After weeks and weeks of nearly tropical rain (pretty much a non-stop deluge), spring has finally shown its face last Thursday (alas, it didn't last!). A few hours of sunshine were enough to warm the air and fill it with delicious flowery fragrances. I can't step outside in this weather without being instantly swamped with nostalgia. My head spins, memories of my childhood in France start scrolling in front of my eyes. I can't really explain this feeling, nor can I control it... I just have to bear this soon-to-vanish state of naive happiness!
Last Thursday, in the sun, I pictured myself about twenty years ago, en route to my grand-parents' for our traditional Easter lunch. My Dad's parents, Edouard and Rose, "Pépé et Mémé", lived in Saint-Pierre d'Albigny, a big village (a small town) in Savoy. Imagine a bunch of white houses with steep slate roofs on a hill, surrounded by impressive mountains -the Alps. We knew we were close to arriving when we saw l'Arcluse in font of us -a huge rocky mountain above Saint-Pierre. Easter was usually one of the first nice spring days of the year. The air was still cool but you could see here and there fragile flowers coming out of the ground or blooming on a tree. A few birds singing, snowcaps melting at the summits.
I don't really know how bunnies can lay eggs in a yard... That never happened in my grand-parents' yard. But the explanation we were given wasn't that much believable either. In my family (as probably in every french family with catholic-rooted traditions), bells traveled all the way from Rome (the Vatican) carrying and spreading all sorts of blessings (among them, I guess, the gospel, but most of all: chocolates!). Chocolates weren't shaped into bunnies. They were sometimes shaped into bells or eggs. Most of the time, what we discovered under a tree or hidden in a bush in the yard was a welcoming chick ("une poule"), filled with smaller chocolates... in the shape of small fish ("la friture")! I didn't really know what symbols were associated with these figurines. I just ate them all without asking. The chick was usually made of a delicious dark chocolate: shiny, crunchy, full of aromas. Even a child can appreciate good stuff. There wasn't an ounce of unneeded sugar in this little marvel. The fish (and a few shrimps, for diversity) came in different colors and flavors: milk, dark, white and even pink chocolate (don't know what was in there). They were usually of lesser quality than the shell, but very delicious nonetheless. Sometimes we had eggs too. Very small ones, either in the chick or in a separate bag. Those were usually candies (caramel or nougatine) covered with chocolate.
After the treasure hunt began another of my favorite times: lunch! My grand-mother, "Mémé Rosine" (she's 96 now), always prepared a very traditional Easter menu that she had inherited from her own mother, an Italian from Montecassino (near Naples) -my great-grand-parents fled Italy in the 1900's, looking for work, and settled in Lyon, were Mémé and her brothers were born. Last Thursday I could only remember some of the dishes that Mémé prepared. I remembered an omelet served as an appetizer and thought it was followed by a roasted lamb shank, served with green beans. I asked my Dad to refresh my memory and here is what he replied to me:
"Il y a bien longtemps que nous nous sommes écartés des traditions culinaires venues d'Italie et transmises par mémé, mais j'ai encore tout cela en mémoire.
En fait il ne s'agissait pas d'agneau, mais de cabri (ou chevreau) cuisiné de différentes manières : les "abattis" c'est à dire les pattes sont rôties puis en fin de cuisson on leur verse dessus un mélange d'oeuf, de jus de citron et parmesan moulu afin d'enrober les morceaux. Il y a très peu de viande à grignoter mais on suce ces abattis en les tenant avec les doigts : un régal.
La partie charnue (le gigot) était cuite normalement au four, accompagnée de ce que l'on veut (pommes de terre sautées, haricots verts). J'oubliais la fameuse "omelette de Pâques" qui est faite des abats du cabri (la fressure : coeur, foie, rate, poumons) coupés en petits morceaux revenus à la poêle avec de la saucisse italienne coupée en rondelles. On verse dessus des oeufs battus en omelette (je crois qu'il en faut au moins une douzaine) et on retourne l'omelette afin qu'elle soit bien saisie des deux côtés. On plante au milieu un petit brin de rameau béni lors de la fête de Rameaux qui précède Pâques, avec lequel le patriarche bénit les convives au début du repas, c'est l'entrée.
La veille de Pâques on mangeait une sorte de gâteau de riz aux oeufs et à la saucisse que mémé appelait le "jarône": on fait cuire du riz créole, que l'on mélange avec des oeufs, du parmesan et des morceaux de saucisse rissolés. On laisse prendre le tout dans un moule haut ou une marmite que l'on doit mettre au four pendant un certain temps ? Et on coupe des tranches. On peut le manger chaud ou froid.
Je me renseignerai auprès de mémé et de Denise pour plus de détails.
En résumé il faut beaucoup d'oeufs (symbole du renouveau de la nature) et un cabri (ou un demi cabri que l'on commande chez le boucher car il n'en a pas régulièrement).
Merci de m'avoir permis de me replonger dans mes souvenirs, j'en ai l'eau à la bouche... "
Need a translation? Here it goes:
"It's been a long time since we've stepped away from our culinary traditions, coming from Italy and handed down by Mémé [my Dad's mother]. But everything is still vivid in my memory.
It wasn't lamb but kid [a young male goat], cooked in different ways: the legs were roasted and coated with a mix of beaten eggs, lemon juice and grated parmesan cheese. There was very little meat to nibble on these pieces but we sucked on them, holding them between two fingers: delicious!
The fleshy part (the upper leg) is roasted normally and served with whatever one wants (green beans [simply boiled in salted water, served with butter and lemon], potatoes [fingerling, sautéed in butter]...). I was forgetting the famous "Easter omelet" which is made with the kid's giblets (heart, liver, spleen, lungs) cut in small cubes and sautéed along with sliced italian sausage. Beaten eggs are poured in the skillet (at least a dozen I believe) and the omelet is flipped so as to cook it well on both sides [this isn't the french way of cooking omelets]. A little boxwood branch, blessed during the Palm Sunday mass a week before Easter is stuck in the center of the omelet. The patriarch blesses all the guests with this branch at the beginning of the meal: the omelet is the appetizer.
The day before Easter we used to eat a kind of rice cake made with eggs and italian sausage that Mémé called "le jarône" [it must be an italian word pronounced with a french accent] : rice is boiled, then mixed with eggs, parmesan cheese and sautéed slices of sausage. I guess this mix was for a while in a deep pan or a pot? Then sliced. We can eat it warm or cold.
I will inquire the details of Mémé or Denise [my Dad's sister].
To sum up, a lot of eggs are needed (eggs are the symbol of nature's rebirth) and a kid (or half kid, that is ordered in advance at the butcher's because he may not stock this meat on a regular basis).
Thank you for allowing me to dive into my memories. My mouth is watering!"
I'll let you know as soon as I get all the details of the feast!...