The Neapolitan Pastiera
Pastiera is the Easter Neapolitan cake par excellence, made with ricotta cheese, grain and eggs. Neapolitans usually start preparing it on Maundy Thursday in order to eat it both on Holy Saturday and on Easter Monday. Its importance has also been officially recognized as a traditional agricultural product of Campania.
According to the Dizionario Treccani and the Dizionario Garzanti Linguistica, the term pastiera derives from pasta. While in the Italian language its plural form is pastiere, in English it is only used in the singular. Moreover, in some English texts it is possible to observe the entire Italian adjectival syntagm that is pastiera napoletana (Neapolitan pastiera).
The origins of this delicacy are mentioned in Giambattista Basile’s Lo cunto de li cunti, published in the XVII century, a renowned source of inspiration for Western fairy tales. Where – one may ask – does the Neapolitan name come from? In “La Gatta Cenerentola”, when describing the sumptuous feast organized by the king in order to find the beautiful owner of the shoe, Basile mentions this Easter dish with the same name used today. Nevertheless, it is supposed to derive from Latin.
According to a fairly imaginative hypothesis, the term pastiera stems from the union between the word pastam, which in Latin indicates the dough, and the suffix of French derivation, which means “from yesterday”. As a matter of fact, such an etymological interpretation can refer to the ancient custom of adding the leftovers of the previous days to the dough of the pastiera. Therefore, from this point of view, the cake developed from a recipe created to avoid throwing food away, much like the typical frittata di pasta. However, this hypothesis has never been deemed valid.
The legends connected to the origin of the recipe of this typical Easter cake are very ancient and bound to the foundation myths of the city of Naples. According to one of these, the beautiful mermaid Parthenope lived in the wonderful Gulf of Naples; she was a very sweet creature who chose the bay of the Castel dell’Ovo as her home. There, she would sing her melodious songs that melted the heart and ravished the soul of those who met her, keeping company with people and sailors with her gorgeous voice. In order to thank her for her divine voice, Neapolitans honoured her with the flour, a symbol of prosperity, ricotta, indicating abundance, eggs, the embodiment of fertility and reproduction, grain cooked into milk, standing for the fusion of the animal and vegetable realms, orange flowers, reminiscent of the wonderful scents of Campania, spices and candied fruits, suggesting the hospitality of all the peoples from the East and the West, and sugar, representing the sweet song of the Mermaid. Once received these seven gifts, the happy Mermaid Parthenope plunged in the water to reach the crystalline bottom of her sea, bringing her gifts to the feet of the gods who thought of combining them all together thus making the first Neapolitan pastiera.
A fun fact: the most ancient and rudimentary Neapolitan pastiera seems to date back to the Classical age: during the pagan festivals for the celebration of the spring, the priestesses of Ceres carried an egg in procession as a symbol of prosperity and new life. According to a more recent and likely hypothesis, it seems that the invention of the pastiera is to be attributed to the skillful hands of the nuns of the Convent of San Gregorio Armeno, who were renowned for the desserts and cakes they baked for the Neapolitan aristocracy during the Holy Easter.
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La Gatta Cenerentola di Giambattista Basile. www.letteraturaitalia.it. http://www.letteraturaitalia.it/3-antologia-di-testi-seicento-e-settecento/la-gatta-cenerentola-di-giambattista-basile/. Accessed April 26, 2019.
Ricerca | Garzanti Linguistica. https://www.garzantilinguistica.it/ricerca/?q=pastiera. Accessed April 26, 2019.
pastiera-: definizioni, etimologia e citazioni nel Vocabolario Treccani. http://www.treccani.it/vocabolario/ricerca/pastiera-/. Accessed April 26, 2019.
Rosetta C., Jennie S., (2013). Southern Italian Desserts: Rediscovering the Sweet Traditions of Calabria, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, and Sicily, Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale.
Written by Antonella Guarino, PhD in “European Languages and Specialized Terminology” at the University of Naples “Parthenope”.