For countless generations, bread has been an enduring symbol of life itself in Italy. It is no wonder that at the Last Supper, the Body of Christ was divinely created from bread itself. The association of bread with the Resurrection is a bond that has great significance in the Catholic Church, but the cultural and regional creations within Italy are amazing. These long standing traditional bread types and recipes have been recounted through the years in the Italian Tribune and based on the letters and responses from readers, it is a story that is always welcomed during Lent, as many make preparations for their family’s Easter celebrations.
Two of the most common ingredients used to make bread, water and salt are necessary for life to exist. When combined with flour and then baked, the sustenance provided is miraculous. In Italy, salt is not always present in Pane di Pasqua, but not for religious reasons. The reason for leaving it out dates back long ago when salt was heavily taxed. Even in the prosperous region of Tuscany, to this day, its traditional Easter bread, Pan di Ramerino, is made without salt.
Another twist on traditional bread in numerous places in Italy is to use olive oil instead of water. This should come as no surprise given the quality of Italian olive oil, whether it is from Liguria towards the north, Puglia towards the south or the glorious island of Sicily. Even yeast for leavening bread is not always used, so Pane di Pasqua in Lombardy is very different than the traditional bread in Liguria.
In Pane di Pasqua, the traditional Italian Easter bread often contains two or more important symbols. One of course is the bread itself. It is frequently round, braided and contains colorfully decorated or dyed eggs. Eggs are the symbol of fertility in Italy and rather than chocolate bunnies, it is the Uovo di Pasqua, or Easter Egg that children look forward to receiving. The tradition of decorating eggs in Italy is believed to go all the way back to the ninth century. By the 12th century, these painted eggs were taken to the church for a blessing in a ritual called benedictio ovorum. The shape of Pane di Pasqua is symbolic as well. Often wreath-shaped, these loaves are to remind one of the suffering of Christ when he wore the crown of thorns.
If you travel to the northeast of Italy, you will find that a special Easter bread called Gubana. It comes from the Natisone Valley in the Province of Udine and is named for the powerful 16th century lords of the province. The bread was first mentioned in writing as one of the courses served to Pope Gregory XII on his visit to the area in 1409. So highly-prized was the bread that it could be used for wages, or rent. 20 loaves of gubana was the equivalent to one day’s wages for an expert mason, a highly-skilled and esteemed profession. More of a dessert, this Pane di Pasqua has its buttery dough filled with a mixture of nuts, apricot jam, cocoa, as well as candied and dried fruits. These dry ingredients are mixed with fortified wine, such as Marsala, or distilled spirits such as grappa. The result is a dense, but sweet bread with a unique swirl of rich, delicious filling.
Traveling to the southwest to the breadbasket of Italy, two different types of a sweet Easter breads are prepared. One, called Pagnotta Pasquale, is made with flour, sugar, shortening, eggs, lemon peel, anise seed, raisins and vanilla. It is traditionally served on Easter morning in rural areas of Emilia Romagna. A variation is called Panina Pasquale and is richer and spicier. It is glazed and contains Anisette, orange peel and pieces of lemon.
Continuing on a Pane di Pasqua journey into Tuscany, Pan di Ramerino is the traditional Easter bread of Florence. These large rolls have raisins mixed into the dough and the distinct flavor of rosemary. Ramerino is rosemary in the Florentine dialect and the herb is found in abundance on the sunny hills of Florence and the Chianti area. First created during the Middle Ages, olive oil and rosemary were used in two stages to make the bread. The ingredients were first added to the dough and then used in the honey glaze to give the bread sweetness and its shiny appearance. The dough was scored with numerous small crosses and then blessed by a priest. For centuries, these rolls were only baked on Holy Thursday. They became so popular that bakeries in Florence would make them each holiday. Now Pan di Ramerino is so ingrained in the traditions and culture of Florence that you will find the savory Easter rolls available year-round.
Yet another savory bread, Crescia al Formaggio, is made with cheese, such as Parmigiano or Asiago. This bread widely made in the regions of Abruzzo, Lazio, Marche, Molise and Umbria. It is cooked in a tall cylindrical pan and originated with medieval nuns who baked enormous loaves more than two feet high during Holy Week, each using 40 eggs to represent the 40 days of Lent. Today, Crescia al Formaggio is baked in a far more manageable size.
Casatiello is a traditional Neapolitan Easter bread that is made with many different varieties of cheese; in particular, pecorino and cured meats. Savory, rather than sweet, Casatiello is made with a dough, heavily seasoned with pepper and formed in a ring, or molded in a bundt pan. Eggs are placed on top and secured by a cross of dough before baking.
In Calabria, the Easter bread is called Cuzzupa, which originated in the Province of Catanzaro during the Middle Ages. The bread is often flavored with anise seed, as is common throughout Italy and made with three braids to represent the Holy Trinity and will have dyed hard-boiled eggs on top, rather than baked into the bread. It is glazed with a mixture of egg white, sugar and lemon juice to give it a rich sheen and powdered sugar is often added on top.
The islands of Sicily and Sardinia also have delicious and unique Easter breads. Coccoi Cun S’ou from Sardinia and Cuddura cu l’ova from Sicily translate as “bread with egg” in each of the island dialects. According to Sardinian tradition, the Coccoi Cun S’ou was given as a gift to children as a symbol of good luck. Baking this elaborate and artistic type of bread is still popular in many Sardinian’s villages. Eggs are encased in the dough which is sculpted into various intricate designs.
In Sicily, a raw dyed egg is placed in the center and the bread is designed around it. The egg cooks in the oven as the bread bakes, encasing the colorful Easter egg. The bread can take many different shapes and is most often made with a slightly sweetened dough decorated with sprinkles or icing. When prepared for children, it is called Pupi cu l’uovo, which are in the shape of a doll or basket containing an egg for girls, while boys receive bread typically in the shape of doves.