When there was no bread
by Eleonora Cesaretti
Soft and white inside, browned and slightly hardened on the outside, alone or as a side dish, the torta al testo has become a symbol of Umbria.
Bread has always been the fuel of the people, not just as a basic source of food, but also as a propulsion for the people’s revolts against tyranny and oppression. The rise of the price of bread has in many occasions throughout history been the pretext for uprisings and revolutions. Think of Chapter Eleven in Manzoni’s The Betrothed when the unreasoning crowd assaults the Forno delle Grucce baker’s shop, or the most notable sentence attributed to Mary Antoinette: «If they have no bread, let them eat cake». Within our regional borders, one may remember how the people of Perugia reacted to the papal victory of 1540 by boycotting his tax on salt, banishing it from the bread dough forever.
Though as the Nineteenth century approached with its industrial revolution bread became a common food, its preparation was still a long and laborious endeavor involving the entire family. Between one batch of bread and the other, 7 or 8 days could pass, because there were many ways stale bread could be employed and the mouths to feed were innumerous. The wait for more nutritious food could be very long especially for the peasants, bound to the hard work in the fields, so the torta al testo was born.
The secret? How it is baked
Soft and white within, browned and slightly hardened on the outside, alone or as an accompaniment for the strong-flavored cheeses, the seasoned cured meats and the rich arrabbiata sauce used in the Umbrian tradition for meat stews – the torta al testo has become a symbol of our region. The dough is made with water, flour, salt and yeast – in the 1800s baking soda, sourdough or brewer’s yeast, in the 1900s idrolitina (baking soda and acid salt) was introduced, today ousted by baking powder. The name al testo refers to the half-inch thick disk used for baking.
Before gas stoves and cast-iron flat-pans became widespread, in the central-north areas of the region this disk was made of terracotta or river sand and clay and would be left to warm on a grill. The testo – or panaro when in Gubbio and Città di Castello – would have reached the perfect temperature when the flour doused on top turned yellow: then the bread, of the dimension and shape of the disk, would be laid on top to bake for about 15-20 minutes.
South of Todi, this white flat bread was cooked in the fireplace – previously warmed with the coals then brushed away – flipped and covered with warm ashes and cinder after it had browned. Half-way between the testo and the Terni-based fuoco morto (i.e. dead fire which cooks the pizza under the fire), were once more the peasants, who loved their torta al testo snacks in the fields. There, they could also pluck certain rock slabs, called dead or serene, later tempered to make sure it could resist heat and sudden changes in temperature and turned into the perfect testo.
And if simplicity is not enough…
Creativity cannot be tied down and our forefathers knew this well, juggling restrictions and mouths to feed, they would refuse nothing that the land could offer. The torte al testo would sometimes include ciccioli and pecorino cheese, olive oil – or pig fat -, eggs and grated pecorino cheese, diced bacon, raisins or dried plums, walnuts and yet again… pecorino, a prized ingredient in the mountainous areas where sheep herds were common.
The type of flour could also offer a curious variation, though today it has been abandoned for it is a painful recollection of a poor and difficult past: corn flour was once used, mixed with wheat flour, salt and very hot water, forming a more granular dough which could only be kneaded by hand. This version of the torta would never be flipped and would cook for at least twenty minutes; it was often combined with cooked greens and potatoes, raw onions, beans and fava-beans.
To be fair, Umbrians didn’t really invent this type of bread. In the way of cooking it, as in the dough and the shape, similar versions lost in the folds of time may be found, handed down from father to son, from conqueror to defeated.
If it is true that the torta al testo is originally nothing else but an unleavened bread, it is worth mentioning the Egyptian bread, which was similarly made out of spelt flour, water, salt and sometimes dates and coriander seeds. After some hours of rest, it was baked on a burning-hot stone, obtaining a bread with a «hard and shiny crust, dense, heavy and fragrant».
Cato the Elder, in his De Agri Cultura dated 160 b.C., cites a certain placenta, similar in shape and lack of leavening to the torta al testo of the origins: «you shall carefully clean the fireplace, you will heat it to the right temperature, then you shall place the placenta. Cover it with a hot tile». Quite similar to the testuacium of Varro, similarly baked with the help of a roof tile, or to the panis artopticus, cooked under a bell.
Pliny the elder, on the other hand, offers a full list – though he himself specifies it is not complete – of the numerous types of bread available in Ancient Rome. One may note that for the Romans, there was no distinction between a focaccia (or pizza) and bread, especially when considering the panis subcinerinus or fucacius cooked under the cinder, the panis adipatus seasoned with bits of lard or bacon, or even the panis testicius, eaten by the legionaries after baking it on a clay tile, eloquent enough in its name.
The queen of the Umbrian table
Whether deriving from Ancient Rome or from the mefa made with flour, water and salt mentioned in the Tavole Eugubine, the torta al testo is the true queen of the Umbrian table. Easy, quick and tasty, it has the merit of deriving from a peasant’s meal and becoming a typical Umbrian dish. In its simplicity it is the expression of the local household and of the afternoons in the fields, with the sun shining on the bent backs and the lunch baskets full of this fragrant bread cooked on a testo.
 Cfr. R. Boini, La torta al testo, in «Percorsi umbri», n. 2-3 June 2006.
 In Gubbio the torta al testo is known as crescia (risen) because in the baking process it rises and thickens.
 Cfr. R. Boini, op.cit.
 The place where the blocks of stone were smoothened were called schiacciaie (“flatteners”) and the bread originally was called schiaccia (“flattened”). Cfr. O. Fillanti, La torta al testo in Umbria, Perugia, Promocamera, 2011.
 The ciccioli are the tiny bits of meat residual to the extraction of the pig fat, cfr. I. Trotta, Perugia a Tavola, Perugia, Morlacchi Editore, 2017.
 Cfr. R. Boini, La cucina umbra, Ponte San Giovanni (PG), Calzetti Mariucci, 1995.
 Cfr. www.vitantica.net, consulted on August 21st, 2019.
 Cfr. www.cerealialudi.org, consulted on August 20th, 2019.
 Cfr. www.taccuinigastrosofici.it, consultato il 19/8/2019.
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