Michele Roberts fires up the grill
As a heretic, I want to replace the fires of hell with the fires of grills at Easter
Jesus leaps in the tomb and the Simnel cake leaps in the oven. You don't have to be Christian to celebrate Easter, that good pagan feast. The body-hating myth on which I was brought up, of a father god sacrificing his son to tortured death to save wicked humanity from burning in hell, no longer appeals. As a heretic, I prefer joy to guilt, want to replace the fires of hell with the fires of grills, and to roast a lamb, cook a feast, simply to celebrate the coming of spring. Radical feminist cooks, welcoming Eostre, goddess of March madness and fertility, can go one further and sing the children's nursery rhyme about hot cross buns: only if you have no daughters do you give them to your sons. Poor sons. As a socialist, I demand buns for all.
Easter takes off from the great Jewish feast of Passover, commemorating the exodus from Egypt. The French word Pâques derives from the Greek Paskha and the Hebrew Pesach, meaning "passage". The Council of Nicaea decided in 325AD that Easter falls on the Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The church fathers also instituted Lent and then, inspired by the party-loving Jesus, the early Christian women cooks (or priestesses) suggested marking the end of the fasting period by making a great lunch.
That apocryphal book of the Bible, the Larousse Gastronomique, instructs us to cook the paschal omelette preferably with eggs laid on Good Friday. The main course, in the French countryside, is usually garlicky roast lamb, often accompanied by haricot beans moistened with gravy. My Anglican father and Catholic mother, who loved arguing about whether Bloody Mary or Elizabeth I killed more martyrs, equally loved debating the merits of bloody or well-cooked lamb. Recipes were not canonical: quelle horreur.
The names of French Easter cakes and pastries sing out songs of praise for vanished culinary genius: pognes and pompes in Provence, Savoie and Lyons; cavagnats in Menton; darioles in Reims; flônes in the Aveyron. The very words get the juices flowing. That's what poetry does. The Easter bread itself, the host of Holy Communion, is austerely made of rice flour - a thin, papery disc. Traditionally, the enclosed Carmelites stamp these out. (A terrific photo of that revered Carmelite saint, Thérèse of Lisieux, shows her glowering at the Host-stamping machine in her convent.) You're not supposed to enjoy eating the Host; you just let it dissolve on the roof of your mouth. Any juices flowing are metaphorical only. Last week, however, at the Instituto Cervantes, I witnessed a chef, Firo Vázquez, give his audience a new sort of Communion. He had printed on to rice paper, with squid ink, the text of Don Quixote. We tore off pages and devoured Spain's holy book. Heretical or just enthusiastic?