Nunzia Sibilla. The Queen of the ‘Neapolitan Pastiera’
There is a sensorial shortcut to Resurrection…a sort of perfume & heavenly taste felt when we eat a slice of Pastiera Napoletana prepared by Nunzia Sibilla, with a glass of Prosecco white wine.
The Pastiera is a traditional Neapolitan cake made at home during Easter. According to some – and I am one of them – it should be declared a protected Unesco Heritage.
We have tasted it on Easter Day at Nunzia Sibilla’s home, a longtime Hong Kong resident and a true Neapolitan, who is known within the Italian community as the ‘Queen of the Pastiera’ for no one can match the quality of this particular and complicate cake which she bakes to perfection.
We have discussed with Nunzia about the possible origins of such culinary wonder, so little known outside Italy. Here is a short list of the current theories about the wondrous invention.
According to ancient legends a Siren set up her dwelling into a cave between Posillipo and the Vesuvius volcano and every spring she went ashore to enchant the local people with her songs. The grateful Neapolitans offered her what they had of more precious: flour; ricotta cheese; eggs and corn boiled in milk; orange flowers; cinnamon and sugar. The Siren, happy of the gift, dived to the bottom of the sea to show them to the gods who then decided to mix the ingredients and thus produced through their divine arts the first Pastiera. Since then this cake came to represent the return of Spring after winter.
The tradition of cooking the Pastiera was then adopted by the Roman emperor Constantine as a ritual offering to the new Christians being baptized during Easter’s night and, for a long time, the best Pastiera in Naples was baked by the nuns of the convent of San Gregorio Armeno, who then sold to the rich Neapolitan houses during Easter.
The existence of this wonderful cake is well documented during the XVII century, and there is even a literary composition by the great Giambattista Basile (1566-1632) in a comedy entitled “The Cat Cinderella” where the King is looking for a girl who had lost her small shoe. Yes, that’s is known as the first written version of the Cinderella’s myth, which is even older and common in most ancient cultures and well known even in China.
E’ venuto lo juorno destenato, oh bene mio: che mazzecatorio e che bazzara che se facette! Da dove vennero tante pastiere e casatielle? Dove li sottestate e le porpette? Dove li maccarune e graviuole? Tanto che nce poteva magnare n’asserceto formato.
There is another legend closed to us about this cake, which involves King of Naples Ferdinand II of Bourbon and his wife Maria Teresa of Augsburg, who was known in Naples as “The Queen who never smiles”.
But smile she did once when tasting the Pastiera during Easter. The King then quipped: “The Queen has smiled but now we have to wait until the next Easter to see her smile again!”
There is a poem in Neapolitan dialect describing such historical smile:
A Napule regnava Ferdinando
Ca passava e’ jurnate zompettiando;
Mentr’ invece a’ mugliera, ‘Onna Teresa,
Steva sempe arraggiata. A’ faccia appesa
O’ musso luongo, nun redeva maje,
Comm’avess passate tanta guaje.
Nù bellu juorno Amelia, a’ cammeriera
Le dicette: “Maestà, chest’è a’ Pastiera.
Piace e’ femmene, all’uommene e e’creature:
Uova, ricotta, grano, e acqua re ciure,
‘Mpastata insieme o’ zucchero e a’ farina
A può purtà nnanz o’Rre: e pur’ a Rigina”.
Maria Teresa facett a’ faccia brutta:
pò l’assaggiaje, e sa fernette tutta.
Mastecanno, riceva: “E’ o’Paraviso!”
E le scappava pure o’ pizz’a riso.
Allora o’ Rre dicette: “E che marina!
Pe fa ridere a tte, ce vò a Pastiera?
Moglie mia, vien’accà, damme n’abbraccio!
Chistu dolce te piace? E mò c’o saccio
Ordino al cuoco che, a partir d’adesso,
Stà Pastiera la faccia un pò più spesso.
Nun solo a Pasca, che altrimenti è un danno;
pe te fà ridere adda passà n’at’ anno!