Saint Agatha’s bread from Castelvecchio Subequo

A couple of years ago I went to wander around the tiny village of Castelvecchio Subequo in the Province of L’Aquila. It still keeps the original fortified structure that historians date back to Roman times, when the ancient settlement Superaequm, one of the most important centres of the Peligni people, stood here. Despite its small size, Castelvecchio Subequo thrived for centuries as a centre of saffron cultivation and a religious hub with a school of Theology and Philosophy established in the Convent of San Francesco in the 14th century.

Castelvecchio Subequo, photo by fabriziobarbati/Instagram

The village still boasts architectural gems from the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque period: majestic churches, noble palaces, an ornate 17th-century fountain, impressive ancient doors, a crumbling glorious castle.

On a small street running from the main square with the magnificent Convent of San Francesco, through an open door, I saw two women piling up delicious-looking buns in baskets. As it turned out, it was a local bakery and the ladies were preparing for the feast of Sant’Agata. The village celebrates it twice a year, February 4-5 and August 20. The legend of Saint Agatha, or Agatha of Sicily, tells a story of a beautiful young woman, who chose to remain celibate and give herself to God and a life of prayer. Despite her vows, some high-ranking men kept making advances but were consistently spurned by Agatha. Enraged by her strong faith, one of them subjected the devote young woman to unimaginable torture and had her breasts cut off. She was canonized later and till this day the feast of Sant’Agata is celebrated with breads shaped as breasts.

In Castelvecchio Subequo, the local bakery makes sweet and savoury pagnotte di Sant’Agata (buns of Saint Agatha). It fires up the oven during the night to make sure that hundreds of buns are ready for February 4, when the pagnotte are blessed at the celebratory mass and distributed among the villagers to be eaten the day after.

The cult of Saint Agatha is strong in Sicily and many people have tasted minne di Sant’Agata (Saint’Agatha’s breasts), rich luxurious ricotta cakes topped with a cherry. The buns from Abruzzo are more humble and very few people know about them. Here, the traditional recipe calls for solina flour (a local ancient grain, although, today, white wheat flour is often used), yeast, oil, eggs, aniseed and salt or sugar. In the old days, rich families used up to a dozen of eggs to make the pagnotte, while poor families managed without them and added a few boiled mashed potatoes instead. See the recipe here (in Italian).

On February 5, there is a big fair in the village, the first one of the year. For centuries, it was a big affair, with many artisans and farmers selling their goods: golden jewellery, copper cookware, shoes, clothes, sheep, pigs, cows. Nowadays, the market is smaller but still an important event for the villagers.

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