While recently browsing a Slow Food mercatino, one of many set up in small Italian towns on a Sunday, I came upon a bizarre braided bread product called ciambella a cancello. About 15 cm in diameter (approximately 6 inches), this gorgeous looking bread product is an ancient Mentana specialty. Mentana is a small village located North East of Rome along the ancient Via Nomentana. The consular road acted as a bypass to lighten traffic on very busy Via Salaria – the main salt trade route into Rome. Via Nomentana travels from Rome to Nomentum, which is now modern day Mentana, the birthplace of our tasty treat.
First written accounts of this savory bread date back to the early 18th century. At that time the ciambella a cancello was an Easter holiday preparation, with its criss-crossed wreath motif it is clearly inspired by the Holy Cross and the crown of thorns, symbols of the Catholic celebration. Ciambella a cancello is now made year round, but given the long and elaborate preparation, it is mostly made at home. The dough is obatined by mixing olive oil, anise seeds, wine, water and all purpose flour.
The flavor of the ciambella a cancello is characterised by the aromatic notes lent by anise seeds left whole in the dough. The crunch and chewyness of the dough is given by the ciambella a cancello’s bizarre baking method. The procedure is very similar to the one used in making taralli from Puglia – these are ropes of fatty dough formed into rings which are boiled and left to coll overnight. The next day the ciambelle are baked in a hot oven for an hour.
The slow extinction of ciambella a cancello knowledge handed down from generation to generation has made this a rare and lesser known product of the Lazio tradition. Slow Food has entered ciambella a cancello into its register of endangered of extinction foods and recipes, Arca del Gusto. The initiative sets a noble goal: Arca del Gusto takes not of the existence of these products, exposes the risk of their disappearance and invites everyone to do something to protect them. Likewise, we suggest that the next time you chance upon ciambella a cancello, you purchase one and taste it. Spread the word and talk about these rare and almost forgotten preparations, and in so doing help out in maintaining traditions and flavors alive.
I’ll be enjoying my ciambella a cancello as a snack for aperitivo tonight, along with brined olives, cubed cheese and a beautiful glass of Lazio wine.
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, freelance food and travel writer, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her shows “ABCheese” and “Uazz’america” are broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso Channel. Her podcast “iCheese” is recorded live on the Radio Food Live network.