Panigacci and Crescentine: distant harmonies

The tastebudding traveller will at some point or other have visited the beautiful and quiet area of il Frignano, just south of Modena: here, since time immemorial, people have cooked crescentine between chestnut leaves and the red-hot stones of the fireplace. These travellers might also have been to Podenzana, on the slopes of Aulla in north-western Tuscany, where panigacci are cooked in a very similar way: in plates of glowing terracotta.
In both cases, we are dealing with a dough made from water, flour and salt, accompanied by whatever lies to hand: lard, charcuterie, cheeses… It depends on the historical period, and the bounty of the larder.

From a gastronomic point of view, these two foods couldn’t be more different. The Modenese crescentine – which everyone really calls tigelle, the name of the stones they are cooked between – are crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle. Traditionally, they used the simplest of doughs; our pampered modern palates demand something richer, so lard and oil and yeast have found their way into the mix. The popularity of crescentine, which are nothing more than a precursor to street food, has given rise to an industry of electric cooking devices: tigelliere, two fire-resistant plates that perform the function of the original stone tigelle. The crescentine break in half and are filled with good stuff. The proper Frignanese version – as far as I’m concerned – is filled with a mixture of lard, garlic, pepper and rosemary; but really, imagination is the only limit. Young people are crazy for the dessert version, filled with Nutella…

The “traditional” panigaccio from Podenzana is obtained from a liquid dough poured into shallow terracotta bowls, superheated on the fire. They cook in no time at all, and once brought to the table they can be filled in a number of ways. A long time ago they were rather like the mense served at church, and were stuffed with whatever was available. Olive oil and cheese, charcuterie and herbs are the staples. Modernity has contributed its own – boiled – version, garnished in three ways: with olive oil and cheese, with mushrooms and tomatoes, and – the most enjoyable of the lot – with an array of high-quality cold cuts. Naturally, panigaccio has not escaped the Nutella contamination either!

Many similarities, many differences, but a general idem sentire of uncertain origins. But we can have a go at explaining the connection. Since the 1700s, the Via Vandelli has linked Frignano with the Garfagnana, just a short step from Podenzana. It’s a pretty tenuous theory, but given that cuisine is a process of cross-pollination, who’s to say otherwise? Certainly no one with a crescentina in one hand and panigaccio in the other!