While walking through Florence this morning, I happened to catch a snippet of conversation in front of a local bakery: ‘Yes, actually, the priest was here this morning to bless the bread’. Pausing, I noticed the tray of soft, round buns flecked with zibbibo raisins and rosemary sprigs, and remembered—today is Holy Thursday. And in the Florentine tradition, come the morning of giovedì santo, parish priests visit area bakeries to bless the just-baked rosemary bread known as pan di ramerino (ramerino is rosemary in the Tuscan dialect).
More or less the Italian version of the hot cross bun, pan di ramerino is around throughout much of the year, yet remains highly associated with Holy Thursday in particular. While contemporary pan di ramerino has surely evolved from its medieval prototype—consider the addition of sugar, for instance—the ingredients used traditionally to make pan di ramerino continue to account for its symbolic appearance at this point in the liturgical cycle. Beyond the obvious cross design, the rosemary and rosemary oil recall the aromatic oils applied to the body of Jesus Christ on the cross, much like the traditional Roman focaccia with fennel seeds, also prepared this time of year. Then, the simple addition of milk and eggs to pan di ramerino renders the buns soft and light, transforming the bread from one that would otherwise have been ‘lean’ to one fitting the close of the Lenten fast and the transition to the festal Easter period.