Ritual Bread in Southern Italy: Discover the Fascinating Mediterranean Legacy of the Artistic Bakery Products

Ritual breads, finely decorated loaves typical of Southern Italy, are literal works of art. Want to know how these look and where to find them? Keep reading!

In these recent decades we have witnessed to the birth of artistic expressions that involve the embellishment of food and drinks, like the cappuccino art (surprisingly not an American invention, but a ‘discipline’ invented in Verona in the late 70s), but food and creativity have a long-standing relationship, which finds its roots in the tradition. 

The process of making ritual bread, in particular, is so ancient that is actually very hard to state a specific date of birth. What is sure is that we are talking about a true art form that is intertwined with pagan and sacred roots. Ritual loaves are, in fact, all those bakery products, typical of Southern Italy, which are heavily decorated and that are produced during specific Christian festivities and ceremonies.

As already mentioned in my post about Italian regional bread, in our country regular bread has a symbolic and sacred value and, in several cases, it is even connected with the figure of Jesus Christ. Ritual loaves take this stance a step forward by giving to the sacred symbol an undeniable artistic value.

The making of artistic bread is a fascinating process, which differs according to the region or the specific local traditions. Here following I will list for you some types of regional bread and related customs.

Basilicata

In Basilicata, the small region located in between Campania and Calabria, there has always been a peculiar use of the bread, which seems to find its roots in that grey area between the sacred and the superstitions.

White bread was given to women who were about to give birth and to people who were dying, and there was the custom of placing the loaves inside some sort of cages hung on the ceilings to “allow the souls of Purgatory to eat”.

Among the ritual bread from Basilicata, we can list:

  • The FICCILATIDD, also called “tortanello”, which is from the province of Matera. It used to be prepared on December 7th and in the days dedicated to the fast.
  • We then have the VARONE, typical of some towns located in the province of Potenza. It is basically a bread in the form of a doughnut with fresh eggs inserted on top of it. It is traditionally prepared during the Holy Saturday and consumed on the Easter day. It reminds the famous Casatiello from Campania. Varone is supposed to be only for men; the one destined to women it’s called PIZZATOLO and it differs from the former only in the appearance: it has an elongated form, which reminds a doll.

Calabria

The pitta calabrese, which I mentioned in my last post as a popular bread basically consumed on a daily basis, can be considered a product with a “ritual origin”, given that it was especially used during traditional festivities like the ones of San Nicola, Santa Lucia and Sant’Antonio.

Among the Calabria’s ritual loaves we can list:

  • PANE CON LA GIUGGIULENA, which literally means “bread with sesame”. The Italian word for sesame is sesamo, but the Saracen dominion influenced the local language and Calabria imported the term “giulgiulan”, lately modified in giuggiulena and giurgiulena. This kind of bread is popular in the province of Reggio Calabria and produced during specific festivities;
  • CUDDURA is a bread loaf in the form of a doughnut or a braid, which is also very popular in Sicily. The word derives from the ancient Greek and means “crown” and in Calabria it’s typical of the area of Reggio Calabria. It’s especially used during Christmas and Easter.

Sicily

In Sicily the CUDDURA is to be found all over the region. During Easter it’s common to prepare it with an egg baked into it, whereas at Christmas it’s made with dried fig paste. The circular form of the cuddura dates back to pre-Christian times when it was used to celebrate Ceres, the goddess of the harvest and fertility: nowadays it is often associated with the Virgin Mary;

The CUCCIDDATU is another kind of circular bread which can be found during the whole course of the year. During specific religious festivities in the province of Trapani, they take the name of cucciddatu di carrozza and they are often in the form of a bright sun. In the towns of Calatafimi and Vita they are used as wagon’s decorations, respectively for the Feast of the Crucifix and the Feast of the Madonna di Tagliavia, and even lifted on top of poles, carried during the processions;


Pic by Giuseppe Pampalone, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The custom of the PANI DI SALEMI (Salemi’s bread) allegedly goes back to 1542, when the town was literally invaded by a swarm of locusts. Farmers prayed and asked for the help of Saint Biagio and once the problem was solved, they prepared, in honour of the saint, small loaves in the form of cuddureddi, symbolizing throats (Biagio is the Patron Saint of the throat) and cavadduzzi, symbolizing the locusts. The ritual is repeated every year on February, 3rd, St.Biagio’s Day.

The largest use of Salemi’s bread, though, happens for the St. Joseph’s Feast. For weeks leading up to March, 19th (St. Joseph’s Day) women create wonderful bread decorations meant to be used during the so-called St. Joseph’s Dinners.

Author: Laboratorio Immagine – Creative Commons CCBY-SA 2.5 IT

During these dinners, families pay homage to the Saint, thanking him or asking him for his protection. The kitchens are decorated with wood scaffoldings covered in myrtle– and bay leaves and trimmed with elaborated loaves with different forms: those representing a peacock signify the resurrection, those in the form of citrus fruits are the representation of the circle of life and those in the shape of flowers allegedly symbolize the detachment from earthily possessions.

Inside the scaffolding there’s an altar, which kind of reminds those you see in the churches and that has five shelves hosting decorated bread. The first one is supposed to host the three most important loaves: u cucciddato, in the form of a sun, that represents Jesus; a parma, which symbolize the palm that was able to nourish the Virgin Mary with its dates during the flight into Egypt; u vastuni, the cane of St. Joseph.

PUPU CU L’OVU are small bread baskets, characterized by anthropomorphic forms containing entire raw eggs, which are supposed to bake in the oven along with the dough. Quite recently, and in certain areas of the region, sugar has been added and the pupu has become an Easter dessert at all effects.

Sardinia

Sardinia has a wide range of ritual loaves, which are local variations around the theme of the coccoi bread, and to list all of them is basically an impossible task. In its simplest form, the coccoi is a bread, which can be consumed on a daily basis and it’s characterized by a very crunchy crust and a soft part, which is white, compact and with very small alveolar holes. The varieties used during feasts and ceremonies are very decorated and can be considered literal works of art.

Pane delle feste
Pic by Cristiano Cani, Creative Commons 2.0 Generic via Flickr

The decorations of the Sardinian ritual bread are very intricate and realized through a complex process, which involves the use of three traditional tools called serretta (a cutter wheel), s’arrasoyedda  (a small knife) and a small pair of scissors.

Among the ritual varieties, we can mention the coccoi cun s’ou, which consist in a decorated basket egg. It is used during the celebration of the Easter and, back in the days, kids received this instead of the modern and expensive chocolate egg.

Another ritual bread is the coccoi de is sposus, a decorated bread gifted during the wedding or the engagement party to the newlyweds/betrothed as a symbol of luck and prosperity. In this instance, the bread is in the form of a floral bouquet or a heart decorated with fruits, flowers and birds.

Museums

The amount of ritual bread is so large that it’s not surprising finding museums specifically dedicated to it.

In the town of Salemi, Sicily, the Ritual Bread Museum is hosted inside the former Church of St. Bartolomeo. It’s divided in two sections and displays loaves of Sicilian tradition and, more specifically, breads from Salemi for an approximate total of 1000 loaves;

Since 2006 the town of Borore in Sardinia has hosted its own Ritual Bread Museum. Other than displaying 800 loaves coming from 74 different Sardinian villages, it offers people the opportunity to see the tools used to work the dough and discover the different meanings of the forms and symbols used on these loaves.


Were you aware of this amazing domestic heritage transmitted through the generations? Isn’t it amazing!?

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7 thoughts on “Ritual Bread in Southern Italy: Discover the Fascinating Mediterranean Legacy of the Artistic Bakery Products

  1. What I also find amazing is that the ingredients, the names, the shape, etc. of roughly the same type of bread can change from one village to another. And then there will be traditional foods eaten in one part of a region that others living in the very same region haven’t ever even heard of. And looking in from other countries, we call it all “Italian food”!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: Italian Bread List: 38 Regional Types You Should Try – My Dear Italia

  3. These breads are absolutely beautiful. It is amazing to see such care and artistry. The one thing I love about living in Puglia is the bread of Altamura – of course not as decorative, but yummy! Wishing you all the best in the new year 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow that easter basket egg is so intricate and beautiful I don’t think I could bring myself to eat it. We make Pupu con l’uovo at Easter. They are fun. My Mamma makes tiny little breads and pizza to go in the Forno in her presepio, but that is her person little ritual. So cute. Ciao, Cristina

    Liked by 1 person

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