Holy Saturday in Umbria: Cheese Bread Blessings
Yes, there can be “egg hunts” even in Umbria for Easter – but actually, prior to Easter. Finding the eggs is not an amusing and entertaining game for the children but a necessary task for the women, for perhaps up to 70 eggs will be needed for the baking of the traditional Torta al Formaggio (literally, “Cake of Cheese”). If just ten of this savory Eastertime cheese breads will be baked.
But I remember years ago (in the 1970’s) when our rural farm women neighbors, Chiarina and Mandina, set aside up to 150 eggs in those days prior to Easter as they would be baking more than a dozen breads.
The kneading of the massive mound of dough required great strength and often the men would take a turn, too, rendering this Easter cheese bread-baking a family tradition. Dear Mandina certainly had the force of an ox, though..and perhaps Peppe never needed to help her during her cheese bread baking:
For all the rural families, numerous loaves were required as 2 or 3 would be given as Easter greetings to the landowners for whom they worked the land as sharecroppers. A couple were for the priest, perhaps and the family doctor but farm families were large, multiple generations living together, and the cheese breads would be enjoyed by all for the week following Easter. relatives, friends without access to the wood-burning ovens where they were baked – and for the priest, the doctor and other “authority” figures. The townspeople, too, all over Umbria baked the cheese breads, a key ingredient in our Easter breakfast. Urban women took the breads to the local bread oven at the bakery for the baking, arriving at the time set for their turn.
The origin of this savory bread is ancient for even the Roman agronomist, Catone, writes about a similar bread in his De Agricoltura (2nd-c.B.C.), no doubt ancestor of this bread enjoyed in the regions of central Italy – the Marches, Abruzzo, Latium, and Tuscany – though with variations. In the Middle Ages, the nuns of a convent in the Marches region baked a savory bread they called crescia (the name still used in the Marches region for this Easter cheese bread). The word refers to the process of levitation during the baking for “crescia” links to the word “crescere” (“to grow”). The first recipe of the bread was recorded by these Sisters in the mid-19th century.
But as for most culinary goodness in Italy, none of the rural people read recipes but have always simply cooked according to the family traditions.
Our rural friend Peppa concluded her schooling at the age of eight and so she reads with difficulty, in any case. To learn to make the buonissimo cheese bread of Peppa, making it with her is the recipe.
Peppa does all the mixing and kneading on her own, although, she told me, “when I was younger and making more breads, my husband often helped me with the kneading…”
Stop in at her home just before Easter and you’ll see her torte di Pasqua lovingly lined up on a wooden board on her bed:
She’ll always ask us to choose the one we prefer. Here’s Pino choosing ours one year, Peppa approving of his choice:
Peppa also told me about a lost rural tradition here in the Assisi countryside area: farm families of our area used to walk to the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli (about 10 km. from their farmhouses) the Sunday after Easter – “l’ottava,” (“the eighth,” they called it) – for an outdoor snack near the Basilica. “We’d have our cheese breads, our salami and prosciutto and maybe steamed artichokes, too.”
I’m not sure if Giuseppa (near Deruta) uses the same quantities – or even the very same cheeses – as Peppa but her torta al formaggio, too, is not to be missed.
I remember the time that tour guests joined me for a Perugia/Deruta tour on Holy Thursday. And what an added highlight that day: before our lunch with Giuseppa and her husband Paolo at their Deruta-countryside farmhouse, Giuseppa was at their outdoor bread oven, having just bakedthe cheese breads.
She was sliding the just-baked breads out of the oven.
Giuseppa showed us how she had blessed her cheese breads before sealing the oven’s heavy iron door, using an olive branch received on the previous Palm Sunday in their local church:
And what a joy for these American visitors to participate in this Easter rite:
Another time during a Rural Life Revisited tour during Holy Week, other tour guests also participated in this tradition, for we stopped at rural friends’ Chiarina and Marino just after their cheese-bread baking:
..and before we left, all gathered with Chiarina and Marino in front of their outdoor bread oven where the goodness had been baked:
On Holy Saturday, Giuseppa, Peppa, and Chiarina – and all the rural women – would head to the parish church for the blessing of the basket containing Easter breakfast for all the family.
One of their most beautiful cheese breads would be in the basket, surrounded with other goodness essential to the Umbria Easter morning breakfast:
Before Easter Mass, the families in Umbria gather for cheese bread topped with their salami and/or capocollo, hard-boiled eggs (drizzled with olive oil, a squeeze of lemon juice added), the cheese bread and their family’s red wine. Salt is included in the basket – always – as propitious. Sometimes, the Easter sweet cake with colorful sprinkles on top is included. Nowadays, chocolate eggs might be added as well…a recent modern – and non-Italian – addition to a rural tradition.
The baskets are partially covered with lovely textiles, often hand-made embroidery.
In our country parish church, the baskets are all placed in front of the altar for the blessing by the priest:
Each basket is a work of art:
And on Easter morning, the blessed foods leave the basket for the table:
Care to join us?
Read about Easter Sunday in Bevagna…and that dashing Risen Christ
See the dash of Bevagna’s Cristo risorto here
Click here to see the leap from the ladder and the run of the Cristo morto.
Read about the Good Friday nighttime procession in Assisi
Read about the Good Friday morning procession to the cloistered Clarisse
Read about the San Quirico Clarisse hiding Jewish refugees in World War II
Click here to read about – and see! – the Holy Thursday scavigliazione ceremony
Click here to see Andrea Cova’s moving photos of Assisi’s Holy Thursday and Good Friday
Read about Good Friday in Gubbio
Click here to read about the Good Friday Passion play of the small town of Fiamenga.