Monday, November 12, 2012

Sicily's Legendary Breads: Pane Cunzatu and the Sicilian Sandwich

Bread baked in a traditional Sicilian oven.
There is a snippet of a poem that lingers in my memory from a long forgotten author. It begins, “a mother is like warm bread.” The imagery of bread as sacrosanct, (and indeed the comparison of bread to mother—the most revered of Sicilian symbols) has inspired Sicily from revolutions to poetry.  But whatever the nuances of this important staple of the Sicilian diet, the fact remains that Sicilian wheat, and therefore Sicilian bread, is unmatched in the world.

Since  antiquity, Sicily was considered the bread basket of the Roman Empire because of its abundant and high quality wheat fields. Following the devastation of the Black Plague and political turmoil of the 14th and 15th centuries, wheat production all but ceased, making a comeback during the reign of the Spanish kings.  

Pane cunzatu
But external pressures and internal policies hindered wheat production so dramatically that farmers were unable to continue growing it, resulting in the great famine of the 1600’s.  A well documented event, the famine led to riots in the streets of Palermo.  (Those of you who have read the classic novel I Promessi Sposi will recognize these riots:  the bread crisis in Palermo was part of the same crisis that causes the rebellion in Milano.)  A quote in Mary Simeti’s book Pomp and Sustenance captures the sentiment of the populace in 1774:  “People of Palermo, put an end at once to your patience: you have suffered too long. White bread we demand, white bread.” This call to action unintentionally reveals the high standard of the Sicilian diet in antiquity.  In most of Europe, refined white bread was a perogative of the rich.

Pane squaratu--sicilian boiled bread.
Sicilian wheat,Triticum durum, commonly called durum wheat,  produces a hard golden colored berry, which is ground into conmeal-like texture known as semola. Semola is used to make pasta, but it may also be ground a second time, (rimacinato) to make bread flour.  Sicilian bread is made simply with rimacinato, water, salt and yeast, and does not use any kind of shortening. Durum wheat is high in gluten;  in the absence of oil or lard the proteins bind together in long chains.  The result is a distinctive chewiness similar to that found in pasta. Often fired in wood-burning ovens with special woods or almond shells, the resulting bread has a brown outer crustiness and strong, course, chewy yellowish crumb making it unique in look and flavor.

(It is interesting that this robust, yellow bread exists only in the countryside.  The city folk of Palermo and Catania eat a bread made with common wheat flour, not rimanciato, and shortened with lard or vegetable shortening to make a puffy, delicate white crumb and a flaky crust.  And in the region of Puglia, not far from Sicily in geography or culture, the bread is identical to that of bread of the Sicilian countryside or campagna.) In addition to wood baked bread a tradition exists of boiling bread before baking it, called pane squaratu. Laced with anise seed and made with  its distinctive four rosettes, it is one of my favorites and is often found in abundance around the pasqual holidays.

Pane cunzatu against a Sicilian loaf .
One of the favorite ways  Sicilians enjoy bread is known in dialect as pane cunzatu (loosely translates to seasoned bread).  Once found only in family kitchens, pane cunzatu is now available in many Sicilian bakeries.  While this preparation is best with Sicilian bread, I invite you to try it with any hearty bread fresh out of the oven.

You will need a freshly baked, still warm loaf of crusty bread;  high quality extra virgin olive oil; grated pecorino cheese; pomidorini or cherry tomatoes cut in half and lightly salted; a handful of fresh basil leaves and dried Italian oregano and ground black pepper to taste.

Cut the warm bread in half lengthwise and drizzled both halves with olive oil. Distribute the tomatoes on one side of the bread and sprinkle it with oregano to taste, black pepper, and abundant pecorino cheese. Distribute basil leaved on the tomatoes and close the two sides of the loaf, as if in a sandwich, pressing the bread to release and amalgamate the flavors.  Cut in thick slices and serve. Pane cunzatu is often used in parties and gatherings as an appetizer or light but rustic meal.  While the classic pane cunzatu is made with the simple ingredients listed above, I sometimes enjoy adding anchovy bits to this delicious preparation.

There are other ways  that Sicilians savor this delicious bread. Children are given slices of bread lightly drizzled with red wine and sprinkled with sugar (a practice I still enjoy occassionally even as an adult!)  Often bread is eaten with grilled or fried vegetables. On occasion, I fry eggplant and place it in sliced bread with basil and fresh fior di latte mozzarella. The result is a meal that happily overwhelms the senses! 

Ciao a presto!


  1. I enjoyed reading about ancient bread making, a process we lost and now, in modern societies, we pay dearly for a loaf of bread that has this taste and character.

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    THE mother is like warm bread; he who eats of it feels satisfied.
    The father is like pure wine; he who drinks of it feels intoxicated.
    The brother is like the sun, which lights up the mountains and the valleys."

    An Armenian poem.