What can a traveler expect in Piemonte during the Easter holidays? These are the cultural traditions, food, and wine that come with Pasqua in Piemonte and Italy.
If you plan to travel during the Easter holidays, Piemonte is at one of its most glorious moments in the spring. Even when Pasqua, or Easter, falls early in the year, the average temperature hovers around the mid-60s and the weather is sunny and dry. The clear atmosphere outlines the Alps so they dominate the northeastern horizon, and everything is bursting into bloom, from magnolia trees to fields of wild poppy.
Here is what you can expect if your vacation falls during the Easter holidays, from cultural traditions to food, and the wines you’ll want to buy or order during traditional Easter meals.
Cake Race in Oleggio (Corsa della Torta)
An ancient tradition, this race in Oleggio, a town located north of Turin in the Novara region, is held on Easter Sunday in commemoration of an historic event. In 1447, the powerful Sforza family besieged the city. The citizens of Oleggio enclosed themselves behind their walls, and the offending party soon realized the futility of their own position. They proposed a race to determine the victor. However, the soldiers of Sforza underestimated the strength, speed, and will of Oleggio’s people, for the winner was a citizen of the town. In celebration, according to written records, the townsfolk of Oleggio have reenacted this race for centuries. Today, citizens can run for their chance at winning one of three cake prizes.
The town is more involved in the event than just hosting the race, too: the main piazza is decorated in medieval fare, a full-costume medieval parade marches through town, and bannermen herald the start of the race.
The Passion of Christ at Sordevolo
On a more somber note, one of Piemonte’s and Italy’s most important theatrical reenactments is renewed every five years in Sordevolo, a pre-Alpine town near Biella in Alto Piemonte. All the inhabitants of the city are involved in this spectacle of Christ’s last moments on earth. The show lasts about three hours and includes 29 scenes in which a total of 400 actors take part. Though considered an Easter tradition, the 2015 edition begins on June 6 and has shows until September. Find out more information here: www.passionedicristo.org
A tradition held all over Italy, Pasquetta is the Monday after Easter. Families and friends gather for picnics and barbeques, though the saying, “Natale con i tuoi. Pasqua con chi vuoi,” is well known: Christmas with your folks. Easter with whomever you want. This extends to Pasquetta, or “little Easter,” and traditionally friends (and selected family) enjoy the new warmth of spring out-of-doors. Make note: everything will be closed on this day, just as though it were Easter Sunday. It’s a day to enjoy beautiful weather and take a road trip, walk, or hike.
Italian and Piemontese Easter Food Traditions
Several dishes mark the Easter weekend in Italy and in Piemonte. These traditional dishes grace almost every table in Piemonte, but don’t be surprised to see first courses with agnolotti del plin or tajarin, and second courses with brasato al Barolo.
This rustic, savory tart is a simple dish that can be made to look quite impressive. Originally from Liguria, the torta dates back to the 1400s when Catholics relished eating the eggs, milk, and fatty foods they abstained from during Lent. The classic recipe is a deep-dish tart filled with a mix of spinach or chard, eggs, and ricotta (sometimes artichokes are used in lieu of the greens) with several eggs broken over top to bake whole. It is encased in flaky crust, traditionally 33 paper-thin layers to commemorate the age of Jesus, and baked until golden.
Roast lamb or kid
Either of these cuts may appear at the Easter table in Italy, though lamb is more common. Recipes usually involve an oven-roasted cut with peas and potatoes. If you’re in Piemonte, keep an eye out for Agnello Sambucano, which is roasted lamb of the Sambucano breed reared in the Stura Valley since the 18th century. Though they risked extinction in the 1980s, several associations (including Slow Food) banded together to prevent this, and now the herds in this idyllic, Alpine valley are over 10,000 strong each year. Read more about the lamb and find a recipe from Michelin-starred chef Enrico Crippa, of the Piazza Duomo in Alba, Piemonte here: Agnello Sambucano and Barbaresco.
Originally from the Veneto, this risen sweet bread is now a fixed dessert on tables before, during, and after the Easter holidays. Several important Piemontese companies make the colomba, which means “dove” in Italian, the symbolic harbinger of peace. The bread is (roughly) shaped into a dove form, baked with candied citrus or, increasingly popular, any number of fillings – from custard to tiramisu – and covered with sugar and almonds. If you hadn’t had enough of pandoro and panettone during Christmas and New Year's, this will help ease the transition. All three of these are made exclusively during their specific times of the year, so colomba won’t be found too long after Easter is over. Several important Piemontese brands are Maina, Balocco, and Galup, and of course bakeries maker their own exquisite versions.
While chocolate takes on many forms during Easter, the most common one by far in Italy is the Easter egg. Hollow, filled with cheap plastic toys (or not-so-cheap jewelry, depending on the level of Easter egg you’re willing to buy), and wrapped in a yard of colorful foil, these eggs greet you as soon as you walk into the supermarket like rows of flowers. While this is a tradition all over Italy, Piemonte is a huge chocolate producer, where Turin is considered Italy’s chocolate capital. The first man to found a chocolate factory in 1826 was, in fact, from Turin: Pierre Paul Caffarel. Many names that produce chocolate eggs will be familiar to travelers from all over the world: Ferrero, Venchi, Novi, Baratti & Milano, Caffarel, Pernigotti, and Streglio. But while in Turin, look out for artisan chocolate makers, too: Domori, Guido Gobino, Peyrano, Ziccat, Monteccone, La Perla di Torino, and Giordano, among many others.
Peri al Furn
Peri al Furn is Piemontese for pesche al forno, or “oven-baked peaches.” While not only served on Easter, Easter Sunday may coincide with the season’s first peaches. If so, count yourself lucky to sample these halved, juicy fruits filled with crumbled amaretti cookies, dark chocolate, and rum that are baked to soft, syrupy perfection.
Salame del Papa
The Pope’s Salami is a chocolate salami made for Easter in Piemonte, originally coming from Alessandria in the Monferrato. Its name likely comes from the saying, “Stare come un Papa,” or “Live like the Pope,” alluding to a comfortable lifestyle that we can only imagine includes tasty, rich delicacies like this dessert. When sliced like salami, the cookie bits look like the fat in real salami. And it is rich, indeed: made from dark chocolate, cookies, finely ground hazelnuts, abundant butter, eggs, rum, and Marsala, just a slice or two will be enough to satisfy.
Easter and Pasquetta Wines: What to pair with your meal
Whether planning a dinner or eating at a restaurant, these are some wines to pair with your meal.
The torta pasqualina and other fresh spring veggies on the table would do well with a crisp, white wine. The richness of this flaky-crust torta with eggs and ricotta is just asking to be paired with a low-alcohol, high acidity white; and the various vegetable sides need something crisp and lively. Go for Gavi, made from 100% Cortese grape grown in the Monferrato. It is finely balanced with a zing of acidity and subtle minerality. Or, a sparkling white is incredibly versatile: try Erbaluce di Caluso spumante for its dry fruitiness and fine perlage.
If the dinner menu includes succulent lamb or other red meat, a red wine with good structure and solid tannins will pair perfectly. In addition, it should be a wine with sufficient acidity to handle the robust flavors of lamb. This, of course, points to Nebbiolo in its many bottlings, from Barolo and Barbaresco to Roero DOCG and Boca DOCG. For a lighter and fruitier red wine, Dolcetto d’Ovada would pair very well, too, as its acidity is some of Piemonte’s highest as far as Dolcetto wines go, which are often tannic but not too acidic.
If the weather is warm and your belly is full, a cloying, sweet wine is not what you’re looking for. Instead, opt for the lightly sweet, gently sparkling, low alcohol Moscato d’Asti, which is perfect to pair with any dessert, from fresh fruit to salame del Papa.