Tie it up and call it Easter

Lamb for good luck

Rachel Priestley
March 29, 2012

There is a saying in Italian: Natale con i tuoi e Pasqua con chi vuoi (‘Christmas with your family and Easter with whomever you want'). And who you want to feast with is as important as what you eat: food is the centre of celebrations, and tradition has it that lamb is the symbol of Easter.



In Christian symbolism, the lamb has an important role. In the book of Genesis, Abraham offered to sacrifice his son, and God accepted the sacrifice of a lamb in his place. Jesus is referred to as ‘the lamb of God.' Since some time before the tenth century, whole roast lamb has been a traditional feature of the pope's special Easter dinner. At this time of year, it is not uncommon to find bread in the shape of lambs or rice timbales shaped into lambs, cloves and peppercorns placed strategically to create the eyes and mouth.


In the past, it was considered good luck to meet a lamb, particularly at Easter time. It was believed that the devil, who could disguise himself in many ways, could not take on the appearance of a lamb, so strong was its religious symbolism.


I find the best luck is meeting lamb at the table, so here I share my Tuscan recipe of spalla di agnello al forno (roast shoulder of lamb), which traditionally would be stuffed with onions, carrots and sometimes sausages and bread. Instead, I like to use prosciutto chopped to a fine paste with garlic and rosemary.


Eggs are another symbol of Easter, and a good start to Easter Sunday is to come back from morning Mass with uova benedette (‘blessed eggs'): the boiled and sometimes coloured eggs that are taken to church to be blessed. As children, we would boil pink and yellow eggs, using the skins of yellow onions in the cooking water to produce the yellow colouring, and beetroot to create the pink. Coffee works well to produce brown eggs and boiled spinach for green ones. Add a splash of vinegar to the coloured water to set the dyes. These eggs are best when cold, and simply peeled, salted and eaten as a snack or starter to the main Easter Sunday meal.


Early spring brings many treats from the garden, and my favourite starter this time of the year is also the most simple: fave e pecorino, fava beans removed from their pods and eaten raw with fresh Tuscan pecorino cheese; these are great to nibble on while preparing the lamb. A nice dish to prepare before the agnello is pasta ai carciofi, a fresh pasta with the new season's artichokes and some salty grated pecorino to finish. 


Buon appetito e buona Pasqua!




Roasted lamb, potatoes with rosemary and fennel, and spring peas



Una spalla di agnello, one lamb shoulder, boned and flattened out



100g prosciutto Toscano, sliced thinly with the fat on

1 head garlic, peeled

1 small bunch rosemary

Grated pecorino cheese

A loosely filled cup fresh white breadcrumbs

¼ cup milk

1 egg

Salt, pepper

Extra virgin olive oil

1 glass white wine



Roasted potatoes

Fresh pork and fennel sausages

Fresh spring peas



For the filling, start by poaching the whole head of garlic in boiling water for 10 minutes until the cloves begin to soften; drain, cool, peel and chop finely. Wash the rosemary, strip off the leaves and chop finely, and add it to the garlic. Take the prosciutto and slice it all, including the fat, into a fine dice. Add all the filling ingredients together and mix with a spoonful of oil and all of the milk. You are aiming for a fairly firm consistency, not too wet.  Spread this mixture onto the lamb, roll into a log and tie up with string, tying the open ends.


Rub oil over the outside of the lamb, season with salt and pepper, and place into an oven with a heated oven tray at 225 degrees Celsius. After 15 minutes the meat will have sealed to keep the juices in, pour over the glass of wine and put back in the oven turning down to 180 degrees Celsius; depending on how big the lamb shoulder is, it shouldn't take more than a couple of hours.


Patate arrosto, roasted potatoes with rosemary and fennel

In the meantime, peel some potatoes and pod some spring peas to accompany the lamb: drizzle the peeled potatoes olive oil, season with fennel seeds and freshly chopped rosemary, salt and pepper, and throw into the roasting dish to surround the lamb and get flavour from the juices.


Pork and fennel sausages: Add the sausages to the roasting dish once the potatoes are half cooked.


Piselli di primavera, spring peas

Now pod some tasty fresh seasonal peas, cook in boiling salted water for 5 minutes, set aside. Dice a red onion and sauté in some oil until soft. Add a small amount of sliced prosciutto and cook until tender. Add the peas and continue to cook with a cup of the cooking liquid until the peas pick up the flavour of the onion and prosciutto.


Once the meat is cooked, let it rest out of the oven in a warm place for 20 minutes before slicing. Remove the string and slice into rounds that show the filling in the middle. Serve with the potatoes, peas and cut-up sausages, pouring over the remaining juices in the pan.



A special holiday dinner deserves a special wine. My choice is a Brunello di Montalcino Docg 2005 Bellaria. The big flavours of the lamb with the prosciutto and fennel stand up well to this wine.



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