The Bread and the Executioner: a short story from Turin


Have you ever wondered how the sandwich bread was born? I am talking about that squared bread cut into slices that we all use to make sandwiches, everywhere on this planet.

Like many recipes, from every culinary tradition, there is a story behind it’s origin, which in this case is pretty sad but turned out into a product that is now consumed by billions of people, on a daily basis, in 5 continents.

To make the story clear you must understand that before the 1800s bread was pretty often baked in the shape of a big half-domed loaf to be cut into slices, like the famous “Toscano” bread which still today is very popular in central Italy (although nowadays we do prepare dozens of different breads with different flours, different loaf shapes and ingredients, based on the creativity and the expertise of the bakers).

Toscano Bread – photo from google images

Now that you know what the usual shape of bread-loaf was in Italy at the beginning of the 1800s, let’s move to Torino, where the sandwich bread was born.

Among the several employees of the Municipality of Torino there always was a man in charge of executing the criminals who were sentenced to death. In Torino such executions were done by hanging. Executions were “public shows” that people were invited to watch, meant as a warning, for anyone, about the possible consequences of a criminal offense. In fact the executions were used to gather dozens of citizens and were held at a specific place in town which still today is called “the Hanging Roundabout”. It is nowadays a big crossroads, halfway between the south and the north area of the city. The day before the execution the convicted was taken from the prison to a Church in central Turin called “the Church of Mercy”. The next morning the friars had to provide the prisoner with his last meal – the so called 11 o’clock broth – then, after putting a black cape on this head, they had to walk him to the Hanging Roundabout and deliver him (or her) into the hands of the public Executioner. After asking the forgiveness of the convicted for what he was going to do, the Executioner proceeded with the hanging, until “the soul separates from the body”.

The Hanging Roundabout – Torino

The story is in fact sad and, although the executions were open to the public and the Executioner was a public employee, nobody in town liked him, thus he was the recipient of several misbehaviours. The last Executioner of Torino, who recorded all the executions he performed, on a notebook, was used to defend himself by saying that it was his job, not a pleasure. When he was going to a grocery store to buy his food, he was asked to place the coins he intended to use for paying his food into a bowl filled with vinegar, meant to erase every trace of the contact with his hands. Even the public officials in charge of paying his salary didn’t want to deal with him directly, thus once a month, on pay day, the Executioner was asked to wait at the entrance of the Court of Appeal (the public body in charge of his salary), until the official signed the payment receipt. Then, another employee was used to pick the receipt with the fireplace pincers and let if fall through the stairwell, thus the Executioner had to pick it from the floor.

Among the several mistreatements of which the Executioner was the subject, there was one, which he found very offensive, performed by the bakers. Every time he went into a bakery to buy his bread the bakers were used to throw the loaf on the shop desk in way to make it land upside down. The Toscano type bread is flat at the bottom and half domed on the upper side, in fact. Still today the Italians consider the misplacement of bread on the table a sign of misfortune.

The last Executioner of Torino in half 1800s was named Pietro Pantoni, he lived in a flat provided him by the municipality and was getting the impressive salary of 2000 liras per month (twice as much the salary of a Univeristy Teacher). Mr. Pantoni was undergoing several mistreatements, including the throwing of the bread but he couldn’t tolerate his wife to be mistreated likewise.

Being a public employee he wrote a letter to the Mayor of Torino complaining about the bakers. The Mayor had to take his complains seriously, and after some investigations he published a declaration which invited “all the bakers who do not want to become customers of the Executioner” to refrain from any offensive behaviour against him and his family members.

Based on the decision of public authority the bakers, altogether, opted for their creativity and, aiming at still be allowed to throw the loaf on the desk every time the Executioner stepped into their shop, they created a loaf with no good or bad side: a squared bread. Such loaf is in fact called “Pan Carrè” in Italian (from the french word Carrée – squared).

The story ends up with us all having a bread that we used pretty much on a daily basis and the Executioner of Torino still having to cope with the hatred of his fellow citizens. Think of this story next time you have a sandwich.

Pan Carrè – photo from Google images

9 thoughts on “The Bread and the Executioner: a short story from Turin

  1. I have read several convincing histories regarding the birth of sliced bread. All of which place it in different locations. All involving real people but bound up with “stories” passed through the generations. Have you heard of John Montagu 4th? Clearly there’s no way of truly knowing who came up with it first.

    Liked by 1 person

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