Madia

The first thing you see when you come in the side door of my house in the country is the madia. A waist-high box, over a meter long, it’s more elegant than the usual kitchen type for beading frames the front panel and the drawer at the bottom. The hinged top can be raised, revealing about two dozen Holy cards of various saints and the Virgin Mary attached to the lid inside, now protected by a sheet of plastic. This was a madia where the week’s supply of bread, and the starter, or lievito madre, was stored in its deep interior. Madia, a word that goes back to the Latin for serving dish, and the Greek maghis for bread, that staple of life. The spacious bottom drawer now contains photographs and family documents that bear witness to the life story of a family that in a sense immigrated to and not from Italy.

Mario, my archaeologist husband, had acquired the madia in Colfiorito up in the mountains above Foligno where he was working on a dig. It had belonged to a peasant family, he told me, who were quite happy to exchange it for a trunk in which to store their daughter’s corredo or trousseau. In that case, the madia would have been known as cassone. The treasure chest for the future generation. Dowry, trousseau, wedding chest or cassone.  A simple chest like this though cannot compare to the Renaissance wedding or marriage chests, elaborately carved or painted with scenes of daily life, now to be seen in museums.

Our son Claudio was two or three at the time and, when we could, I drove up from Orvieto for the weekend. I had by then become used to steep roads with hairpin curves and enjoyed the golden broom in full bloom at this time of year. Colfiorito was a not much more than a village in a plain known for its potatoes, lentils and lamb. Claudio was of course the darling of the archaeological team and Mario’s assistant was a young archaeologist who was engaged at the time with an overly possessive fiancé She, however, fell in love with and married the young man who, as geometer, was documenting the dig. Her ex-fiancé said it was all Mario’s fault that she ditched him. Later she became head of the archaeological department of Umbria.

Once upon a time, every house had its madia. But that was when everyone still made their own bread. A bread that was dense, like pound cake. But better. Bread made every two weeks to last till it was time for the next batch. Bread that was baked, along with everyone else’s bread, in a wood burning oven where, once the fire was out, the embers were pushed to one side and the bricks slowly released the heat to bake the bread. And perhaps even a chicken and potatoes with rosemary for Sunday dinner, and perhaps even a whole pig stuffed with garlic and fennel greens with a fantastic crackling crust. After an eight-hour stay in the oven, the pig or porchetta would be taken to the market where slices, still warm, would be stuffed into fresh rolls. Ideally you could sit in an osteria and accompany your mid-morning snack with a quartino of wine. Mario had described it beautifully in his book on the Etruscan, for, as he said, it was more than just the food alone. “The other evening I was invited to eat the “porchetta”, that is a pig roasted whole. It’s not just a matter of eating, the sin of gluttony that can be satisfied. But there is something more profound and antique. The enjoyment of the table, of a rite that also has its aesthetic aspects (before eating the “porchetta” it is brought in whole to show it off, out of the oven and still on a long pole), the epidermic pleasure of being in company, of being with friends, of warming oneself at the same source. It is the ceremony sealed by a tart-sweet wine, the new wine, the still cloudy must. This is . . . the kind of archaeology I prefer.”

But to get back to the madia and the bread. During the week the women would come to the oven in the morning, bearing their loaves on a long board balanced on their heads. The best bread I ever had was in a peasant family where they still had their white oxen and where the moment guests arrived the women would make tagliatelle and roast chicken with rosemary and potatoes liberally drenched with olive oil. Of course if it was Easter but that is another story and it wasn’t just bread.

But whether it was the Easter cheese or cinnamon torta, curiously enough called pizza di Pasqua, or the loaves of bread marked with a cross cut into the loaf on top, what they all had in common was their use of the lievito madre, the starter, a richly poetic name for the sourdough yeast base. Lievito madre and bread, the mother and her children, safeguarded in the madia. An ageless mother who was carefully attended to and renewed every week.  Who knows when the “mother” in the family madia had first been prepared, then carefully nurtured, to sustain the coming generations.

This was also where the flour was stored, as necessary to the lievito madre as it in turn was to the bread. Come June, in the peasant families when sharecropping was still in force (discontinued in Italy in 1964), the father would look at the wheat, the flour, and calculate if it would last till the new crop of wheat would be harvested. The padrone, the owner, would get his share, theirs would be stored for the coming year. This was mezzadria or sharecropping.  Supposedly a fifty-fifty agreement with the landlord owner providing the seed and the house, the sharecropper and his family the work. Contracts such as one from the 15th century enumerated the responsibilities of both partners. The landowner provided the land and the farmhouse; the oxen and swine whose cost would be defrayed later and half the seeds and fertilizer. Other animals and fodder would be provided but half would be paid for in kind when the contract expired. In return the peasants had to provide their labor, keep the ditches clean, hoe the fields, provide the owner with capons and eggs, give the owner half the harvest and half all produce. (See text Le Ripe in Chianti 2012, for further details).

The madia was perhaps the most essential piece of furniture in a peasant household, a treasure chest for the family’s survival where the sourdough was safely kept throughout the year.  

My madia may not be an “antique” but it is a reminder of summers in the hills, of hunting for mushrooms, of meals shared, of a dig with all its camaraderie, of an introduction into archaeology for my 3-year-old son, of a chance for father and son to strengthen their bond.

3 thoughts on “Madia

  1. Lovely images, lovingly recounted. I had forgotten mezzadria meant sharecropping. I can smell the bread and the porchetta!

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  2. Erika Of course I remember that Madia! But what a memory you have and such a deft way with beautiful details— you are our Proust. Love James

    Sent from my iPhone

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  3. As usual, thanks to you, I am learning things. We first encountered the word “madia” when looking for a piece of furniture that could become a bathroom cabinet. The woodworker who brought all of our best furniture back to life had a gigantic stack of neglected ancient “madie” that he kept in an old barn.

    To his dismay, our tough, brilliant Sicilian architect, Gabriella, pointed to the one at the very top of the pile, several stories up: “I want to see that one.” (The next time you come to our house, you will see that she was absolutely right.)

    I had always wanted to have a better understanding about the sharecropping system under which many generations of our neighbors, the Galli family, had worked their beautiful land. Thanks to you, Erika, I found this: https://fromatuscanhillside.blogspot.com/2013/08/slavery-serfdom-and-mezzadri-view-from.html?m=1

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