Look at this lovely gift which arrived in the post today. It came from Hubby’s ex colleagues.
It is the classic Sicilian Easter gift: a flock of Easter Lambs, all made from marzipan.
Sicilians traditionally make marzipan (which is called martorana in Sicily) twice a year.
Marzipan Easter Lambs
They make it into lambs for Easter. Many Mediterranean regions associate lambs with Easter. They eat roast lamb in Greece and make model lambs in Sicily, for example, in memory of their pre-Christian springtime religious festival which involved sacrificing a lamb to thank the gods for all the sudden edible abundance they found around them. Lambs are the southern European pagan hangover that correspond to the north European Easter Eggs.
But why marzipan?
Almonds come into season in October, and provide a highly nutritious, high-calorie food with a long shelf-life to see you through the winter. But in May in Sicily there’s a sudden abundance of fresh fruit that feels like nature going into frenzy. Nature comes back to life and nobody needs boring old nuts any more. So why not use them up with a celebration of Easter? It feels like a celebration of spring ending winter anyway, with its emphasis on resurrection.
Marzipan fruits for the dead
Sicilians make martorana into fruits in October. For the day of the dead, corresponding with our very commercialised Halloween, it is tradition in Sicily to make it into fruits and vegetables which you eat, give as gifts, and also, in the olden days, left on the graves of your deceased ancestors after spending a day having a picnic with them in the cemetery.
This tradition of spending one day a year with your ancestors, socialising and remembering them, then leaving food for them, goes all the way back to Roman times. In the ancient Roman religion, you gave food to the gods to show them that you cared. The classic Roman technique of getting food to the gods was to have a barbeque, and deliberately leave some nice morsels on the fire till they were burned to oblivion. (I think the Romans must have introduced Roman Britain to this barbecue technique, which is practised to this day by 99% of all British men.)
In this ethereal smoky form, the food could waft by magic up to the gods who then – and I must admit the Romans were a little vague on this detail – somehow enjoyed it as actual food. The rest of the food was cooked properly and scoffed by the humans in the conventional manner.
To the Romans, ancestors became a type of semi-divine figure who should be given a particular form of religious respect. It was comparable to Chinese ancestor worship. This dated from the early years of the Roman civilisation. By the time Christianity came along, the Romans were already wondering exactly why they did it and basically going through the rituals out of habit and tradition. They still put food on the graves of their ancestors and apparently for dead people it was not necessary to burn it. Smoke goes upwards and where dead people live is in a downwards direction. Similarly, sacrifices to some other very ancient goods related to death and dead people were not burned, but simply left out to be eaten.
Religious revival leads to all Italian restaurants closing in August
The first Roman Emperor, Julius Caesar’s nephew Augustus, knew that religion is the opium of the people and therefore he made major efforts to revive the tradition, with some success. He also rectified the hopelessly wrong calendar by inventing a new month, named August after himself, and shifted so many obsolete or dying out religious festivals into that month that it was an entire month of holiday.
Giving everyone a whole month off work to have barbeques is a good plan, if you have just made yourself dictator and don’t want to be assassinated.
To this day, Italians take the whole of August as a month off. Italy is the only country on earth where you go on holiday in peak season and find half the cafes and restaurants in the nation’s capital have notices on their locked doors saying “Closed for August holidays.” Even some of the tourist attractions themselves close for August, during what would be the month they made more money than the rest of the year put together, if only they were open.
I hear some tourist venues in northern Italy have cottoned on to the fact that they are losing at least half their annual revenue in this way and have contemplated what was once unthinkable: taking their annual holiday NOT in August. The Sicilians so far seem a little slower to face this shocking break with tradition.
So during August, when foreign tourists may walk around town all day fainting from hunger whilst desperately seeking an establishment to sell them food (I speak from tummy-rumbling experience) the Italians, meanwhile, where tourists cannot see them, are spending the whole month making whoopee and having the most exciting month of the year.
The climax is their secular festival (deeply religious in the pre-Christian era and far too enjoyable to cancel) called Ferragosto, which is the Italianised form of the Latin Ferie Augusti, or The holidays of Augustus.” This involves having a barbecue, not burning any for the gods but eating the lot, and then leaping into the sea at midnight, no longer to purify your soul but to splash your friends and generally have lots of fun.
Back to Easter, and marzipan celebrations.
I can’t write any more as I’m too busy finishing off the last of the almonds before the apricots, plums and about 20 other types of fruit come into season.
I wish you all a happy and peaceful Easter!