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Cheese Is The Big Wheel In This Italian Easter Tradition

Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale's Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale's Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

Perhaps one of the most bizarre Easter traditions in Italy is a cheese-tossing contest called ruzzolone, which is popular in central Italy. A fun place to witness this sort of edible discus event is in the Umbrian hill town of Panicale, near Perugia.

A huge 10-pound wheel of hard aged pecorino cheese is hurled along a course in the center of town. Two teams, with four players each, compete to get the cheese around the course using the fewest number of throws. The players wrap a long cloth sling with a wooden handle around the cheese to help hurl it down the curving streets, across moats, and around spectators and vehicles. The winning team gets to keep the cheese. If the cheese breaks during the race, everyone shares it.

An ancient Italian tradition

A man takes part in last year's cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

A man takes part in last year’s cheese-tossing competition in Panicale. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan

The origins of this unusual contest are uncertain, but frescos have been found dating to Etruscan times that depict smiling shepherds rolling rounds of cheese down slopes, seemingly just for the fun of it.

The game was well established by the Middle Ages, and over the years various laws were set in place: In 1598 a mayor from an Emilia-Romagna town placed betting limits to the current restriction of wagering no more than the value of the cheese being tossed, and in 1761, in response to complaints of the rowdiness of the game, a governor of that region limited the game to the period between Carnival and Easter.

Nowadays it’s back to a year-round game, as gradually over time, many towns replaced the cheese with a solid wooden wheel, allowing play even in summer, when the heat would have made the cheese too soft to toss.

If you visit Panicale on Easter Monday to witness this lively sport, be sure to stay until a winner is declared. You can then enjoy a free picnic lunch of local cheese and bread sandwiches offered in the town square. For dessert, enjoy pieces of chocolate from the gigantic 4-foot Easter egg that decorates the piazza.

Easter Pasta Pie

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) by Francine Segan

A homey and comforting pasta pie comes together without much fuss. Credit: Courtesy of “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan

To create your own Easter Monday cheesy celebration, make pasta pie (crostata di tagliolini), a lovely make-ahead picnic dish traditionally eaten in Italy on Pasquetta, “Little Easter,” the day after Easter. Thin egg noodles are layered with cheese, ham and mushrooms with tiny peas scattered between the layers to add a green burst of flavor. It’s baked in the oven until beautifully golden, sliced like pie, and eaten at room temperature.

From: “Pasta Modern: New & Inspired Recipes of Italy” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), by Francine Segan     

Prep time: 30 minutes

Bake time: 25 minutes

Total time: 55 minutes

Yield: 8 servings

Ingredients

Olive oil

1 small onion, minced

2 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, minced

8 ounces baby peas

Salt and black pepper

3/4 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced

1 clove garlic, minced

7 tablespoons butter, plus more for the pan

About 1/4 cup toasted bread crumbs

1 cup chicken or beef stock

1 pound tagliolini, thin egg noodles, preferably Felicetti brand

4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

2 cups milk, warmed

About 1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

3/4 pound burrata or mozzarella cheese, diced

8 ounces thinly sliced ham, cut into strips

Directions

1. Heat 1 tablespoon of oil in a small frying pan over medium high heat. Cook the onion and pancetta until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the peas and a few tablespoons of water, and cook until the peas are tender, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, set aside in a bowl.

2. In the same pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over high heat. Cook the mushrooms and garlic a minute or two, until tender. Season with salt and pepper, set aside.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter an 8- to 9-inch nonstick spring-form pan and dust with bread crumbs.

4. In a small pot, simmer the stock until reduced by half.

5. In another small pot, make the béchamel. Melt 4 tablespoons of butter over medium heat, stir in the flour and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until smooth. Add the warm milk, and bring to a boil, stirring until thick, about 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.

6. Cook the pasta in salted, boiling water 3 minutes less than package directions. Drain and toss with the reduced stock.

7. Layer the bottom of the prepared baking pan with 1/3 of the pasta, pressed into a level layer. Dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of grated Parmesan, scatter on all the pea mixture, then scatter over 1/3 of the diced cheese. Spread out a second level layer of pasta, dot with 1/3 of the béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 heaping tablespoons of Parmesan, and scatter on all the mushrooms and ham and remaining 2/3 of the diced cheese. Top with the remaining pasta and any unabsorbed remaining stock, pressing down to compact the layers. Dot with the remaining béchamel, sprinkle with 2 to 3 tablespoons of Parmesan and 2 to 3 tablespoons of bread crumbs, and dot with 2 to 3 tablespoons of very thinly sliced butter.

8. Bake for about 25 minutes until set and golden. Let rest to room temperature before slicing.

Main photo: A contestant prepares a cheese wheel for Panicale’s Easter Monday competition. Credit: Copyright 2016 Francine Segan



Zester Daily contributor Francine Segan, a food historian and expert on Italian cuisine, is the author of six books, including "Pasta Modern" and "Dolci: Italy's Sweets." She is a host on i-italy TV and is regularly featured on numerous specials for PBS, the Food Network and the History, Sundance and Discovery channels.

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