Talking about pastiera – the delicious tart from Naples – with Italians would likely raise more than one argument: is it a Christmas or Easter cake? Do you put wheat, rice or pasta in the filling? Should custard (crème pâtissière) be added to the filling, or not? How thick should it be?
Answering such questions is not easy; as with many other traditional recipes handed down from mother to daughter – see ragù – almost every single family has its own version, cherished as a part of their heritage and, of course, considered to be the best ever. Also, many regional variations exist and even the name of a dish is sometimes disputed.
I talked to Tommaso Esposito, a sophisticated gourmet and passionate food historian at the helm of the Pulcinella Museum in Acerra, to help me retrace the origins and boundaries of the original pastiera. ‘Mentions of a so-called pastiedda, as it is sometimes still called today in some areas of Campania, date back to the sixteenth century, when the term generally referred to a kind of savoury or sweet pie made with wheat, rice or tagliolini pasta (depending on the area), and other ingredients such as provatura (a forebear to mozzarella), cheese or salami,’ he explains. ‘Neapolitan poet Giovanni Battista del Tufo mentioned it in his essay on Naples' wonders, but it was only in the 1800s that something more similar to what we eat today was described by Ippolito Cavalcanti – a kind of shortcake using lard instead of butter and filled with boiled wheat, ricotta cheese, eggs, candied fruit, cinnamon and other spices, that he recommended should be eaten warm.’ By then, the pastiera became a typical food around Easter – wheat, ricotta cheese and eggs symbolized fertility and renaissance, thus representing the return of spring and the resurrection – and it was commonly prepared by nuns.
Given the utterly delicious taste of this rich tart, its fragrant aroma and the irresistible citrusy taste (as orange flower water or oil is now considered a trademark of a proper pastiera) many bakeries now prepare it all year round. It is considered a ‘festive’ pie and is also commonly eaten at Christmas, along with other traditional cakes such as struffoli (small fried balls of dough with honey) and roccocò (spiced round biscuits).