Colomba, the sweet Italian Easter dove
There are two legends and a more realistic story about the origins of this Easter cake. According to a popular story, after a three-year siege, Alboin, king of the Lombards (also known as Longobards), finally succeeded in taking Pavia in 572, just before Easter. The inhabitants of the city tried to get on well with the new king and sent him a cake in the shape of a dove as a sign of their good intentions. The cake was so delicious that it touched not only the king’s taste buds but also his heart, and the city was not sacked.
The other story, enriched with some marvelous elements, also from Longobard times, is connected with the name of Columbanus (the Irish missionary founded a number of monasteries in the Frankish and Longobard kingdoms, especially Bobbio Abbey in Italy, near Piacenza). It happened once that Queen Theodelinda invited him to a sumptuous feast. The table groaned under the weight of the delicious meat and caused poor Columbanus much trouble, for it was Lent. Not wanting to violate religious norms, but also not wanting to offend the queen, he finally decided not to taste the food until after the blessing. When the holy man raised his hand to bless the food, a miracle happened: the meat dishes turned into white, dove-shaped cakes.
The true story of the colomba is less old (it dates from the 1930s), but much more realistic. The main character is Dino Villani, who at the time was an employee of the Motta confectionery company in Milan. Villani, who started his particular career as a railway worker and very soon became one of the greatest advertising experts, brilliantly combined a newly thought out product with some image and marketing. The aim was to avoid the inactivity of machines for the preparation of panettone (the popular Christmas cake) after the holidays. Villani invented a “recycled” cake with a dough made from panettone ingredients and prepared with the same machines. The innovation was the shape of a dove, a special edition for the Easter holidays. For even more pleasure, the colomba was given additional icing and almonds on top, and success was guaranteed. Soon, several confectioners followed Motta’s example and started making colomba, first in Lombardy, then all over the country. The sweet Easter cake became so popular throughout Italy that it was included in the glorious list of traditional Italian foods.
What ingredients do you need to make this delicious Easter cake? According to a ministerial definition from 2005, only products prepared according to a specific baking method and time with well-defined ingredients (flour, eggs, butter, sugar, yeast, honey and candied orange peel) can call themselves colomba. The traditional colomba is also topped with the characteristic icing and lots of whole almonds.
Nowadays, of course, besides the traditional colomba pasquale, there are several versions filled with different creams or covered with decorations. No doubt: you will find the one that suits your taste.