What does Easter mean to you? For devout Christians this is the most significant and sacred moment of the religious year. For non-believers it's a holiday time, a chance to take a few days off - and for children in the UK, a rare opportunity to gorge unrestrainedly on milk chocolate in the form of Easter eggs and bunnies.
Spain's Holy Week
Spain's own particular version of Holy Week combines traditions both sacred and profane. The great processions of Semana Santa, with their images of weeping Virgins and suffering saints, are an astonishing expression of piety and a major tourist attraction in their own right. Beyond the spectacle, however, what matters to most Spaniards around Easter-time is what they're going to have for lunch. In Spanish supermarkets, all of a sudden the bacalao (salt cod) section is larger and more prominently displayed. On the shelves with the pre-sliced bread you'll see a product not generally on sale during the rest of the year - a baguette-shaped loaf described as 'pan para torrijas' ('bread for torrijas', see below.). At the local greengrocer there might be bunches of fresh spinach in a box of their own beside the till. Meanwhile in the bakeries and pastelerías (pastry-shops), queues form for the special Easter cakes and sweeties laid out on trays below the counter.
Strictly speaking Holy Week is the continuation of Lent, and the king of Spanish Lenten dishes is potaje, short for potaje de vigilia. For centuries Catholics were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays, on the nights before important feast-days (vigilias) and for the forty days and nights of Lent. Meat-free potaje is a result of that strict religious observance. The basic formula is chickpeas with some sort of greens, most often spinach, but sometimes Swiss chard or other wild herbs. Hard boiled eggs in halves are sometimes included for variety, and a friend of mine's mother adds both rice and potatoes to her potaje. Another very common addition is bacalao (salt cod), a star ingredient of Holy Week eating in Spain. The salted, dried fish is soaked for three days in the fridge, changing the water every day to remove most of the salt, then allowed to simmer for a while with the chickpeas and greens. Potaje can seem like an austere proposition (which of course is partly the point) but it can be surprisingly good - especially when livened up with a sofrito of garlic and pimentón and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil just before serving.
Different Spanish regions, different specialities
Different regions of Spain have their different Semana Santa specialities. Typical in the Canary Islands is sancocho, a soup/stew of salt-cured cherne fish (the Canarian take on bacalao), potato and sweet potato thickened with gofio flour and seasoned with the red-pepper sauce mojo rojo. In the cities of Zamora and Palencia it's traditional at the end of a long night of Holy Week processions to sit down to a steaming bowl of sopas de ajo, the classic Castilian dish of fried garlic, day-old bread, eggs, pimentón and water. The wine region of Rioja also has its humble Holy Week dish: patatas viudas, 'widowed potatoes', so-called because they contain no meat. (The potato is simmered in slices with onion, garlic and a good vegetable stock.)
Sweet things at Easter
It's in the realm of the sweet things, however, that Easter foods in Spain take on their greatest diversity, as if to compensate for the monotonous meat-free regime of the traditional Lenten diet. The variety of Semana Santa sweetmeats is truly dazzling and practically every region and town has its own dulce típico, from the gañotes of Ubrique and the borrachuelo of Málaga to the rubiols of Mallorca and the roscas and flores fritas of Extremadura. Some of these sweeties have spilled out of their original birthplace to become popular all over the country - such as the pestiño, a twist of dough fried in olive oil and drenched in honey which originated in Andalucia but can now be found in confiterías much further north. Many are flavoured with cinnamon, orange and lemon peel, or a dash of aniseed liqueur.
Many also have a particular custom attached to them - like the panquemado, a kind of bun made with dough enriched with milk, egg and olive oil, which in Valencia is traditionally eaten with longaniza (a cured pork sausage something like fuet) and a hard-boiled egg on the side. Or like the mona de Pascua, one of those Spanish culinary traditions whose popularity shows no signs of declining. The idea of a sweet bread or cake to be eaten on Easter Monday extends all along the Mediterranean coast of Spain. The name is thought to derive from the arabic muna meaning gift or 'provision', and one theory suggests it was originally given by Spanish Muslims to their Christian masters to celebrate the end of Lent. Now however the modern custom is set in stone: the mona is bought by the godfather for his godson or god-daughter, or by the grandparent for the grandchild. Easter Monday being a holiday in Cataluña, a common sight on the streets of Barcelona is the gent ringing a doorbell with a carry-out box from the local pastisseria in his hand.
In Murcia and Alicante the mona (also called hornazo) is a bun with an whole egg set into the middle. If at its simplest the Catalan mona is similar to the Murcian version - a rich bread dough somewhere between a sponge and a brioche with an egg baked into it - nowadays the mona is commonly glazed with egg yolk and decorated with crushed almonds, angel's-hair pumpkin, chocolate eggs and/or miniature chocolate figures, even glacé cherries and coloured feathers. The fanciest monas of all are the ones made by Barcelona's top pastry-chefs, who compete with each other to display ever more fantastical creations. Escribá, most celebrated of Barcelona's classic pastisseries, attracts local families to gawp at the giant chocolate monas, sometimes based on movie themes or current news stories, which are shown off like works of art in the shop window.
Easter traditions in CataloniaAsk any Catalan about their favourite Easter speciality and they'll surely say 'la mona', but across the length and breadth of Spain there's one sweet food that rules them all: the torrija. This dessert is often translated as 'French toast', which doesn't really capture the deliciousness of a bread slice - often that special 'bread for torrijas' - bathed in milk and egg, fried in olive oil and soaked with sugar syrup or honey. The Spanish weakness for torrijas is something to behold. During the days of Holy Week they positively fly off the shelves of the pastry-shops. A traditional variation is the torrija de vino (soaked in wine instead of milk), but Spanish chefs have taken to reinventing the classic recipe in all manner of ways: over the years I've seen torrijas made with sponge cake or croissants instead of bread, soaked in passionfruit juice or horchata instead of milk, laced with Baileys and stuffed with Nutella. You can find them on sale all year round if you look hard enough, and of course torrijas are easily be made at home. Yet even their most ardent fans seem happy for them to remain a seasonal speciality.
And there's something to be said for confining torrijas, pestiños, roscas and monas to one particular week in the year. Like the joyous days of Easter that follow the dreary weeks of Lent, these sweet Spanish treats are something to look forward to.