Traditional Italian families place an incredible amount of significance on food, and even more so, eating it. “Just how mama used to make” is a saying bounded around by many brands hoping to emanate the nostalgic thoughts of multiple generations of the same family sat around a long table, with big plates of steaming hot food taking centre stage. Spending copious hours sharing food, telling stories and drinking fine Italian wines is never more prominent than at Easter.
Not knowing the full significance of Easter to the 87.8% of the Italian population that practice Catholicism, I was excited to be in the very capable hands of The Table Café’s owner Shaun Alpine-Crabtree, Head Chef Cinzia Ghighoni (ex Duck Soup, Angela Hartnett and Zucca) and wine consultant Matt Walls, to join in with their #ItalianEasterFeast. Taking place a couple of days before Good Friday, the restaurant was transformed for the night; one long curving table wrapped around the restaurant, which in turn produced a centre stage for our hosts to effortlessly take us through our first Italian Easter Feast experience.
I was not left disappointed in my somewhat crude generalisation that Italians like to eat – the menu arrived and displayed the 6-course feast we were to embark upon, with matching wines. As befits The Table Café ethos, the menu this evening would be showcasing fine Italian cooking, with the best of British produce.
Shaun Alpine-Crabtree introduces the Italian Easter Feast
Scottish squid spiedini
As Shaun took centre stage to talk us through the symbolism that Easter holds for the Italian Catholic faith, we were presented with our first dish of the feast; Scottish squid spiedini (Italian take on skewers), datterini tomatoes and marjoram. The squid spiedini had been flame grilled and so had a smoky, charred taste to it that was offset beautifully by the roasted datterini tomatoes. The Soave Pieropan 2011 was the crisp, dry white that accompanied the dish.
Grilled wild asparagus
Continuing the celebration of spring produce, the next dish brought with it one of my favourite seasonal ingredients – asparagus. Grilled wild asparagus, quail’s egg and two-and-a-half-year-old parmesan generously sprinkled on top was one of my favourite dishes of the feast. The Specogna – Friulano 2011 was a powerful white that was needed to counter the deliciously strong parmesan on offer.
Now, I must admit, I have never been a fan of liver – the texture just doesn’t sit well with me. With two pieces of duck liver to savour ahead for the next course, had The Table Cafe reversed years of disagreement between myself and our soft, buttery friend? Sadly not! For the liver aficionados amongst you, however, I am reliable informed that the livers were well seasoned, with a buttery texture, and were full of flavour. The accompanying broad bean, speck and pea accompaniment, however, was a revelation – I could have eaten bowls full of the stuff. With the speck (distinctively juniper-flavoured ham originally from Tyrol); probably truck loads.
Lamb ragu lasagnette
The menu next turned to a dish synonymous with Italian cuisine – lasagne. Lamb ragu lasagnette looked like your standard run-of-the-mill Italian fare on the menu – how good could this authentic Italian version really be? Answer: VERY! The arrival of Cinzia to “the stage” revealed the preparation that had gone into this dish. 3 days left to marinate in red wine before being braised for 10 hours in the oven is truly gobsmacking for the filling of a lasagne – you certainly wouldn’t find that sort of love and attention in the ready meal aisle of your local supermarket. Needless to say, the dish was the highlight of the feast. Sandwiched in between fresh layers of pasta, and with a liberal sprinkling of more of that two-and-a-half-year-old parmesan, the dish, I was happy to hear, will be making a regular appearance on The Table Cafe’s springtime menu. The wine, 2010 G.D. Vajra Barbera, was deep red in colour but gave a fresh and balanced finish.
Stuffed veal breast
Veal breast stuffed with artichoke and sheeps milk ricotta
Just after sitting down for the feast, one humongous slab of meat was set down on the pass of the kitchen to rest while we enjoyed the first 4 courses. Duly rested, the meat was ready to be slid in front of Cinzia for carving. A quick glance back at the menu revealed the beast behind the bulge – veal breast stuffed with artichoke and sheep’s milk ricotta, accompanied by roast Duke of York potatoes. The generous portion of veal was extremely tender with only a gentle squeeze from my fork required to set the juices running. The stuffing was equally delightful and clearly showed Cinzia’s expertise with marrying together complementary flavours into a triumphant dish. Although the meat took on a white, pork-like colour, the accompanying red Simane Nebbiolo 2010 was an interesting choice of wine. With hints of ‘tar’ and ‘wild forest violets,’ it is unlike anything I have tried before.
The final savoury dish in our exploration of the Italian Easter feast was again introduced by Cinzia as it held a strong connection to the Catholic faith; Pasqualina, thirty-three layers of pastry, one for each of Christ’s years on Earth, was filled with Swiss chard curd cheese and egg, and served with Castelfranco radicchio. Breaking into the pasqualina, you were presented with a small insight into the craftsmanship needed to compile this dish. A whole boiled quail’s egg sat proudly in the depths of the parcel. The ensuing tastes I would most closely associate with that old “British” favourite – the quiche. The accompanying poached pear salad was a welcome, light touch to the rich pasqualina. Having devoured six courses, and corresponding wine matches, the Specogna – Ribolla Gialla 2011 was a welcome light, fresh wine to accompany the pasqualina.
Proceedings took an altogether sweeter tone as we were treated to a trio of traditional Italian desserts – semi-freddo, Gubana and Pastiera Napolietana. The highlight for me being the Gubana cake, a traditional nut and dried fruit stuffed cake from the Friuli – offered up at Easter since as far back as the 1590s. The Marsala Curatolo was an equally sweet addition to the final furore, with after-flavours of caramel and nuts lingering on the palate.
Having taken a gastronomical, as well as cultural tour, through the traditional Italian Easter celebrations, I thought it best to leave it to Cinzia to sum up what a Traditional Italian Easter feast means to her:
“Easter in Italy is all about two things: food and family. As it’s very often the case the two go together and religion is the pretext to do what Italians love the most, spend time with loved ones and cook up a feast for the 4 days of Easter. Sunday is when the main meal is eaten but Easter Monday ‘Pasquetta’ is the fun day when families and children go for a pic-nic and eat the leftovers from the day before. It heralds the advent of spring, rebirth and renewal and the food reflects this with peas, broad beans, asparagus, young swiss chard and artichokes all involved in the classic Easter dishes such as Pasqualina, Pastiera napoletana and Cima alla Genovese, (stuffed veal breast). I love this time of the year because spring is in the air and we can all look forward to light, zesty and flavoursome food, full of colours, simplicity and personality.”
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