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On the Land in Umbria - Bread, a Sacred Part of Rural Life

Anne Robichaud

I finally have my matera, the traditional Umbrian bread cupboard. Many years ago, our farm neighbors, Peppe and Mandina, had decided to chop up Mandina's old and well-used matera for firewood. The doors were coming off the hinges and were cracked. They could not afford restoration and were not attached to their matera. They were surprised when I told them I would love to have it and they were happy to give it to me. My husband Pino and I took it to a carpenter who restored wood furniture. When we went back for it, he told us the matera had been beyond restoration and so he had chopped it up to fuel his wood stove. I think he restored it and sold it to an eager buyer.

I've yearned for a matera ever since but as the old ways of farming disappear, so do the simple furnishings of the farm kitchens and the adjacent storerooms. The matere have disappeared. After a long search, Pino recently found me one and had it restored. When I rub my hands over the top, feeling the slight dents and the worn wood, I have vivid memories of other bread cupboards and the bread they stored.

Thirty years ago when we farmed our land, every farmhouse (but ours!) had a matera in the storeroom off the kitchen. This bread cupboard was used for the storing of the freshly-made bread as well as the huge bags of powdery flour, freshly milled from the wheat they grew, and used not just for bread-baking but also for pasta and gnocchi. The flour was kept in the lower part behind two wooden doors with simple wooden latch handles. The bread was kept in the storage area above, covered with a wooden lid which took two hands to lift when the bread was taken out. In the bread storage upper level, the bottom doubled as a bread board and could be taken out on bread-baking day or when time to roll out pasta or gnocchi or the simple Umbrian hearth bread, called torta.

The farm families were large, extended families and so all our farm women neighbors made many loaves of the family bread once a week. The bread was rolled out in the morning and left to rise while other farm chores were done. Yeast was homemade. The only ingredients in our Umbrian bread still today are flour and water and yeast - no salt. The salt disappeared long ago, in 1540 when Pope Paul III so heavily taxed salt in order to increase revenue of his Papal States (which included present-day regions of Umbria, Abruzzo, Lazio and the Marches), that the people simply took salt out of their bread. They have never put it back in.

I remember those long-ago bread-baking days down at Mandina and Peppe's farm. Mandina was a hefty woman, and her muscles bulged as she rhythmically rolled the mass of dough which she would transform into 10 loaves or so, each loaf weighing about a kilo. As each loaf was formed, she placed it carefully on a long board (about the width of a loaf and long enough to hold about 10 loaves) balanced on two chairs nearby. When the 10 loaves were formed, she lifted that board onto her head. Her head was covered with a kerchief, of course - all of us women who worked the land wore kerchiefs and I soon realized that the head covering was not a fashion statement but a necessity as so many tasks during the day required objects carried on the head. Bread-baking was one.

Board balanced carefully on her head, Mandina went slowly out the kitchen door, down the long flight of stone steps and across the farmyard, sending chickens and geese cackling as they scattered, to her outdoor stone bread oven. She lowered the board gingerly off her head, setting it onto two old chairs near the oven.

Mandina had prepared all her kindling the night before, shoving it into the opening under the oven (so the wood would be dried even if it rained at night). That morning, she had shoved bunches of bound kindling (fascine) into the oven, creating a blaze. As the kindling burnt down, the bricks around the opening turned white hot: Mandina then knew the oven was ready to receive the bread.

She opened the cast iron door of the oven with an old rag. First she raked out the hot coals with a small, hoe like instrument, the tragoletto. Then she swept out the remaining ash carefully with her broom, actually made of broom (ginestra covers the Umbrian hills in glorious yellow flower in May and the farmers used to cut it and bind it into broom at the end of summer when the flowers had dried and dropped). These homemade brooms were used for the bread ovens and others were used to sweep out the stalls of the rabbits, fowl, even pigs (Pino made similar brooms for us). After sweeping, she wiped the white hot bricks with a damp rag to remove any remaining ash, picked up the bread paddle which her husband Peppe had made and gracefully slid each loaf into the oven, one at a time. Mandina then closed the door and sealed it with mud, to make it carefully airtight and then went about farmyard chores while the bread baked.

After about a half-hour, she would check the bread, unsealing the door by wiping off the mud. Every farm woman "knew" her bread oven and how long it would take to bake the bread. Total baking time for Mandina' s oven was about an hour. In all the years of eating her good bread, I never encountered a loaf underdone or overcooked.

In the Mediterranean world and diet bread is not only the "staff of life", it is almost sacred. There are many superstitions associated with bread: for example, never put a loaf on the table upside down and never cut bread at the table. Bread is sliced away from the table and then the slices are put on the table (and broken when eaten, never sliced). In rural homes at table, the slices fan out over the tablecloth. I remember Mandina hugging the huge homemade loaf and then slicing with a long knife across the bread and directly towards her breast. (I used to shut my eyes tightly when she sliced, not sure the knife would stop in time!)

Bread is never, never thrown out. In the years we farmed our land here in Umbria, left-over bread was at times fed to the chickens, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl. For the ducks and geese, I would soak it in water and they greedily scooped and guzzled it. But dried bread went to the fowl only if I already had enough bread crumbs for cooking and was not about to make bruschetta (toasted bread, rubbed with garlic, sprinkled with salt and drizzled with olive oil) or panzanella (see recipe below).

Recipe: Panzanella

Panzanella is a keynote dish of cucina genuina ("genuine cooking", i.e., traditional cuisine of homegrown ingredients). Here is how we make panzanella, once considered a piatto dei poveri ( "poor man's dish" and variations on the theme are made throughout central Italy). Panzanella means "dried bread salad" (pane means "bread").

Ingredients for 4 persons:

  • about 1 lb of nearly stale good homemade bread (or if purchasing, Italian or French-style breads)
  • 4 ripe tomatoes
  • 6 leaves of basil
  • 1 large purple onion
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1 medium-sized cucumber
  • extra-virgin olive oil (accept no substitutes and get the BEST you can)
  • salt, pepper
  • wine vinegar
  • optional: variety of salad greens (but not iceberg lettuce!)

Soak the bread in water until it softens, then squeeze all water out. Cut all vegetables into small pieces. Season with olive oil, salt and pepper, vinegar and keep in cool place (though not refrigerator) until served. Best NOT prepared ahead and refrigerated.

Variations: In the Lazio region, tomatoes and onions are omitted and capers, garlic, anchovies and parsley are pulverized together with mortar and pestle. Hot red pepper is added.

I enjoy adding new variations to the traditional panzanella (which was made only from ingredients out in the garden in the summertime): black olives, carrots, radishes, corn, even tuna. And here is a secret learned from my Sicilian mother-in-law about the use of purple onion in salads: slice finely about 20 mins before making salad and salt. This will draw out the water, "tenderize" the purple onion. Add to salad as is (and then add extra salt to salad, if needed).

Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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