For almost a century there has been one special cake that means 'Easter' in Italy: the traditional 'Colomba di Pasqua'.
Colomba has always been a sign that not only Eastertime is approaching but also spring! Italian families start buying colomba as soon as it hits the shops, usually just after Carnival. The first slice means that winter is over and the days are again turning warm, sunny and longer.
The word colomba means, “white dove” in Italian, referring to the shape of the cake, which resembles a flying dove. It’s a raised, spongy and sweet baked bread-cake, similar to Christmas Panettone.
The white dove has long been a symbol not only of Easter and peace, but also of rebirth, a value celebrated in the Pagan spring festivals that pre-date Christianity by millennia. The dove also appears as a symbol and of God, purity, gentleness, and grace in both the Old and New Testaments.
The origins of colomba cake point to various legends. One of the oldest tales dates back to the Middle Ages, when King Alboino came to Italy with his barbarian hordes to attack Pavia. Alboino managed to enter the city on the eve of Easter in 572, after a siege that lasted three years.
Alboino threatened to set the city on fire and kill the inhabitants, but the people of Pavia gave him some sweets in the shape of a dove, hoping to appease his anger and as a tribute of peace on Easter Day. Alboino liked the people and the gracious gesture so much that he gave up his plan to sack the city.
Today colomba is not plain and white as the bread cakes described in all the legends, but a rich mixture of flour, yeast, salt, butter, eggs, sugar, candied oranges and a crispy amaretto, almond and sugar glaze. It’s a delicate cake; it must be soft, fragrant on the outside and moist on the inside. The basic dough is made only of flour, salt, sugar and yeast, but must be naturally leavened overnight. The next day it’s kneaded for a second time, and the remaining ingredients are added. After a few hours of further leavening the dough is covered with almond paste, amaretto and pearl sugar and baked in dove shaped paper molds.
Mr. Angelo Motta, a confectioner and businessman from Milan, created the modern version of colomba in 1930. He was already renowned for his delicious panettone, and his company’s warehouses were full of panettone making equipment. He had the idea to make an Easter cake using the same sweet bread mix but forming it into a dove shape in reference to Easter. Panettone and colomba are nearly identical, with two slight differences: panettone contains raisins and mixed candied fruit, colomba only candied orange peel; and traditional panettone is dome-shaped and doesn’t have the same sugary almond topping as colomba.
We don’t know if Mr. Motta was aware of the Lombard legends of the dove-shaped cake, but for sure he had a very clever marketing idea. Today, the Easter Colomba cake occupies a respectable place in Italian gastronomy and is an excellent representation of artisanal pastry.
The distinctive traits of the colomba cake are its softness and aroma. For these characteristics, the wine pairing must accentuate the qualities of the cake. The delicate sweet flavors of the dove are never too marked, therefore they do not need to be softened or muted by a dry wine, but on the contrary they must be supported and enhanced by a delicately sweet wine. This will create a winning balance between the two products.
The ideal bottle to uncork must therefore be aromatic with fruity flavors, good freshness, medium structure, delicacy and sweetness. Colomba pairs perfectly with a glass of sweet, sparkling, low alcohol wine, or for a more unusual pairing try it with a late harvest wine.