Let there always be Pane Nero di Castelvetrano

by Luigi Guarino on February 11, 2014

It all started with a photo of “tumminia bread” on Instagram. It looked yummie, but I’d never heard of tumminia. A picturesque hamlet? A time-honoured though back-breaking mode of preparation? Some ancient grain hanging on precariously on the outskirts of encroaching modernity? A treasured local variety of wheat nurtured by gnarled rustics? I had to know. A little googling revealed that the name refers to an ingredient in the Pane Nero di Castelvetrano, a dark bread made in a small town in the Sicilian province of Trapani.

The bread is made using a leaven system. The flour mix is 80% local and refined semolina durum, described as “blonde grain”. I believe this will be the equivalent grind to “rimacinata”, if I’m not wrong. The other 20% of the flour is from the tumminia durum wheat grain, which is milled quite coarsely, and is a wholegrain flour.

So the next job was to hunt down in genebanks that treasured local variety of durum. Because how long will it continue to be nurtured by gnarled Sicilian rustics in the picturesque hamlet of Castelvetrano, out there on the outskirts of modernity? Thankfully, Genesys says that there are two accessions of tumminia at ICARDA and another two at IPK. They’re not duplicates, I don’t think, the former having been collected in 1973 and the latter in 1985. They all come from Sicily, but the ICARDA accessions from near Aragona, some 100 km southeast of Castelvetrano along the coast, and the IPK accessions from Bisacquino, which is a bit closer, about 60 km east, in the mountains. So several picturesque hamlets are involved, or at least that was the case 30-40 years ago.

Anyway, if you go to the European Wheat Database you get a little bit of additional information, but unfortunately I can’t link to it, so I’ll have to hand-hold you through it. See that thing that says “single search” down the left-hand side? Click on it, and where is says accession name, type tumminia to get to the IPK accessions; now click on either accession number. You’ll get to the passport information on our Sicilian durum accession. Scroll down and on the right-hand side you’ll see a button marked “Link to pedigree catalogue.” If you click on that you’ll land on the entry for tumminia in Zeven’s Genealogies of 14000 wheat varieties, published in 1976. Which says that it is a Spanish landrace.1 Awkward. Maybe the gnarled rustics that originally nurtured tumminia are in altogether a different picturesque hamlet, in a different country? Or maybe Zeven was wrong.

Be that as it may, I think we can rest assured that, genetically speaking at least, the key ingredient of Pane Nero di Castelvetrano is probably pretty safe. Even if fewer picturesque hamlets grow tumminia nowadays than formerly, and for all I know the opposite is true, there are those 4 accessions to fall back on, in two separate genebanks, plus safety duplications, and probably even Svalbard. Now to make sure that back-breaking mode of preparation is likewise safe from encroaching modernity.

Footnotes:
  1. You can also get there from the Genetic Resources Information System for Wheat and Triticale. Thanks to whoever tweets for CIMMYT for that. []

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Jacob February 12, 2014 at 1:54 am

Sicily was part of Aragon and then Spain some time ago.

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Jacob February 12, 2014 at 2:27 am

Tumminia mentioned here, saying it’s all the same thing.

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Jeremy Cherfas February 12, 2014 at 9:20 am

I went looking for some etymological roots, and came up with a possible explanation for the name. Italian Wikipedia has: “Tumminia – a cultivar of Sicilian wheat that ripens in three months (from Greek τρεσ μηναιός), used in the preparation of the black bread of Castelvetrano”. A Greek root would make perfect sense for a Sicilian wheat.

And that Greek, a colleague on an etymology forum pointed out, is “similar to, but not correctly so, Ancient Greek; so they are either misspelt or Modern Greek. In any case, they should mean something like ‘trimestral’.”

Job done? Not quite.

Another etymologist boasted impeccable credentials. “In Palermo my parents-in-law often buy pane di tumminìa (tumminia bread), which they also call pane di farina di tumminìa, (tumminia wheat bread).” He added that apparently alternative spellings are timminia and trimminia. That last one is very close to the “three month” angle.

So, back to database hell with you.

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Jeremy Cherfas February 14, 2014 at 3:16 pm

This just in, from the etymologist with impeccable credentials:

I got the following information from my father-in-law:
• Tumminia wheat (furmentu di tumminìa in Sicilian) is also called timilìa, although he thinks that few people know this. He did not mention neither timminìa nor trimminìa.
• Tùmmino or tùmminu (I’m always adding accents for clarity – they are not wrong but usually not written) means two things in Sicilian:
• A measure of land area, called tomolo or tumulo in Italian
• A measure of weight
When I observed that the alternative name timilìa appears to confirm the possible derivation from the pair tumminu and tomolo (or tumulo), he was skeptical, but to me his skepticism is a further confirmation that there is no artificial derivation going on here. I think that the derivation from Greek may well have been made up recently.

He explained to me that tumminia wheat used to be grown when it was clear that a crop of regular wheat was lost for some reason, because it would still be harvested in time (because of its fast ripening). The downside is its low production, but it has upsides too, like, when turned into tumminia bread, also called Castelvetrano bread in Palermo, its peculiar taste and its preservability.

In my opinion, furmentu di tumminìa could mean something like “wheat of fielding” (I’m inventing fielding here, in the sense of “using the field in another way, instead of wasting it because of a crop failure”).

All of which just adds to the fun.

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Jeremy Shapiro June 9, 2014 at 8:41 pm

Hey Jeremy, we always cross paths….I just used some of this flour the past week, fabulous, and yet it’s a mix of the Pane Nero di Castelvetrano specifically, it has all the local flour from Molini del Ponte..

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