The Breads of Umbria
This seasoned bread, high in calories but extremely fragrant and tasty, is made with the classic grano tenero (soft wheat flour), water, salt and a type of fresh, yeast-based starter called biga, extra-virgin olive oil (or lard), pepper, nuts, and at least originally pecorino umbro (often substituted nowadays with pecorino romano and parmesan). Although produced throughout much of Umbria, its production epicenter is located in the Perugia area, where, around St. Martin’s Day-- particularly in the frazione (fraction) of Balanzano-- you can enjoy a variant of the pan caciato named after the Saint that’s sweet and musty from the addition of grapes.
Note: Biga is made out of flour, water, and a very small amount of yeast mixed together and allowed to ferment for several hours or even a day before using. Although it must be made from scratch each time and cannot be kept going indefinitely (different in this important respect from the so-called pasta madre, or lievito naturale, which is continually replenished and reused) it confers similar qualities such as a well-developed flavor, and a moist, toothsome texture. It also helps a bread conserve well.
According to the Slow Food Italian bread guide, L’Italia del pane, this bread fits into the amusing category of “dolci non-dolci” (sweets that aren’t sweet). The pan nociato harks back to an antique tradition and its production was already codified in exacting detail by the 1400’s. Eating it is like savouring a piece of history! One can find it most everywhere in Umbria and especially in the charming hilltown city of Todi. In its classical preparation, one finds grano tenero, yeast, water, salt, nut kernels, pecorino di Norcia, extra-virgin olive oil, and pepper. In different parts of Umbria, one might come across variations on this bread with raisins, chopped cloves, and/or Torgiano red wine.
In the past, you might have found this bread in any part of Umbria. Today, a lone, dedicated baker heroically continues its production. Tasty, fragrant and soft, it has the off-white color of organic stoneground wheat, and supplies both essential oils and nutrients. The use of a lievito madre starter adds complexity, aids digestion, and preserves the bread’s fragrant texture for many days. The simple additional ingredients include water and an almost negligible amount of salt (so negligible that the bread is usually considered salt-free). The limited production hardly suffices to meet the high consumer demand yet in Perugia it is frequently the bread of choice that restaurants serve as an accompaniment to food.
Pane di Strettura.
This bread can only be found in the minuscule town of Strettura ( population ca. 600) located between Spoleto and Terni. A local festival (sagra) of bruschetta held there every July provides an excellent opportunity to visit and discover this rare culinary item. The particularity of this loaf derives from the mix of grains and pure spring water used in its production, the time-consuming kneading of the dough followed by periods of resting, the use of a wood-fired oven, and the absence of salt.
Pane di Terni.
This light golden loaf with a dense yet crumbly crust is baked in wood-fired oven. It is made with type 0 flour, local mountain water, and occasionally a small dose of beer yeast added to the pasta madre (natural yeast). It is ideally consumed within 24 hours of purchase, and is optimal for making bruschetta, or, after 4-5 days, panzanella, a bread salad. (Slices of bread are soaked in water and vinegar, then added to a mix of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, green lettuce, raw onion, basil, and sometimes, anchovy filets). Pane di Terni can be found in all parts of Umbria, and even in nearby metropolitan Rome (which is quite close to Terni).
Pizza di Pasqua.
Also called torta al formaggio, this is a tall, round bread, resembling more closely in form a high soufflé or even a Christmas pan d’oro, than a traditional bread. In the past, as may be evinced from its name, it was only produced at Easter, but today may be found year-round throughout Umbria.
Made of grano tenero, biga, extra-virgin olive oil, lard, salt, pepper, pecorino umbro or pecorino romano, parmesan or grana padano, and eggs, this ultra-rich bread mixture is placed in tall pan, where it must triple in volume before it is baked in an ordinary oven, at a moderate temperature.
Torta al Testo.
Literally, “cake of the tile,” this unusual bread is found largely in the Province of Perugia. Its name refers simultaneously to its cake-like quality and to the pan in which it is baked, originally, a round tile or red-hot stone from the oven. The authoritative Italia del pane notes that the torta al testo is particularly suitable as a substitute for bread—suggesting that like the pizza di Pasqua it is not really a bread at all. In the past, one of the torta’s functions in Umbrian households was to conserve bread, considered a more precious commodity.
Visually, la torta al testo shares characteristics of the personal-sized pizza and the unleavened flatbread covered with holes called pane azzimo or “matzo” eaten during the Jewish holiday of Passover. Unlike “matzo,” however, the round “torta al testo” contains small amounts of leavening enabling it to rise. It typically measures three centimeters in height and about fifty in diameter. In Umbria, people cut it into generous triangular sections, much as they would a cake.
The term torta al testo becomes crescia in the Umbrian hilltown of Gubbio and morphs into pizza sotto il fuocco (literally: “pizza under the fire”) in Terni, referring to the old custom of cooking it under ashes. The residents of Citta di Castello give it a playful name: ciacia. But whatever the local differences in name the similarities of the finished product persist.
This is the only Umbrian bread to be made with small quantities of lievito chimico ( baking soda) and/or baking powder which are added to the flour, water, salt and extra-virgin olive-oil or lard. These are mixed together to form a dough made sufficiently smooth and homogenous so that after resting for several hours, it may be rolled out into a flat circle and poked all over with a fork. Properly fitted into a griddle pan (or panaro, a word that in the past used to indicate the bread-maker himself), the bread is today typically cooked on the stovetop, where it is turned like a pancake several times until done. Umbrians savor it unadorned, to accompany a meal, or by turning it into a sandwich filled with succulent mixtures of bitter greens and sausage or cheese, prosciutto or a mixture of both.
Since you can make this on the stovetop, this is one recipe (the Pizza di Pasqua is another as it doesn’t require a wood-fired stove) that you might make yourself, at home. I would caution that if you decide to do an internet search for torta al testo (followed by the word recipe or ricetta according to whether you wish to find a text in English or Italian) you’ll likely come up with an endless number of variations as opposed to the originally conceived recipe, some with milk, others with eggs, pepper and what have you. In my research for this article I came across a lively RAI you-tube cooking demonstration in Italian by chef Salvatore Denaro of Foligno. I’ve noted the URL below. I recommend it if you speak Italian, even though the recipe uses additional ingredients like eggs that the various commenters—if you read them—decry as sacrilegious. As you watch him prepare la torta, you will appreciate his enthusiasm for this regional specialty and his many knowledgeable comments, despite the huge sideshow distraction of crabby grandmother and pretty young thing.
For a marvelous, in-depth discussion in Italian of the 208 breads of Italy, consult: Slow Food Editore, L’Italia del pane, Bra, Italy: 2002.
-- Susan Wolf
photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net