good shepherds, and the Apostles. On the wall behind is a wonderful Della Robbia terracotta roundel in need of a good wash.
Don’t miss the entrance to a chapel containing the tiny mummified body of Santa Zita that can be seen through glass, but her missing little toe can’t be seen. It was supposedly broken off and given to a British Bishop as a souvenir.
This saint is mentioned in Dante’s (Inferno,XXI, 38). The story goes that Zita was a maid for a local noble family; she was caught stealing bread from the kitchen to give to the poor. When confronted and asked what she was hiding in her apron she replied that it was only flowers. On further investigation it was found that the bread had indeed miraculously turned into flowers. In April the streets are filled with flowers to celebrate her. There is also a wonderful altar and two tombs (1422) by Jacopo della Quercia set into the stone floor.
Opposite the chapel of Santa Zita is a chapel delightfully frescoed in 1508-09 by Amico Aspertini, the eccentric and ambidextrous Bolognese painter who, according to Vasari, hung paint pots from his belt while working furiously with both hands. These frescoes include the depiction of the arrival of Volto Santo in Lucca and it is really just a lively picture book.

Opening hours: April to mid-November: Mon-Sat 7:30am-noon and 3-5pm: no entrance fee


Return to Via Fillungo but don’t get too carried away by window-shopping otherwise you might miss the signs for the Anfiteatro. When you enter what was the arena through one of the original arches, you can imagine it filled with an expectant crowd waiting to jeer at the gladiators.
This structure is outside the original ring of walls. It was the theatre of Roman Lucca and held up to 10,000 people. The 55 arches are all still there. Check if you don’t believe me.
Like many such structures it was transformed into a fortress during the middle ages. Later, houses were built in the ruins of the original walls and the area was used as a prison and warehouses. At one point there were even vegetable patches in the centre.  The Anfiteatro was transformed into the beautiful piazza it is today by Lorenzo Nottolini in the late 1800s. The arches are filled with shops and bars. I never miss visiting here at the end of April when there is a flower market held to remember Santa Zita and the piazza in the centre becomes a wonderful riot of colours.
A cup of coffee is certainly called for at this point in our tour!

Torre Guinigi

Those with gym membership can now tackle the Torre Guinigi with its 230 steps, while the less fit or just plain lazy can either indulge in retail tourism or just enjoy people watching.
The Torre Guinigi is part of a palazzo complex that belonged to the Guinigi family who made their money from the silk trade, ruled Lucca and helped defend it from the Medici of Florence. The tower is an icon of Lucca because of the Holm oak trees that grow on its summit. The tower was added to the palazzo in the 14th century to add prestige. The climb is really worth the effort to see the form of the city and its wonderful setting in the middle of a plain protected by hills.
Opening hours: March-May daily 9am-7: 30pm; June-Sept 15 daily 9am-midnight; Sept 16-Oct daily 9:30am-8pm; Nov-Feb daily 9:30am-5: 30pm entrance fee: 3.50€ adults, 2.50€ children 6-12 and seniors over 65. (Via Sant’Andrea, 45)

San Michele in Foro and Piazza San Michele

Photo Flickr Fellwalker

Now it is time to complete Via Fillungo not forgetting to notice the Art Nouveau Shop-fronts, the gorgeous 17th century jewelry shop with its wooden shutters and the elegant Antico Caffè di Simo, haunt of Puccini.
Now just a bit more culture before a well earned lunch. At the end of Via Fillungo turn right into Via Roma and you will arrive in Piazza San Michele, the site of the old Roman Forum. The palazzi surrounding the piazza are mainly medieval and have been benevolently watching the Lucchesi over the centuries. Still today the piazza is used for heated political discussions and rallies.
Visitors often mistake San Michele with the Duomo because all the winding medieval streets seem to lead to this extraordinary church sitting in this large open square right in the heart of the city. The church’s full name, San Michele in Foro, might explain why: foro = forum – this was the forum, the center of the city.
The church itself is a superb example of Pisa/Lucca Romanesque architecture but is in fact unfinished. The columns on the façade are richly decorated; the rose window should have lit the interior instead of being a mere ornament. On the top, the huge bronze statue of the Archangel San Michele slaying the dragon, dominates. He is supposed to have a diamond ring and if after dark you stand in exactly in the right spot in the piazza you can see something shining on his finger.
Visitors often mistake San Michele with the Duomo because all the winding medieval streets seem to lead to this extraordinary church sitting in this large open square right in the heart of the city. The church’s full name, San Michele in Foro, might explain why: foro = forum – this was the forum, the center of the city.
The church itself is a superb example of Pisa/Lucca Romanesque architecture but is in fact unfinished. The columns on the façade are richly decorated; the rose window should have lit the interior instead of being a mere ornament. On the top, the huge bronze statue of the Archangel San Michele slaying the dragon, dominates. He is supposed to have a diamond ring and if after dark you stand in exactly in the right spot in the piazza you can see something shining on his finger.

Puccini’s birthplace

Take a little detour down Via del Poggio and you will come to Corte San Lorenzo and Piazza Cittadella. This is the birthplace of Puccini; a pleasing modern statue records this famous citizen. This is a perfect place to stop for lunch and if you are lucky, someone might be singing Puccini. In September 2011 his birthplace should be open again to the public.

The Walls of Lucca

Now while Lucca is taking its siesta why not go up onto the walls either on foot or hire a bicycle. I suggest you start from Porta San Pietro. From Piazza Cittadella go back to Piazza San Michele across Piazza Napoleone and keep going until you come to the walls. These wide low walls were made to resist cannon attacks from the neighbouring state of Florence and were constructed over a period of about 100 years and have 11 bastions many with their guard houses still intact. The bastions contain a maze of passages, which were used as armouries and ammunition stores. Baluardo di San Colombano has two wonderful 13th century lions.
By the time the walls were completed they were really redundant. However, they saved the city from being flooded when the River Serchio broke its banks in 1812. Initially trees were planted to help consolidate the structure but they now line this wonderful circular park that is the playground of the Lucchesi from joggers to families to lovers holding hands. From the walls, notice the ornamental Italian gardens of Palazzo Pfanner.
Bicycle hire info – there are a couple of hire shops near Porta San Pietro, average hire price is 2.50 € per hour.

Piazza Napoleone

It is now time to leave your bikes and return to Piazza Napoleone or Piazza Grande, as it is known by the locals. This is where the teenagers hang out on a Saturday afternoon. The Palazzo Ducale dominates the Piazza. In 1805 Elisa Baciocchi, sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, was made princess of Piombino and Lucca, then Grand Duchess of Tuscany. She completely remodeled the interior of the palace that had been partly designed by Bartolomeo Ammannati in 1578 and then enlarged by Filippo Juvarra in 1728. Originally on the site was a huge fortress attributed to Giotto. The palace now houses local government offices though a small section is open to the public and often houses exhibitions.
Elisa had two churches and several buildings demolished in front of the palace to create this huge French-style piazza. The idea was to have a statue of Napoleon in the centre but Baciocchi lost her title in 1814 and the present statue is of Maria Luisa daughter of the King of Spain, who also became Princess of Lucca. She refurbished the palace again turning it into one of the finest in Italy.

Teatro del Giglio

The Piazza del Giglio adjoins Piazza Grande and is the home of the town’s theatre. There has been a theatre on this site since the 1670s. The present building has a neoclassical façade. All Giacomo Puccini’s operas were performed here during his lifetime. Puccini’s ancestors had worked as Maestri di Cappella (Chapel Masters) in the Palazzo Ducale.

Lucca Duomo

Next, go discover the treasures of the Cattedrale di San Martino. Anselmo da Baggio, who later became Pope Alexander II, started the present Duomo in 1060. The brick base of the Campanile dates back to this period. The upper marble section was begun in 1261. The main west façade is richly decorated in the Pisano-Lucchese Romanesque style but lacks a pediment perhaps due to a financial crisis at the time. The pillars are all different: local legend has it that a contest was held to find the best pillar. The citizens however decided to use all samples therefore saving money and contributing to their reputation of being tight fisted. The other oddity is that the one of the end arches is smaller to accommodate the campanile. The statue of San Martino is a copy and the original can be seen inside the church. Under the portico are the glorious bas-reliefs depicting the story of San Martino and the months of the year.
The interior of the cathedral is in the Gothic style. On entering visitors are immediately drawn to the north transept were there is a small temple built by Matteo Civitali in 1482 to house the “Volto Santo” that has history interwoven with legend. It is said that Nicodemus sculpted Christ on the cedar-wood cross to preserve the image. The cross was put on a crewless boat and after many adventures landed in Lucca. The present effigy is a 13th century copy as the 1st century one was destroyed by overzealous pilgrims.
Also not to be missed is the sarcophagus of Ilaria del Carretto, second of the three wives of Paolo Guinigi ruler of Lucca, who died in childbirth. The effigy of Ilaria is by Jacopo della Quercia 1407 and it has been said that her face is based on that of his first wife. A dog sits at her feet, a symbol of fidelity and not her favourite pooch. The Last Supper painted by the Venetian Jacopo Tintoretto in 1590 still hangs in its original position. His father was a Lucchese cloth dyer (tintore).

Free admission to cathedral. Open Daily 9:30am-5:45pm (to 6:45pm Sat). Ilaria’s tomb in the sacristy: €2 adults.

Annual events in Lucca

December/New Year – Christmas markets and Puccini New Year Concert.
April – Santa Zita flower market and festival.
June – Concerts in the city’s piazzas; Biennial Cartasia (art from paper).
July – Lucca Summer Festival (pop/rock music); San Paolino Street Festival.
September – Settembre Lucchese is dedicated to local tradition and includes the procession of the Luminara di Santa Croce.
October – Lucca Comics and Games Fair; Lucca Film Festival.

Monthly Antique market On the 3rd Sunday of every month, stalls in the medieval streets and piazzas.

Furthermore: Every evening in Lucca there are concerts celebrating Puccini’s music.

Parking information:
If you are staying outside the city and have a car, leave it in the carpark   just outside Porta Santa Maria or try in Piazza Santa Maria del Borgo, if you are lucky enough to find a space. Otherwise follow directions to one of the car parks around the walls and then make your way back to Porta Santa Maria to follow the itinerary. Car access to the old town is very limited and there are cameras.