I finally have my matera – or 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 would not have been able to afford restoration, nor were they in any way attached to their matera. They were suprised when I told them I would love to have it and they were happy to give it to me. Mu husband Pino and I took it to a carpenter who also 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 woodstove. I still think he probably restored it and sold it to an eager buyer.
[lcaption]Our farm friend Peppa makes the best panzanella of anyone I know![/lcaption]
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 latchhandles. 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 gnocch, pastai or the simple Umbrian hearth bread, called torta (see recipe for torta on RECIPES).
In the Mediterranean world – and diet – bread is not only the “staff of life, it approaches sacrality. 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.
Panzanella is a keynote dish of cucina genuina (“genuine cooking”, ie, traditional cuisine of homegrown ingredients). Here is how Peppa makes her panzanella, once considered a piatto dei poveri ( “poor man’s dish” – and variations on the theme are made throughout central Italy):
PANZANELLA (“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 tomatopes
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)
optional: variety of salads (but not iceberg lettuce!)
Soak the bread in water til it softens, then squeeze all water out. Cut into small pieces, all vegetables. Season with olive oil, salt and pepper, vinegar and keep in cool place (though not refrigerator) til 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.
[lcaption]La panzanella, summertime simple rural goodness[/lcaption]
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).
Click here to read about Peppa’s bread-baking
Read more about our rural friends and their wisdom
Read about Peppa’s wine-making
Read about Peppa’s wine lore
Click for more on Peppa’s wine and a sacred rural tradition
Read about how Peppa can take off the evil eye!
Read about Peppa’s celebration of her new olive oil
Read about Peppa celebrating chestnuts, new wine and new olive oil
Read about learning to make a traditional bread with Peppa
Read about hunting chicory with Peppa
Click here to read about Peppa and her legumes
Click here to read about Peppa’s Easter cheese breads
Read about Peppa and the rural rite of veglia
Read about the joy of feasting with Peppa