A very ancient Chinese legend states that once a year the male principle (Yang, Houyi) leaves his palace in the sun to visit his wife - the female principle (Yin, Chang'e) – at her home during moonrise. This is the reason why every year, close to the Autumn equinox (in 2012 will be on the 30th of September), the full moon appears particularly beautiful and bright.
For centuries the Chinese, and a number of cultures across Asia, have celebrated the event. It’s one of the most popular yearly feasts and in 2008 China declared it a public holiday allowing people to enjoy it for a whole week. The mooncakes are the sweet and round delicacies associated with the feast: thought to bring good luck and prosperity, they are usually given as a present to their loved ones and served with tea.
They are made of a thin crust with a lotus seed or red bean stuffing and they often have a salted duck egg center. The most traditional versions are stamp-decorated with the words “longevity” and “harmony”, imprints of the moon or the legend of Chang’e, the mythical wife and Goddess of the Moon and Immortality.
In the recent years the mooncake industry has seen a huge commercial explosion with many bizarre alternatives hitting the market. The more contemporary, fashionable variations can include tiramisu, champagne, oreo chocolate or even sausage stuffing. Cupcake mooncakes, real gold encrusted mooncakes, low-fat, jelly and yoghurt mooncakes are also popular, while several upscale pastry shops, hotels and food chains offer their own luxuriously branded varieties. For instance, Häagen Dasz has a long list of ice cream mooncakes that come in several flavors, and Starbucks makes a version of the less popular moon biscuits, decorated with the coffee company’s trademark logo. Last year even the multi-million selling app, Angry Birds, an IOS devices best seller, released a mooncake season in conjunction with the festival. Moreover, every year, many bakers from everywhere defy each other to prepare the biggest mooncake of the world.
Six months later (close to the Spring equinox) and six thousands miles away, in Italy, there are other traditional pastry which show several elements in common with the mooncakes.
For examples, in the region of Apulia and in others in the South of Italy, a round friable cake - decorated with one or more eggs inside or on the top - are traditionally prepared and offered as a gift to celebrate Easter, the Christian feast that celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, the feast has an even more arcaic origin and dates back to ancient times when pagans enjoyed the sun coming back after the dark winter, and the re-birth of Nature.
The name of this sweet Easter, round bread is scarcella - squarcella or scarcedda depending on the area - and it is a very local specialty, very rare to find outside of its traditional area - even when considering the rest of Italy. Scarcella refers to a little leather bag used to keep money in the past times and sometimes you can find cakes that literally reproduce the shape containing “precious” eggs (watch the gallery above).
The round shape as well as the eggs symbolize fertility, prosperity and good luck. Does it remind you anything?