Good Friday (venerdi santo) is a solemn, sacred day in Italy and when it comes to food the menu for a ‘pranzo di quaresima‘, a luncheon meal for this final Lenten observance has a long and important tradition that goes back to the recognized bible of Italian cooking, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Generations of Italians have grown up with the book of Artusi as a main guide to cooking. Written in 1891 with over 700 printings it is one of Italy’s most read books, together with Pinocchio, and a copy was present in almost every Italian home. Today there is a center in Artusi’s hometown of Forlimpopoli dedicated to his work.
Artusi wasn’t a chef but a merchant from Romagna who after a successful career decided to retire and dedicate his time to his hobbies – writing and cooking. He collected and compiled recipes and insights on the culinary and cultural traditions of regional Italian food from various sources, friends and relatives codifying and classifying the tradition of Italy’s domestic cuisine gathering together hundreds of regional Italian recipes and experimenting with them. He recognized the long and important tradition of foods eaten on holidays and seasonal celebrations especially those at Easter time and those eaten just before Easter. On the last few days of Lent when only “lean” foods were to be eaten, ones that Italians call “magro”.
The menu for “il pranzo di quaresima” doesn’t seem to be so lean or penitential as the ingredients are quite rich and lavish in this day and age. The meal begins Minestra –Zuppa alla Certosina, (Carthusian Soup) a fish and tomato soup that originated in a Tuscan monastery, the beautiful Certosa del Galluzzo which sits on top of a hill just outside Florence on way to Sienna.
This is followed by a course Artusi refers to as the Principii, – Baccalà montebianco con crostini di caviale , pounded codfish with cream, a garnish of raw truffles and croutons or crostini of caviar. Followed byLesso– boiled/poached Pesce con salsa genovese, fish with a Ligurian pesto sauce.
Then an interposed Tramesso of Gnocchi alla romana, discs made from semolina flour topped with butter and melted cheese. Next an Umido (stew)of Pesce a taglio followed by Arrosto grilled Anguilla (Comacchio eel).
For dessert, Dolci of Pasticcini di marzapane e gelato di pistacchi, marzipan filled pastry tarts and pistachio ice cream.
A Lenten feast that gives real and lasting joy in sharing ourselves at the table.
I wrote this post several years ago but the memory is as vivid now as then. A must see under the Duomo if you are in Milano.
Even though we have 40 days to prepare, celebrating Easter seems to be more about bunnies and brunch then it does about a life changing transformation. For if we follow the teachings of faith we known that “if we die with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him” (Romans 6:8). This was never felt more deeply than by the Early Christians. On all accounts their devotion and unwavering belief caused them to commit and transform their lives in a ways that seem impossible. Accepting a contra-lifestyle based on the teachings of an outlawed and unpopular doctrine of redemption often took them to the brink and it began with the sacramental waters of an Easter baptism.
Images of these early Christian baptisms took on a vivid reality when I first visited the Milan Duomo, a massive Gothic spired cathedral rising out of the concrete earth of Milan Centro like it had materialized from thin air. Described as one of the greatest churches in the world (second only to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), the building of the Duomo took more than 500 years to complete. There are 5 naves divided by 40 pillars with 3,400 statues (1800 alone on the terraced roof). It is a fairyland of pinnacles, spires and flying buttresses with a 4 meter gilded statue of the Madonna perched on the top of the highest spire.
The art and architecture of the Milan Duomo is amazing but what is more remarkable is what is hidden and unexpected. The 135 spires of the Duomo overshadow a little known paleo-Christian archeological site hidden below the surface of the city with baptismal pools (circa 378) used by the early Christians of Milan. Through a staircase on the left of the main door of the cathedral you descend into the excavated remains of a brick wall around the perimeter of a Baptistery and a Roman road. Walking along a raised platform you see a large octagonal frontal pool where the catechumens were baptized. The pool is impressive because of its size (6.10 meters in diameter) with concealed pipes that provided a channel of “holy water” sprouting from several jets.
A description of the space talks about the pool being clad in Greek marble and the original flooring and walls being made of black and white marble in geometric designs. It must have been an awe-inspiring event to be led to this place on the eve of Easter and to be immersed in the water to receive that sacrament that cleanses you of your sins and binds you to all of Christendom. As many times as I’ve seen the Milan Duomo (at last count this would be 18), the one particular thing that stands out most in my mind is being in that underground space where lives were transformed forever.