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Anticipating Easter in Florence

In March, while negotiating the narrow roads of Florence, you are constantly reminded that Easter is close at hand. Butchers' windows in the downtown centro storico are plastered with reminders to reserve your milk-fed spring lamb early, scrawled out on handwritten signs by the macellaio himself - "while supplies last."

The central market, a two-story indoor wonderland wrought of fanciful, red iron filigree, teems with vendors hyping up the addio - farewell - to wet winter gray and drab Lenten restraint. They proudly stand behind their colorful, fragrant displays of early melons - in both green and flesh tones, fat strawberries flown up from the sunnier south.

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The terra cotta pots of basil, prickly rosemary, and silver sage are among Tuscans' favorite harbingers of spring. Chubby bulbs of new garlic, blushing in cream and soft violet, are stacked high next to the tubs of miniature spugnosi - morel mushrooms reminiscent of Lilliputian loofah sponges, so abundant in the woods outside the city walls.

As the women meander through the market every morning between 7 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., purchasing brown bags of day-to-day salad tomatoes, flat-leaf parsley, and the occasional purple onion, mental notes are being taken - plans are being laid for the Easter Sunday feast:

The early Roman artichokes, small as lemons, might be a glorious addition to the torte pasqualine - rich yellow quiche rounds. The thimble-sized mushrooms and thistley cardoons could add such texture to the roast lamb.

Notebooks are scratched in, old recipes consulted, and family members are telephoned to make sure favorite ingredients and treats will be remembered. Can spring be spring without grass-blade thin shoots of wild asparagus plucked from the bases of gnarled olive trees?

As the holiday approaches, mothers boil eggs and nestle them in baskets lined with linen cloths. On the Saturday of Easter Vigil, before heading to mass to have the eggs blessed, Florentine families walk towards the Piazza del Duomo to watch the "Scoppio del Carro," when an ornately decorated cart drawn by hulky white oxen is set ablaze with unknown quantities of fireworks. Few of the children understand the significance of these pyrotechnics, but the prospect of heading to church becomes a little more appealing.

The next day's grand repast begins as the head of the household breaks the blessed eggs, with everyone at the table then taking a bite, bringing symbolic protection for the year to come. The meal ends with the arrival of football-size chocolate eggs filled with toys, and an egg and butter-rich, yeast-leavened colomba (see recipe, right) loosely shaped in the form of a dove, studded with toasted almonds and flavored with orange zest.

The origins of this colomba cake can be traced to the Middle Ages, when many Italian city states fought to protect the pope's right to rule against the imperial threats to sweep down from Austria and take over power.

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In one of these 13th century confrontations, at the Battle of Legnano during Eastertide, the pope-friendly Milanese army was losing miserably to the formidable powers of Emperor Federico Barbarossa ("Redbeard") and his ferocious regiment. Suddenly and without explanation, three majestic doves flew from the belfry of the neighborhood parish church.

Having witnessed this mystical herald of divinity (symbolized as the trinity), the soldiers from Milan had a hunch that things might soon go their way. With God on their side, they believed they could crush this infidel threatening the primacy of the Holy See. And so the legend goes: Barbarossa was defeated, and the Milanese went home victorious (and hungry).

A local baker immediately whipped up a commemorative confection. As folklore tells, the dove-shaped colomba was born - redolent with aromatic nuts and sugary citrus, commemorating the sweetness of God's blessings one Easter, centuries ago.

For weeks after Easter, children revel in eating the cake for breakfast. Their first chance to dunk wedges of the leftover colomba into bowls of warm milk is on Easter Monday - Pasquetta - a national holiday dedicated to picnics and jaunts to the countryside. Lamb sandwiches - panini - hard-boiled eggs, and more Easter cake are as typical a day-after lunch as turkey and cranberry sandwiches are in the last days of November across the Atlantic.

Buona Pasqua!

*Elisabetta Coletti is a Monitor intern.

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