“Per noi, il pane è sacro” – “For us, bread is sacred.” This statement was religiously told to me by Catena Intellisante, as she walked me through the process of bread making; the way women deep in the hill country of Mongiuffi Melia labored with their hands for countless generations. When I asked her how it all began for her, she was more than willing to talk to me about it and invited me to her country style home, on the border of Taormina and the community of Castelmola. She wanted me to see for myself.
Looking back in time, Catena told the story of how her beloved father, who departed two years ago, had a burning vision of purchasing a particular piece of barren land, overlooking the Ionian Sea, when walking to Taormina from the country and then back again. Selling to the locals, he with his donkey carrying fruits, vegetables, olives, nuts and other home grown delights, it made for a very long and tiresome journey every day. When he eventually bought this small piece of road-less land, he worked inexhaustibly to build a small home for his wife and only daughter, Catena. Over the years they bought more and more land which has given them the freedom to extend their property. Today four apartments stand one above the other and this traditional Sicilian family has created a country home without being fully in the country along with chickens, hens, horse, dogs, cats and even at one time goats.
Off of the main house and next to a double garage is a small but cozy work room. Inside I found two ovens that her father and husband had built. Catena explained that these are wood burning ovens, where one is used for baking “pane di casa” – “homemade bread” and the other for “carne al forno” – “baked meat.”
Wearing her house dress, Catena wrapped an apron around her waist, tied a scarf around her head and with a sparkle in her smiling eyes reached for the flour and tools for making bread. She enthusiastically began, “As early as I can remember, when I was a young girl, I used to curiously watch my mother make bread, when we lived in the country. Even at five years old I enjoyed helping by kneading the dough with my hands. For me, it was fun; like a game.”
Pondering, she went on to say, “Either we made bread, or there was nothing, as we had no paneficio – bread store. The good thing was if we didn’t have any bread, we could borrow from a neighbor and then repay with a fresh loaf of our newly baked bread.” They are no longer kneading by hand, twenty five years ago the family purchased a machine. The simple ingredients used are semola and grano duro flour, salt, yeast and water. As a brief overview, once all of the ingredients are merged, the machine does the kneading which can be up to an hour to achieve an elastic give. Then the dough is cut into three to begin making the forms in ball shapes, as well as other shapes. Catena prepared a rectangular table by covering with a wool blanket and then added a sheet or table cloth on top. One by one, she then laid the dough forms, ten in all, on top of the sheet and covered the dough with another 2 or 3 woollen blankets on top for the dough to rise. In the summer the dough could rise in an hour, but in the winter it could be between 4-5 hours.
While this was going on, Catena prepared the oven by burning broken branches from trees. Once the oven achieved its needed temperature, she then removed the burning embers from the oven, swept the oven clean of debris and shoveled the risen dough forms in the oven. She then closed the door and added a wet cloth to wrap around the edges so air wouldn’t seep out.
She told me to be sure to open the oven door after 20 minutes to begin checking to see if it was done. When the bread was golden brown, she looked at me with glowing contentment saying, “Grazie Dio, sono bellissime – Thank God they are beautiful.” Clearly a labor of love, Catena emphasizes that “growing up this way; making bread in the ancient tradition of the spirit of our ancestors, it is second nature to me.” With admiration, I watched and listened in awe thinking to myself, I’m with a modern day woman who treasures the art of ancient bread making and enjoys, with pride and pleasure, living the life of a donna antica.