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  • Writer's picture5 Senses CulinaryTours

A Bakers Lament

Updated: Sep 25, 2023

The name Agrigento brings to mind the magnificent Valley of the Temples, constituting some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself. Today it is a must see for anyone going to Sicily. It is renowned as the site of the ancient Greek city of Akragas, one of the leading and richest cities of the Mediterranean during the golden age of Ancient Greece. A large sacred area on the south side of the ancient city overlooking the sea, where a staggering 14 monumental Greek temples were constructed during the 6th and 5th centuries BC. (Now excavated and partially restored). It was also a hub of international shipping trade and as well a center of large agricultural production.

After the Greeks, Sicily was again agriculturally exploited in order to supply the Roman Republic with wheat from the Agrigento plains, an act which likely hindered the economic development of the island. Nevertheless, due to the island’s status as a “breadbasket” for Rome and its fruitful abundance Agrigento became prominent throughout Sicily. The island continued to be overtaken by the Arabs, the Normans, the Spanish, the Hohenstaufen reign, the Bourbons and eventually the Nazis. Each who pillaged far more then they left behind. Driving many into the interior for safety and sustenance.

Each brought and left some heritage that has been absorbed, like the Spanish who changed Sicily more than any other conqueror. Some history books do tell us they brought tomatoes, which the Sicilians planted around Etna. They brought cocoa beans which the Sicilians of Modica still make into bars of raw chocolate using the Aztec recipe the Spanish conquistadores taught them. They brought the potato and made Sicilians such an island of chip-lovers that they even invented the chip pizza. They created the Sicilian baroque style of architecture which is unique to this island and is so spectacularly beautiful it has made six baroque Sicilian towns into a UNESCO world heritage site.

This brings me to my visit to San Biagio Platani, just 23 miles inland from Agrigento, a very unique town in the hills above the valley of Platani. It has a population of about 5000, almost all devoted to cereal, almond, olive and pistachio cultivation. I came here to see the warehouses filled with women at long tables making bread, but not just any bread, this recipe is very heavy with salt so when it bakes it hardens. The dough is skillfully sculpted in to designs of angels, doves, bells, flowers and food baskets. All symbols of Christianity in these decorations. The most important element is cruddura, real sculptures of bread which are skillfully worked by hand by the ladies of the town. These are rounded piece of bread, like a cylinder. If it is big, it is called cuddura, if it is small, it is called cudduredda. The color and heavy decoration are from the Spanish influences that dominated the Island of Sicily. The majority of the locals take part, and the whole village is an outdoor workshop for three months. They express their creativity with Easter themes, angels and symbols of fertility and abundance.

Of all the Easter celebrations across Sicily, the Archi di Pasqua in the town of San Biagio Platani, is one of the most suggestive and unique. This proud town has been hosting an Easter Sunday festival for the last 300 years. Nevertheless, it all began in the 16th century when the town was populated by less than a thousand people. It started as a devotional, giving thanks to the church. Two confraternities called 'Madunnara' and 'Signurara' compete each year in a lively and passionate demonstration called the 'Archi di Pasqua' which fills the historical center of San Biagio Platani.

The religious significance is obvious, but the Archi are also rooted in what was the reality of daily life of the population around 400 years ago. In fact, the colorful presentation was aimed at forgetting the poverty of the time, at least once a year. Many Sicilians came close to starvation in Sicily’s past, so when they have the chance to enjoy food and plenty, they celebrate it with all their hearts. In the past the bread was represented as an ex voto (offering), it was hung from the arches and after the celebration it was offered to friends and relatives as special nourishment.

All made from local materials from the land, reeds, agaves, willows, laurel, rosemary branches and palm trees to reproduce fountains, doorways, portals and facades. Everything that is used has symbolic meaning. These natural arches between representation of the rising of Christ and the Madonna, who will also be carried around town at the appropriate times on Easter Sunday. Baroque atmosphere with structures that reach up to 42 feet high referring to the triumphal arch that in basilica architecture represented the limit, the threshold of passage from the central nave to the transept where the sacred rite takes place. The triumphal arches mark the sacred space where the rite of the triumph of life over death, the victory of Christ, the revelation of the "Mystery" in the resurrection takes place.

Ever growing in numbers, visitors that flock to the city are never disappointed with the vast variety of activities, food available and religious manifestations. This long-time event is now a fantastic international celebration that is hosted under arches that cover the main street of the town for several weeks of festivities. Now that is an economical source for the town and they leave the decorations up until May. And again, for two weeks in August around the patron saint's day, out come the arches. Before they start all over again, the aesthetics are changed each year, but the structures remain essentially the same. This is an amazing community effort, and everyone lends a hand at their talents. My contribution was gluing macaroni - yes, everyone volunteers.

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