Benelta e beneixela quella magnina
Ca sa fâ ben unna torta Pasqualina
(Blest and twice blest be the hand that plies/
Delicious savory Easter pies)
Martin Piaggio (Genoa dialect poet, c.1820)
Liguria’s is one of the most ‘vegetarian’ of Italian regional cuisines, its recipes cleverly combining garden vegetables, cereals, superb extra-virgin olive oil and aromatic herbs such as marjoram, basil, sage, mint and thyme. This is a food heritage indissolubly bound to fruits of the soil that regenerate year by year, to the seasons and to the rhythms of nature. As were the peasants who used to grow its staple ingredients. The Proceedings of the Committee of the Public Inquiry into Agriculture (vol. X, 1884) report that,
The diet of the peasants round Genoa is based on vegetables and only very rarely envisages meat. Along the coast, people eat white and, very rarely, brown bread, pasta, garden vegetables, fish and only tiny amounts of meat … with their bread they eat curdled milk, fresh or dried figs, according to the season, codfish, potatoes and green beans dressed in oil, cheese and raw tomatoes with pepper, salt and oil.
Ligurian cooking as it stands today is the sum-total of an atavic need to make the best out of very, very little. Yet, as they say, necessity is the mother of invention and, in Liguria, the results are masterpieces of Mediterranean cuisine. Reflecting the trend towards vegetables, cereals and pulses (and providing much needed protein and carbohydrates) is the region’s rich variety of torte salate, savory pies, focacce, and farinate, chickpea pancakes: specialties include fûgassa co-a çiòula (focaccia topped with onions), fûgassa co-o formaggio (focaccia filled with cheese), piscialandrea (pizza with anchovies, onions and olives), panissa (chickpea pancake topped with onions or mushrooms) and torta de articiocche (artichoke pie). The tradition is an old one and, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Genoa, a special guild, the Farinotti, was responsible for buying flour from mills and selling it to the city’s bakers, the Furnarii, to prepare the dishes in question.
Unlike the French quiche and the British pie, which generally contain meat or cheese in one way or another, Ligurian torte salate are filled with chard, spinach, artichokes, pumpkin, courgettes, onions and even rice. The most celebrated of the many variations on the theme is the torta pasqualina, literally Easter pie, a specialty of Genoa, made with layers of puff pastry stuffed with chard, prescinsêua, a soft curd cheese, and, for the occasion, eggs. Chard was apparently used as the main ingredient for the Easter pie because it was seasonal, peasants bringing abundant cartloads of the stuff into the city in the early spring, hence during Holy Week. Eggs are also, of course, a symbol of spring and appear to have been almost as seasonal as the chard itself (before the advent of battery breeding, egg laying was almost all concentrated into that period of the year). Prescinsêua, finally, is now hard to find and is often replaced by simple ricotta.
In the past, in the week leading up to Easter, the housewives of Genoa used to take their pies to be baked in public ovens. To avoid getting them mixed up, it was common to engrave one’s initials on the rim of the crust or mark it with a colored marble. Yet the tradition of the torta pasqualina is packed with even more arcane symbolism. In his La vera cucina genovese facile ed economica (Genoa, 1865), Emanuele Rossi points out that the pie should contain 33 layers of pastry in memory of the years of the life of Christ. Recipes in modern cookbooks generally require six to eight eggs, but in the past things were different. Some sources called for 12 eggs to represent Christ’s disciples, others for seven to symbolize the points on the pagan solar wheel. Who knows, maybe the pie with the Christian name dates to back before Our Lord was ever born!
For the dough:
1 kg flour
4 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
For the filling:
1.5 kg chard
1 3/4 cups freshly grated Parmesan
1 tbsp fresh marjoram, chopped
500 g prescinsêua, or ricotta
2 tbsps plain flour
2 tbsps extra-virgin olive oil
For the preparation:
Oil, for greasing the pan and the pastry sheets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Make a mound of the flour on a kitchen top and scoop a well into it. Pour in the oil. Add 2 pinches of salt and warm water and knead to a soft, smooth dough. Divide into 33 balls. Leave balls to rest on a floured surface, covered with a damp cloth. Wash the chard well, removing tough ribs. Slice leaves into thin strips and blanch in salted water. Drain well and place in a bowl. Stir in 1 1/2 cups of grated Parmesan and chopped marjoram.
Meanwhile, put the prescinsêua or ricotta, in a fine muslin bag and hang to drain, or press with a weight to remove the serum. When dry, fold in the 2 tablespoons of oil and flour, the remaining Parmesan and season to taste.
Now take 13 of the dough balls and roll them out to paper-thin, one by one. Grease a pie pan and arrange the 13 sheets of dough inside it, brushing all except for the last one with a sprig of parsley dipped in oil. Spread the chard mixture over the dough, drizzle with a little oil, then spread over the cheese mixture. Using the back of a tablespoons, press12 depressions into the top of the cheese mixture and crack the 12 eggs into them, avoiding breaking the yolks. Season with salt and pepper.
Preheat your oven to 200°C.
Now take the remaining dough balls and roll them out like the first. Lay them down over the pie, greasing them lightly above and below. Use a straw to blow air between them to keep them separate. Press the edges of the layers together to make a border for the pie.
Bake for about 50 minutes until the crust is golden brown. Serve warm or cold with a Pigato or a Rossese.
John Irving is the editor of the Slow Food www.slowfood.com website