Driving through the Umbrian countryside during the week prior to Easter, you’d note whiffs of smoke drifting up from the outdoor stone bread ovens fired up by the farmwomen. Holy Week for the Umbrian farmwomen is a busy one, an exhausting one: making the torta di Pasqua (“Easter cake”) or pizza pasquale, as it is often called, in the stone bread ovens is a major task. The traditional Easter “cake” or “pizza” is a raised cheese bread, make of eggs, flour, olive oil, salt, pepper and three kinds of cheeses: parmigiano, pecorino and groviera.
When we farmed back in the 1970’s, most of our farm neighbors were mezzadri or “share-croppers” and cash was scarce. Gifts were often foods, made from what they could grow on the land. At Eastertime, the farm families thanked the doctor, the landlord – and any other “townspeople” owed favors – with cheese breads. They made them, too, for all relatives not living on the land. I remember our farmwomen neighbor, Mandina, beginning to set aside eggs from her chickens, ducks, geese – even guinea fowl – just after Carnevale (the pre-Lent festive period), hoping she’d be able to accumulate enough eggs for the making of the torte di Pasqua.
And thinking back on it, I have no idea how they saved the money to buy all the kilos of cheese needed for the torte. I remember Mandina foraging the hills for delicate wild salad greens and scrambling in the woods for the first wild asparagus in the springtime: both fetched good prices at the outdoor market in Assisi and the coins earned were spent at the nearby grocer on the cheeses. Certainly, the pecorino cheese came from the five or six sheep each Umbrian farmer raised (for the lambs and wool, as well as for their milk) but the other cow’s milk cheeses had to be bought. Most farmwomen made over twenty huge torte di Pasqua which needed kilos of cheeses and over one hundred eggs.
I always missed the mixing and kneading of the mountains of flour, mounds of grated cheese and dozens of eggs as the farmwomen always started the torte di Pasqua preparation before first light. I was lucky enough to be at Mandina and Peppe’s farm one Holy Thursday, though, to see the huge mushroom-shaped loaves come out of the outdoor stone oven. The unusual baking tins gave that characeristic shape to the torta di Pasqua: large sardine cans which the farm women set aside after use as none would have had the money to purchase enough cake tins. As the dough rose during the baking, it came up and out over the edges of the tin.
When the Easter breads had baked to a golden color, Mandina shoved a huge wooden paddle into the oven and slid out each torta, placing it carefully on a long wooden board propped on two logs nearby. How I wish I had a photo of Mandina then carefully walking up the stairs to her kitchen, wooden board bearing eight-to-ten breads carefully balanced on her kerchiefed head! (Little did I know that the years of mezzadria – sharecropping – would rapidly give way to vastly improved rural lifestyles, which brought a consequent transformation and diminishing of rural customs – inevitably.)
Then and now, the torte di Pasqua (also called “torte di formaggio” or “cheese cakes”) line up in the windows of pastry shops and bakeries here in Umbria (and only in Umbria!) in the weeks before Easter as the cheese bread is the centerpiece of our Easter Sunday morning breakfast. Townspeople head to the bakeries a couple days before Easter to book their torte – if they are not lucky enough to receive one from a farm family.
On Holy Saturday, the blessing of the homemade torte di Pasquatook place in the countryside churches and small chapels. The age-old tradition lives on. There are two small churches in our rural area here just outside of Assisi where the local priest, Padre Giuseppe, blesses the cheese breads every Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. He is at one church at 3 30 p.m. and then drives up the mountain to the other tiny country church (where we were married, in fact, in 1978) at 4 00 pm.
The farm women head to the church closest to home, dressed in their best – and carrying huge baskets holding the cheese bread (one represents all the torte made – and many women make numerous breads still today, though far fewer than the quantity of the past). Nestled in the basket around the cheese breads are also salami (and perhaps capocollo, too), homemade red wine, one hard -boiled egg for each person in the home, a pinch of salt (propitious!). These foods are blessed – and will be shared by all the farm family at the Umbrian Easter breakfast the next morning.
Salami and perhaps prosciutto and capocollo on top of the cheese bread are a perfect accompaniment to the hard-boiled eggs cut in half and drizzled with the farm olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. The family’s red wine enhances all the flavors.
This past Holy Saturday, I went to both of the churches for the blessings and enjoyed seeing our farmwomen neighbors so carefully dressed for the blessing ceremonies. They were all there: Chiarina, Rosanna, Lidia, Franca, Natalina, Anna Rita, Olga, Onelia, Peppa and Rita. Loving neighbors who have shared with me their rural lore and wisdom over the years.
The baskets that they carried, too, were beautifully presented, with embroidered linen cloths draped over the foods and wine bottles so carefully arranged in the baskets. I noted that most of the wine bottles were uncorked as tradition demands: so that the blesssing can get into the bottle, my neighbors tell me (!) When I asked Padre Giuseppe about that, he just raised his eyebrows…
Farm neighbor children were there, too, bringing their huge chocolate eggs to be blessed. The sparkling colorful wrappings will be torn off the eggs hastily the next morning as the children eagerly seek the surprise inside. I wonder if they believe that the Holy Saturday blessing might “improve” their surprise…?! The numerous huge chocolate eggs which all Italian children receive nowadays are a sign of the times and the comfortable lifestyles of the Italians today: years ago, there were no chocolate eggs at the Holy Saturday basket blessing ceremonies.
(Below, happy to share recipe for la torta di formaggio – thanks to my friend Christine Hickman, top chef and cooking teacher – do see www.sonomarcella.com)
TORTA DI FORMAGGIO (or TORTA PASQUALE)
In the country, the farmer’s wife would make a yeast “starter”, a firm mixture of yeast, flour and water, and have it blessed before using it to make the bread. The bread was then often decorated with a crucifix made of the dough. In years past when there were no home ovens, the bread was taken to the local forno (oven) for baking.
3 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 ounce yeast
1 cup grated aged Pecorino cheese*
½ cup diced young Pecorino cheese*
3 large whole eggs
1 large egg yolk
2 tablespoons lard
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup butter
½ cup milk
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup warm water and let rest 10 minutes.
Put the flour in a heap on a pastry board, make a well in the center and add the eggs, lard, olive oil, butter, Pecorino cheeses, milk, salt and pepper, together with the yeast mixture. Knead thoroughly, at least 10 minutes, to obtain a soft, smooth, elastic dough.
Form into a smooth ball and place in an oiled, deep, fired-clay or tin-plated copper casserole* in a warm place. It should rise two or three times its original volume.
Bake the bread for about 1 hour in a preheated 350 °F. oven. The crust should be golden brown, and the loaf will sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Remove from the baking dish and allow to cool on a rack before serving.
Makes a 1 pound loaf
*You may substitute Parmigiano-Reggiano for the 2 types of Pecorino called for in the recipe. Young Pecorino (Pecorino fresco) is not readily available in the USA, and using all aged Pecorino will produce a bread with a very strong flavor. Gruyere or Emmanthaler can also be substituted for the young Pecorino only.
*The baking container should be round and tall, much like a 2-pound coffee can, which will work in place of the container called for in the recipe. If using a coffee can, be sure to oil it well, and watch carefully as it may take up to 15 minutes less baking time.
Read about the cheese breads for Easter Sunday breakfast
Click here for more on this Umbria tradition
Read about stunning Good Friday in Assisi
Read more about Good Friday in Assisi
Click here to read about Easter Monday in Umbria