The pastimes the simple folk had in the olden days well before the age of the computer were always connected to everyday life and how to give vent to people’s creative and artistic impulses, thereby adding an uplifting dimension to an existence that was often full of hardships and limitations. For some it was music, for others it was figurative art such as sculpting or carving.
One surprising creation was the timbro del pane or “bread stamp” carved out of small sticks of wood, often olive wood. This was typically done by shepherds who used their time with the flocks in the countryside to make original shapes that could be useful in everyday life. These bread stamps usually measured about 14cm and had a diameter of 4.5cm. Easy to use, almost unbreakable and unique because of the initials of the head of the family carved at the bottom.
But why would anyone stamp bread? Well, unlike nowadays, people did not have ovens in their kitchens. Only the wealthy had those! Moreover, in smaller towns and villages there were no bakeries where to buy bread. People made it at home, shaped it and stamped it. Then, they took it to the neighbourhood oven –often as big as a room– where all the loaves were baked. After the breads were taken out of the oven, the neighbourhood housewives came to pick up theirs –unmistakably theirs because they had the family’s “signature” on them! Somewhat like designer items or brand names in today’s consumer society. Nowadays, bread stamps no longer have the same function unless, of course, you are into making your own bread at home ! However, they are often chosen as an unusual, very personal gift bearing a person’s initials.
Besides stamping bread, the bread stamp could have a social purpose. In the past, it was by no means easy for a guy to meet a girl. Therefore, to show a girl’s father that he had serious intentions, a young man would take a bread stamp to her house. This meant that he wanted to set up a household –a place where you make something basic, necessary and real. In other words, bread!
Bread was the main staple in the diets of many Italians until after the Second World War. It could keep for days, carefully stored in a wooden chest. When it was fresh, it would accompany food and most people still do this today; a little piece of bread was –and still is –used to sweep the last drop of tasty sauce off the plate –usually using your fingers. There is a special expression for this ritual : la scarpetta –literally “ the little shoe” – which actually seems to go back to the old word “scarsetta”, meaning “poverty, scarcity” because under those living conditions nothing could go to waste!
Bread was also a snack, especially for children, like “pane e pomodoro” which is nothing but some fresh tomato squished on a slice of bread with a drizzle of olive oil on top –perfectly basic, perfectly tasty. This could also be a poor dish for many at dinnertime. Nowadays, stale bread ends up in the garbage, but time ago nothing could justbe thrown away. So, it was transformed into nutritious soups such as “la cialledd”. In Tuscany, they have a refreshing and nutritious dish called “panzanella” made with chunks of stale bread, fresh tomato, basil, red onion, cucumber and olive oil.
Stale bread could also come to life as appetizing meatless meatballs (polpette di pane) or it was grated and fried up in a pan with olive oil to be used as a topping for many dishes, like Parmesan cheese today. And that was when parmesan (parmigiano reggiano) was a delicacy that only the well-to-do could afford; after all, it came from the area of Parma up in the North of Italy, practically another planet! What’s more, the recipes of the traditional dishes in the South of Italy did not include parmesan but local cheeses like pecorino, a sheep cheese, or cacioricotta made from cow’s or goat’s milk that were grated and then used to make delicious –often surprisingly simple – specialties.