In the last days of October, in the bakeries and pastry shops of the Lombardyespecially those of Milanoa very seasonal dessert appears: the bread of the dead. They are substantial biscuits which, by tradition, are prepared every year on the occasion of the November 2ndthe day that the Catholic Church dedicates to the Commemoration of the faithful departed, better known as Feast of the Dead. Their origin is uncertain, or rather, it doesn’t hide great stories or legends.
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The origin of the bread of the dead
It is to the customs of the Lombard peasant families of the past that the origin of the bread of the dead must almost certainly be attributed. In fact, in popular tradition it was believed that during the Feast of the Dead the souls of deceased loved ones returned from the afterlife to visit the living. So, to welcome them back after the tiring journey, something to eat and drink was preparedas if they could go back to sitting at the table: a minister, a glass of wine, but also some sweets.
Among these, there was what would become the bread of the dead. To do this, they were used the ingredients that were in the house, from leftover biscuits to dried fruit. Once ready, they were consumed in the family or we gathered in the internal courtyards of the large buildings to celebrate the anniversary also with the neighbours.
With time, versions of bread of the dead have multiplied with the addition of other ingredients, such as cocoa and wine, and the sweet came out of the kitchens of the houses to arrive even in the best patisseries and bakeries. Today the basic recipe calls for the use of flour, raisins, crumbled dry biscuits, dried almonds, half a glass of sweet white wine (passito), dried figs, egg whites, sugar, ground cinnamon and icing sugar. In addition to Lombardy, they are also prepared in some areas of Emilia, Tuscany and Liguria.
Other sweet stories
There are also other little stories about the origin of the pan dei morti recipe. One of them reports that in some Lombard valleys used to cook bread to be delivered to each participant of the funeral. It was often given with salt, but even more frequently nuts and dried fruit were addedingredients that we find in dessert today.
In some areas near Luganohowever, was held the “look for the bread of the dead”, a party in which children and teenagers knocked from door to door to ask for a loaf of bread. Even the poorest offered them something and often, together with black bread, they were also offered walnuts, hazelnuts, dried pears and apples, medlars and dried figs.
Going even further back in time, it seems that already the ancient Greeks they used to prepare an ancestor of bread of the dead to offer to Demeter, the goddess of the harvest, to ensure bountiful harvests. To remember the dead, the Romans instead offered bread, sweets and fruit to the poor of the village.
The current recipe
The recipe we know dates back to the thirties of the twentieth century and would have been fine-tuned by Ticino bakers to sell pieces of sweets that are no longer fresh. Not surprisingly, differences were noted between one pan dei morti and another: in some he found dried fruit, in others sponge cake, in still others pieces of biscuits.
This great variability of dessert still exists today. But, if it once came from shop needs, today the changes to the list of ingredients are due to the personal taste or looking for a touch of originality by those who prepare it at home or by the pastry shop that offers it to their customers.