May 222012
torta al testo

This blog has touched on the idea of “traditional Italian foods” a number of times, mostly in a somewhat heretical way. In a riff on Rachel Laudan’s fundamental essay on the subject (“A Plea For Culinary Modernism: Why We Should Love Processed Food”), I would say that most traditional food, isn’t. Laudan gives a shockingly long list of traditional foods that have been invented in the past fifty years: Indonesian rijsttafel, the baguette, even fish & chips.

The dread “typical product” (prodotti tipici) pall has apparently descended on Perugia as well. This central Italian city is in the region of Umbria, still relatively poor in PDO (protected denomination of origin) products. In a letter  (dated 5 April 2012) to the organizers of the local sagre (country festivals often organized around a food product, e.g. Sagra of the Cornhusking, Sagra of the Onion), Giuseppe Lomurno, the assessor of Economic Development and Tourism, asked them to serve menus “characterized by the use of typical products of the province, leaving torta al testo as the basic dish.” Today (4 May 2012) a press release from the same office announced that this suggestion would become law, and that these festivals were moments in which to “reinforce the connection of the area, also with offering menus that privilege typical products and local drinks.”

Torta al testo literally means “cake on a tile,” though “cake” in Italian can refer to both sweet and savory breads. The “testo” is from Latin testu, which translates to plate or [ceramic] lid. Originally the dough was spread out on a terra cotta tile or a carefully seasoned field stone which had been heated up in a fireplace. Hot ashes and coals were spread over the top of the dough and the heat from below (the preheated testo) and above (the ashes and coals) cooked the dough into the torta, which because of the lack of yeast remained more or less flat (modern torta is about 2cm tall). The ashes were then brushed off and served. While enthusiasts see the torta al testo as a direct lineal descendant of a recipe in Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura, the procedure is general enough to be common to many cultures. Torta al testo is nothing special: flatbreads made in the same way (i.e. cooked on a tile) are found all over the peninsula. In Modena the name is cresciantina, while in Romagna it is known as the piadina; within Umbria the same recipe is called torta al panaro, torta sul testo, crescia sul panaro, and pizzo sotto lu focu.

Perugian restaurants divide the torta into pizza-like slices and then split the torta horizontally. A filling is piled carefully in between the two pieces of torta, resulting in a triangular sandwich. While ingredients can include fried bell peppers and onions, melted soft cheese, and prosciutto, the supposedly classic combination is Umbrian sausage and olive oil-soaked erba. This last ingredient—literally “grass” or “greens”—is actually a mixture of boiled chicory and kale, classic ingredients of the cucina povera (“cuisine of the poor”) of Umbria, which has become popular again in recent decades.

That the torta al testo is part of the cucina povera is something that almost all of the cookbooks surveyed make explicit. The pride in this simple-yet-hardy cuisine, born of necessity but enjoyed today because of its uncomplicated good taste, is a common theme in these books. My question is this: how traditional is torta al testo? While modern recipes call for wheat flour, yeast, salt, eggs, and even pecorino, the agrarian inquests of the nineteenth century make it clear that the torta al testo was made with water and mais flour, and very occasionally salt. While the modern version can be split and filled with other ingredients, the “classic” torta couldn’t be split because it was essentially a cake of polenta. Without wheat flour, there was not enough gluten to make the bread sliceable.

Thus the modern torta al testo doesn’t resemble its ancestor in ingredients, but the culinary meaning has undergone a shift as well. Far from being celebrated by nineteenth century Umbrian sharecroppers as a welcome, hearty meal, torta al testo was seen as a symbol of misery and penury, if not madness (too much mais flour caused pellagra, a scourge in Italy until the post-war period). It is ironic then that the torta al testo is seen as so typical as to be made an obligatory food at local festivals. Why did this re-invention happen, when did it happen, and how? I hope to give some answers to these questions in a paper for this year’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.   ZN


Rachel Laudan’s essay is available here.

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