There is something incredibly relaxing, hypnotic and poetic in observing the movements of the expert hands preparing Christmas sweets. Skillful gestures, capable of transforming simple ingredients into one of the standard-bearers of Terni’s gastronomy: pampepato. An ancestral rhythm that once discovered is never abandoned. This is the magic that is repeated every Christmas in the houses of lower Umbria and it is a spell as powerful as the love that is instilled in the recipe, of which it has always been the secret ingredient, is strong.
What I have just described to you was, in short, my first encounter with the pampepato: the festive coarse-grained dessert typical of the area where I found myself living after Rome, Brussels and Turin. Protagonist of the Christmas tables and unmissable item on the desserts menu of the Terni holidays, this dome-shaped sweet enjoys such a delicious crunchiness and such a high variety of flavors that you will not be able to find your version of dreams.
In the full version of my first encounter with the pampepato tradition, it was December 8 a couple of years ago. I was in the kitchen checking off some work chores when suddenly my boyfriend’s mother entered out of nowhere armed with pepper, chocolate, must and dried fruit with all the intention of preparing pampepati. With the holiday in sight, this dessert was made to pay homage to friends and relatives. Needless to say, I shut down the computer right away.
In the meantime she proceeded with the recipe handed down rigorously from generation to generation with the serenity and (almost) the thoughtfulness that only gestures repeated over the years can give. I found myself observing her rapid movements and her hands. Hands that, on a regular basis, either mixed the ingredients in the pot, or crushed them to form small domes of 4-5 cm each, or again, in the final phase of preparation, wrapped the small loaves in film and aluminum.
Because you must know that between the preparation and delivery of pampepati to friends and relatives, there is a very particular phase in which the Terni houses — or rather, the kitchens, dining rooms and even living rooms — are transformed into a sort of lunar station in miniature. Because every inch of surface will shine silver from the foil used to wrap the pampepati for cooling. I confess that the first time I saw this performance I thought I was on the stage of a space themed concert by Jack White in Brussels which I attended years ago.
But when do you eat pampepato? Basically it is THE real highlight that will accompany Terni’s breakfasts and after dinners from 8 December until 14 February, the feast of the city’s patron saint. But, at least for the Christmas holidays, the trolleys of sweets cannot honestly be defined as such if there are not at least two types of pampepati: one homemade and one given away. But what fascinates me most about all this tradition is that pampepato can be said to be much more than a simple sum of ingredients, albeit simple and genuine such as pepper, chocolate, honey, cooked must, coffee, assorted spices and flour. The Pampepato, here in lower Umbria, is (above all) a family business.
Because it doesn’t matter who you talk to in Terni: everyone will have the conviction that they have the definitive recipe; it will also have been included in regional cookbooks since 1800, but the truth is that, when it comes to pampepato, we travel between history, material culture and curiosity and the only guidelines are those suggested by the recipes that every family handed down from generation to generation . There may be walnuts and not almonds, there may be chocolate and very little must, but there is an ingredient that can never be missing: pepper, which, with its exotic references, even gives its name to this delight.
If I am here to tell you about one of the most characteristic Christmas sweets of the place where I found myself living after Brussels, Paris, London and Turin, it is because this sweet smells of beautiful stories to be told in front of a crackling fireplace. And the story that every 8 December is repeated in hundreds of homes, that smells of spices and sweetness, together with the traditional preparation of the Christmas tree. Pampepato, in Terni, means sharing between relatives and friends, which almost inadvertently triggers a kind of tacit competition over who has the best recipe (and yield). Also the art of keeping a little space in the stomach at the end of the gargantuan eating opportunities. And lastly, we keep time to guess what are the ingredients in that particular pampepato preserves.
And this last reference to time is not accidental: often pampepati represent a very heated topic of conversation between family members or friends: starting with the name (Pampepato or panpepato? In the end, both versions are fine). Then move on to supplying the best ingredients at the best price and guessing which family that particular recipe belongs to. This can often take several hours, if not days. Charming.
We just have to conclude this short journey in Terni’s gastronomy with a toast of happy holidays with a Belgian Christmas Ale, a perfect bouquet to warm up cold winter evenings and accompany Christmas and chocolate desserts. Cooked must, cocoa beans, dried fruit, pepper: does it remind you of anything? The name leaves no room for imagination, it has to be said: here is the Pampepata di Birra Magester, an Umbrian aritgianale brewery, awarded the title “Beer of the Year” in 2019.