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Calabrian Easter Bread, Key Ingredients, and Sensorial Transnational Connections

Calabrian Easter Bread, Key Ingredients, and Sensorial Transnational Connections

Joan L Saverino (April 2, 2018)
Joan Saverino
Muccellati made by author Easter 2018

Muccellatu, in regional language, is the word for the Easter bread made in San Giovanni in Fiore, Calabria, made distinct by, ananzu, wild anise seed. The author discusses the concept of a key ingredient, transnational connections and the role of the senses, especially memory.



Every year at Easter, if I am lucky, I have the wild ananzu (anice in Italian) to add to the muccellatu (plural muccellati). This anise is the key ingredient in the Easter bread of San Giovanni in Fiore, a town in the Calabrian Sila mountains. For the San Giovannesi, sans the ananzu, it is not really muccellatu. These small thin black seeds release a marvelous fragrance and impart a robust licorice flavor unmatched by any other anise seed. The aroma not only lingers in my kitchen as the bread bakes but resides long after in my olfactory memory.


Muccellati made by author, 2013

I make this braided egg bread annually to reinvigorate the memories of flavors, scents, images, and stories that would otherwise be lost to me.  If I am lucky, as I am this year, I have the ananzu to put in my bread. Anthropologist David Sutton, who studies food in Greece, calls such evocations a gustemic way of knowing which brings together food, memory, and all the senses.  Memory, Sutton emphasizes, should be the focal point because memory itself is a “sensory capacity”.

Great-grandmother Anna Guarascio Peluso in her garden 1970s

Author at left, grandmother Catarina Peluso Sansalone, and cousin Jim Peluso, 1957

When I am in the kitchen recreating the foods of youth and family, I experience a flight of imagination to past times and places. The earliest memories are those of my childhood in the West Virginia hills, home to many San Giovannesi whose immigrant ancestors found work in the coal mines. It is there where my maternal grandmother Catarina and great-grandmother Anna recreated the tastes of their home village. I learned to make muccellatu (called cuculu when raw eggs are baked in it), from Catarina. 

Wet ingredients with ananzu

Kneading the dough 2015


Raised dough 2018

Muccellati braided, 2nd rise, 2017

Muccellati 2017


When I moved away from West Virginia as a young woman, it became a displaced world for me. San Giovanni in Fiore was an imagined place for me as a child. It was fascinating to me because of my great-grandmother Anna’s stories until I visited and finally lived there to do research. Upon leaving, it too became displaced for me. Although I return to both sites, they have changed and many of the people I knew decades ago are long deceased.  Now I reimagine them in space and time primarily through food creation and consumption.  

Author under medieval arch in the center of historic area, San Giovanni in Fiore, 2016

Muccellati 2015

As a child, I just accepted the ananzu as an ingredient in the Easter bread I gobbled down. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned how Anna obtained those seeds. Unable to find ananzu in the United States, Anna’s Calabrian nephews shipped this key ingredient to her every year so that she could make muccellatu. A box packed with Calabrian cheeses like butirro and forbidden meats like soppressata and capocollo and other seasonal delicacies made it through the mail somehow at least twice a year. When it arrived, Anna shared its contents with her grown family. She apportioned three equal amounts of the anise– one of which she kept and the other two went to two daughters with families of their own.

With my great-grandmother’s death in 1988, the ananzu stopped arriving. Anna’s youngest daughter Mary was forced to drop this essential ingredient when her mother died. She never visited San Giovanni and it is she who initiated a significant change to the recipe.

One Easter a number of years ago when I returned to West Virginia, she offered me Easter bread. She explained that because the arthritis in her hands had become too debilitating rendering kneading virtually impossible, out of convenience she began making the bread with yellow cake mix. This was startling news to me. Although I didn’t verbalize my assessment, to my taste it neither resembled bread in texture nor did it approximate the muccellatu in flavor.  She, however, proclaimed it a worthy adaptation primarily due to how easy it was to make. 

We know that language disappears first among immigrants while foodways endures the longest. But how and what food traditions persist are always within the context of the adopted place, local and regional influences, available ingredients, and the changes that ensue with each generation. In that mix too are the particularities of individual and familial food preferences and the cook’s desire to continue with the work of it all. 

The ananzu is still collected by older San Giovannesi in the fall when the flowers from the plant have turned to seed in the fields toward Crotone on the Adriatic coast, an area that is hotter and more arid than the Sila. On one return visit, I decided to find the ananzu which is not sold commercially.  Upon asking about it, one of those adventures ensued that make traveling exciting.

Someone pointed me to a natural food store and, although they didn’t have any to sell, they called Francesco Tiano, a man whom they knew who collected it. Characteristic of San Giovannese generosity, he walked from his home to meet me with branches of the plant with the seeds still attached. 

Francesco Tiano and my son, San Giovanni in Fiore, summer 2000

Whenever I go to San Giovanni, I try to buy some. Without it, I must substitute the less satisfactory domestic anise and liquid anisette.  Because the ananzu is hand harvested, it is quite expensive but I am willing to pay the dear asking price. One can also buy it on the internet for an exorbitant $50 an ounce. For a few hours duration, with the physical production from dough to braids to rings, the licorice fragrance permeates my house as the muccellati bake. Displaced worlds become reimagined and activate a magical conjuring of childhood memories into an edible present.

Question: Do readers know if any other regions use wild anice in Easter bread? What are your sensory memories of foods?

Thanks to Felicia Romano McMahon for the concept of key ingredients in a discussion many years ago

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