Spring’s Secret Agent

April 2, 2015 / Food & Wine
Sant'Agata de' Goti, Campania
The other day I was walking by the pharmacy in my little town of S. Agata dè Goti. It is run by the Viola family and I was surprised to see a long line of women waiting to enter the door. What was going on? Had there been a sudden epidemic or an accident of some sort?

As I neared the door, I was relieved to see that the women didn’t seem at all upset, but were animatedly discussing a momentous topic: the dish that would be gracing every table on Easter Sunday, the symbol of Neapolitan pastry: la pastiera.

Pastiera is a delicious and nutritious pie make of ricotta, boiled grain, eggs, lard, milk, sugar, spices and candied fruits cooked in a pastry shell in an appropriate pan called ‘il ruoto’. It is baked on Holy Thursday and Good Friday and is served on Easter Sunday, which allows enough time for the fragrances to mix, giving it its unique flavor.

It has, however, a secret ingredient: aqua di fiori d’arancio or aroma of orange blossoms.

The origins of this recipe goes back to the cult of Ceres, Roman goddess of agriculture, fertility and motherly love, whose worshipers brought grain, eggs, milk and honey in procession to celebrate the rebirth of life in Spring.

But pastiera as it is known today was developed in the peace and quiet of the ancient convent of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples, rather appropriately built on the ruins of the temple dedicated to Ceres. The story goes that the nuns decided to develop a recipe that would signify the Resurrection: eggs symbolizing Life and orange blossoms denoting innocence, chastity, eternal love, marriage and fruitfulness. They made hundreds of these pies and distributed them at Easter to the wealthy patrons of Naples.

But where does one find aroma of orange blossoms? That was what I was about to find out at Mrs. Viola’s pharmacy. There on the counter, next to the chapstick, was a basket full of little bottles with yellow labels stating: “ Farmacia Viola, S. Agata dei Goti (BN), Essenza per Colombe”. There was no list of ingredients on the bottle, but my curiosity was so tickled that I had to buy a bottle.

When I returned home, I unscrewed the top and sure enough, a heady perfume of orange and cinnamon filled my nostrils with the aroma of pastiera.

Ahhhh! Spring is here at last!

Recipe here

Barbara Goldfield

by Barbara Goldfield

Owner of “Savour The Sannio”, www.savourthesannio.com, a travel consultancy for central and southern Italy.

32 Responses to “Spring’s Secret Agent”

  1. Penny Ewles-Bergeron
    Penny Ewles-Bergeron

    Lovely article about a delicious treat! The flavour of a really good pastiera is both delicate and forceful at the same time. Love it.

    Reply
  2. Ah! Such imagery to get us through the drudgery of Canadian winters!

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  3. Andreina

    I can almost smell the wonderful aroma of this pastry. Thank you for writing about local customs and dishes. I look forward to seeing the recipe in an upcoming article.

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  4. I was in Sant’Agata De’ Goti a few years ago. Wish I had been there at Easter.
    Looking forward to your recipe.

    Reply
  5. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    Notes on food excite me as a Chef. It is most curious in Italy that some of these exotic essences are sold in Drugstores, some in mercati or
    negozi di alimenti some others are ‘Mille Fiori’ ‘Fiore di Sicilia’ and ‘Olio da violetta’ all mystic in flavours. Thanks for introducing me to yet another.

    Reply
  6. Mac McLean

    Can not wait to try this as my alberi de orancio are in full bloom!

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  7. I can’t wait for the recipe! On a trip to Sorrento/Amalfi a few years ago, our bus driver took us through S. Agata regularly. What a lovely part of the world! A presto — Linda

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  8. Anne Robichaud

    Barbara, feeling “withdrawal” symptoms already for Naples – time for another trip there as one of my favorite Italian cities…and your note on the pastiera made the need for a “Naples fix” even more acute.
    Mille grazie!

    Reply
  9. Karin Reinhardt Accettura

    How I wished I could spend a few days RIGHT NOW in that region of Italy (especially since the temperature in the Chicago-Region reads 35 deg Fahrenheit this morning!). Anxiously awaiting the recipe and will give the pie/cake a try for Easter Sunday; wish me luck – Mille grazie – Thank you – vielen Dank! – Karin

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  10. Thank you for instantly transporting me to Easter with nonna. I can taste the sweetness now! The only difference is she made pastiera in a cast iron frying pan.

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  11. Have all the ingredients (except ricotta) at the ready for my Easter grain pie baking on Good Friday….even the orange blossom water imported from Italy. Yesterday, I started making candied orange peel (My Calabria cookbook) that will make it taste like sunshine and Italy!
    Buona Pasqua!

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  12. I am so going to try out this recipe. Hopefully my local pharmacy in Wexfprd, Ireland will have this wonderful orange blossom essence!Is the cinnamon a little something extra from Farmacia Viola,S. Agata dei Goti?

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  13. I enjoyed learning about the pastiera, sounds so good. My family is from Sicily and my mother always made a cake for Easter similar to Casata that contained ricotta, sugar, cream, cinnamon oil (the real thing that the bakers use) and she folded chopped cherries and mini chocolate chips in and put three layers of this filling on an angel food cake and then frosted it with whipped cream. My whole family loves it and the tradition is still carried on at Easter. I noticed a response from Marilyn Gentile and would like to ask her where her family is from as my maiden name is Gentile.

    Reply
  14. Rob Sheild

    What a great sight! When I was a boy in St Paul, Minnesota, Mario Toscano and his wife Theresa would make one of these pies and bring it over the week before Easter. Can’t wait for the recipe!

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  15. I will watch for the recipe! Hope I can find the necessary ingredients here in the States so I can try it Maybe at one of our local Italian stores.

    Reply
  16. cristina rocca

    I am in Sydney Australia but my cara Mum came from Naples I am going to make this for Easter ciao tutti

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  17. marianna

    I enjoyed this article very much! My sister and I make pastieri every Easter. I look forward to reading your recipe. Thanks!

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  18. Theresa

    Such fond childhood memories of waiting for Saturday at 12Noon for our first piece of pastiera. It was made on Holy Thursday but we could not eat it until Saturday. It is so delicious and I am going to make it this year — it will never be as good as the one my father, who was from Naples, used to make.
    Ciao – Buona Pasqua

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  19. Leslie

    Who would have thought! Thanks for clearing up the mystery. I will stand in line for the recipe. Marvelous!

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  20. Pasquale

    Recipe? I collect recipes for Pastiera because one day I will finally make a decent pie/cake.

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  21. Thanks for this article. I was wondering what was in the pastiera as I just got one as a gift from a bakery here in South Florida and I’m about to bring it to work to share with my coworkers who may ask me what is in it!!

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  22. Mary Wallace

    You did promise the recipe GB ; I hope it will be soon…….

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  23. anne ilaria

    this sounds a lot like what my family calls ‘sweet pie’. my late aunt, julie villanova, made it every Easter and it always made my day! never got around to asking her for the recipe, so i eagerly await yours. Buona Pasqua.

    Reply
  24. Margaret Hagan

    I would like to have the recipe for the ” Pastiera”,it sounds wonderful. We lived in Naples for 2 years and never had it. Was back again to Italy July 2011. Love to live there forever.

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  25. louise

    So wish I could make it here, too many ingredients missing like boiled grain, real ricotta, fior d’arancio. Buona Pasqua a tutti!

    Reply
  26. Pat Carney Ceccarelli
    Pat Carney Ceccarelli

    What a lovely post!! Has sweetened my mood and reminded me how glorious things actually are. Many thanks Barbara.

    Reply
  27. Rick Hayden

    Been hooked on what is called “Wheat Pie” in North ‘Jersey for some 70 years. Never get enough. Harder to come by now in Southern California, but when in Sorrento, you can have a slice of Pastiera at Bar Rita for colazione any and every day! Bury me with one, just in case.

    Reply

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