In Italy, Christmas means panettone and pandoro in the same way in which Easter means colomba pasquale. The most famous Italian traditional Easter cake is not dissimilar to the panettone also in its consistency, however, the dough is fashioned into a dove – ‘colomba‘ in Italian – shape. The ingredients are simple – flour, eggs, sugar, butter, and candied orange peel – but the preparation is lengthy and complex. Before being baked the colomba is coated with an almond frosting with pearl sugar and whole almonds.
The legends regarding the origins of this delicacy are many, and no one is sure on which one is the closest one to the actual truth. According to one of them, the first colomba would date back to 610 in Pavia, which at the time was the capital of the Lombards. Queen Teodolinda had hosted a group of Irish pilgrims, led by San Colombano and offered them and rich game banquet, but the saint declined the food because it was the period of Lent and, by blessing the game, he turned it into white bread loaves shaped like doves.
Another legend traces the origin of the colomba to the battle of Legnano (1176). It is said that a leader of the Lombard League saw two doves perched on the insignia of the League, which remained there even when the battle was approaching. Interpreting this as a prophecy of peace, the general, to give courage to his men, order the cooks to prepare dove-shaped bread loaves with eggs, flour, and yeast.
These legends suggest that there must have been Easter cakes in the shape of a dove. Nevertheless, the colomba as we know it today is relatively recent. In the 1930s, the panettone created by Motta as a leavened evolution of the ancient Milanese ‘pan de Toni‘ was already very popular. At that time the Mantuan artist and advertiser Dino Villani thought to capitalize on the machines, used by Motta to make panettone, to create a new Easter cake with a very similar recipe. This is how the modern colomba pasquale was born.
Paolo Del Panta