Hey, What’s Up With the Bread in Umbria?

The Umbrians have lied to me.

They have been telling me all this time that their traditional bread is an acquired taste.  That, my friends, in a gross falsehood.  I have been here close to 20 years, and it is still one of the biggest disappointments of my overseas move to Italy, second perhaps only to the discovery that one does not transform into a sultry mediterranean seductress simply through a process of cellular osmosis by living in a country inhabited by sultry mediterranean seductresses.  Apparently, you are either born Sophia Loren or you are not.

Traditionally, Umbrian bread (also known as pane comune) is made with three ingredients:  flour, yeast, and water.  And, not surprisingly, once baked it tasted like flour, mixed with a little yeast and water.  To someone who has grown up with the neighborhood Italian bakery hawking freshly baked “Italian bread”– that wonderfully aromatic thick baguette-type loaf with a moist, chewy, flavorful crumb and a crisp, flaky, glazed crust—this saltless low loaf with its dense, dry crumb and hard, tough crust is blasphemy.

Artisan baker wood fired oven baked bread has a moister crumb and a slightly sourdough flavor: edible.

Why do Umbrians still remain faithful to their traditional bread, especially now that fabulous Tuscan bread (closer to what the world associates with “Italian bread”) and Neapolitan bread (with a slightly chewier crumb and dark crust) is easily found?  One explanation is historical:  in the mid-1500s,  Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria).  Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues.  That said, Umbrians routinely used leeches to bleed their ailing brethren, but over the centuries came to the conclusion that perhaps that wasn’t the best idea.  So history and tradition can’t be the sole reason.

Bread baked by a bakery in a conventional oven: given a choice between this and death, edible.

What it really comes down to is this:  bland Umbrian bread is the perfect foil for traditional Umbrian cooking.  In fact, when eaten how nature—and centuries of culinary tradition– intended, this otherwise sad excuse for a loaf becomes, well, delicious.  Before I tell you the secret of its transformation, let me be clear that there is Umbrian bread and then there is Umbrian bread.  Traditional Umbrian bread made by an artisan baker in a wood fired oven is, given certain preconditions, edible.  Traditional Umbrian bread made by a bakery in a regular oven is, given the choice between that and death, edible.  Traditional Umbrian bread of the variety made by big commercial bakeries and sold at the supermarket shrinkwrapped in plastic is inedible.  Period.

Choose death.

La Scarpetta

La scarpetta is, simply put, when you use a piece of bread to wipe the remaining sauce off your plate and pop it in your mouth.  It is one of those behaviors that is both considered impolite yet universally tolerated, as everyone recognizes it as one of the pure joys of human existence.  Sort of like putting your feet up on the coffee table after Thanksgiving dinner.  Umbrian bread is perfect for la scarpetta.  As it has virtually no flavor of its own, the bread lets the strong flavors of traditional Umbrian sauces, many made with game, shine through.  Rather than a foodstuff, consider it a mode of sauce transportion.  An edible fork, if you will.

Il Panino

Umbrian cured meats—primarily prosciutto, but also salame, capocollo, salsiccie secche, guanciale, and coppa—are intensely flavorful and aromatic, and also tend to be heavily salted.  The traditional recipe of 1-1-1 (one finger width bread slice to one finger width coldcuts to one finger width bread slice) would be overwhelming if a more savory type of bread were used.  Again, with a good quality wood-oven baked loaf, a simple bread and Norcia prosciutto sandwich with a swig of farmer’s red to wash it down is one of life’s gastronomic epiphanies.

La Bruschetta

Okay, it’s broo-SKET-ta, folks.  I don’t want to hear any of that broo-SCHE -ta going on.  If I needed only one single reason to defend the continued existence of  Umbrian bread, this would be it.  With its dense crumb, Umbrian bread takes well to being sliced and toasted over wood coals (the best way to make bruschetta) without breaking apart and soaks up just the right amount of olive oil to strike the delicate balance between dry and dripping-down-your-forearm.    The bread’s lack of flavor means you don’t miss one hint of fruity or grassy or spicy or fresh or mellowed extra-virgin olive oil, and you can pick things up with more or less salt sprinkled on top and, though the purist jury is out, a clove of garlic rubbed over the top.  The role that traditional Umbrian bread plays in constructing the perfect slice of bruschetta is enough to redeem it, in my book.

It grows on you.

Hmm…now that I think about it, I have acquired a bit of a taste for this region’s bread.  Okay, okay.  I guess the Umbrians haven’t lied after all.


  1. George |

    MMM . . . la scarpetta . . . il panino . . . la bruschetta (Arturo’s, with garlic) – more to miss about visiting Assisi (nothing beats the cheese bread, though).

  2. Gil |

    I seem to remember that the traditional bread in Florence does not contain salt. I might be wrong, but I’m sure a friend on my daughter or my daughter told me that many years ago.

  3. Jeffery Beam |

    I’ve visted Umbria twice, staying at a friend’s tower along the moat in Umbertide. I LOVE the native Umbrian bread that I’ve bought at the bakery near the Rocco, and the bread we’ve had at the Albergo Capponi, as well as throughout the region as far as Norcia. We (myself and my traveling companions – my partner is a chef) find it a delightful change to the Tuscan bread of which you speak. I won’t agree that it doesn’t have flavor – but I certainly agree that it is a perfect accompaniment to Umbrian food. Try it with the softer pecorinos – or chestnut honey. Divine. But perhaps I was Umbrian in a past life. Feels that way. Gil is correct in that traditional bread in Firenze does not contain salt either. Ciao!

    • rebecca |

      Jeffrey and Gil…I did a little research and found that, aside from the Papal tax question, many areas in rural Italy which used mountain spring water in their cooking (including bread making) tended to make saltless bread because the water itself is so rich in mineral salts, so they were able to get those nutrients simply by using their water to make the dough. This might explain why areas of Tuscany also historically make saltless bread….

  4. Rosemary |

    You really hit the nail on the head! That’s exactly how I felt the first time I tried Umbrian (and dare I say, Tuscan) bread. But once you discover the secret of it’s “subtle” flavors, i.e. edible fork and toasted/grilled for enjoying olive oil – but first rubbed with a clove of garlic, drizzled with the extra virgin and sprinkled liberally with salt — it is totally amazing! Your post made me smile with my memories. Grazie!

    • rebecca |

      I seem to have hit a nerve with many who have had close encounters with Umbrian bread! Thanks, Rosemary, for you comments!

  5. Tina |

    It’s the one single thing I don’t miss about living in Umbria! And one of the greatest things I love about living in Puglia – the bread. :-)

    • rebecca |

      Tina, that’s so funny…when I can find it, I always get pane pugliese at the bakery! Umbria misses you, however…don’t get too carried away by the charms of Puglia!

  6. Ilario |

    My grandmother, who lives in Cantalice (Rieti) used to bake this unsalted bread too. Me and my family live near Rome but still buy only this “pane sciapo”. We love it: it’s just perfect for scarpetta or with some slices of fresh prosciutto.
    We don’t like roman bread, insted: too chewy and a little burnt.

    • rebecca |

      Hi Ilario…it may be that explanation regarding the use of naturally salted mineral water, as Rieti is an area which is rich in spring water as well. Yes, I agree…I don’t like breads which are too cooked crust!

  7. Liz |

    Traditional Umbrian bread is the reason I learned to make bread! I’ve even won over my Italian husband, who up until recently insisted that the local bread was better for the reasons you reference in “La Scarpetta.” Salt! Give me salt!


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