These four elemental ingredients – grain from the fields, water from the rivers and mountain streams, leavening from the wild yeasts in the air, and salt from the sea – have been combined since Roman times to make the breads of Italy.
In a country where family is the primary source of physical and emotional sustenance, bread celebrates the richest and simplest pleasures of daily living. It is the single inevitable presence at the table during all three meals of the day, for no Italian would contemplate a meal without bread.
Walk past a bakery and you’ll often see displays of grain in the window so people can learn about they are eating. Go inside and you’ll notice that each bread is labelled not only with its name but also with every ingredient.
Each region boasts its own variations on bread from Pane Toscano o Pane Sciocco (Saltless Tuscan Bread) to the Roman pagnotta to the Milanese michetta. Every city and hill town has its own unique baking traditions. In a country scarred in medieval times by cities that fought ferociously with the closest neighbours to prove their supremacy, their dedication to local alliances led them to stamp their own identity not only on the landscape but on the foods as well.
This rich, complex and combative heritage influences Italian baking and is embellished by the reality that everyone from the Saracens to the Austrians conquered different regions and left their culinary signature behind. The porous and crunchy Pugliese bread of the south is a legacy of the brown country loaf brought by the Turks who long ago walked the streets of Apulia; the famous michetta roll of Milan was born of the Kaisersemmel of Vienna, which was brought to Milan by the Austrian cavalry in the late 1800s.
In the country at large, there are more names for the shapes of bread than the Eskimos have words for snow. Italian bakers say there may be between one thousand and two thousand different breads in the national repertory, although “only” a few hundred are commonly available, and while there are numbers of typical regional breads – biove from Piedmont, ciope from Venice, crocetta from Ferrara, michetta from Milan, and saltless loaves from Tuscany – within their number each type will have slight variations attributable to the individual bakers.
The taste of the bread is so much a product of the local ingredients, the humidity of the air, the quality of the water, and even the fingers and hands of the bakers that it is said people know immediately when a local baker has died, because the bread suddenly tastes different.
Secrets and techniques for baking bread have been handed down from baker to baker over the years, and they belong to an oral tradition like folk tales and peasant wisdom. Apprentices learn by watching and asking and doing, since this is a tradition that relies not on specific recipes but on formulas that are expressed in proportions.
Ask a baker how he makes the chewy, crunchy crusted bread of his region and he will reply, “Use 2% yeast, 2% salt, 60% water, to 100% flour”. Of course the baker understands exactly what he means, but that leaves a lot of questions unanswered: How does he mix the ingredients? Is the dough proved once, twice or three times to produce the characteristic texture? Is the water added cool or lukewarm?
The bakers’ formulae are merely guidelines, for knowledgeable baking depends on touch, taste, sight, smell and experience – knowing when to add a little water or when to work the dough a little longer. These flexible formulae leave room for each baker’s individuality, his personal touches, and the flashes of imagination that put his stamp on the bread and make it his own.
Unlike the French, who make numerous regional breads and sweets according to quantified recipes and a codified tradition, Italian bakers are forever experimenting and dreaming up new interpretations. If forty bakers in Puglia are making pane Pugliese, you can be sure there will be forty loaves that all taste slightly different.
As in the UK, the old and honourable bakery tradition in Italy, with its roots that reach deep into the Roman past, came under threat with the advent of machinery, but things really took a turn for the worse in the 1950s and 1960s, when huge, high-speed machines were introduced that mixed and kneaded practically as the speed of light and produced cottony breads and bland grissini.
To many people they were a denial of the art of the Italian baker, which was nourished by an agrarian past and by a passionate attachment to local ingredients and customs.
Fortunately the counter-revolution of the last several decades changed the face of baking. It is not that industrial methods have been banished, but that the conformity and lack of imagination connected with them are being challenged by artisan bakers.
These men (and a tiny number of women) have touched a profoundly sensitive nerve in Italians who remember the true tastes of breads, pizzas, focacce, and sweets. They are restoring a real taste to bread, and bringing back a tradition that offers the best of the tastes that have given pleasure to Italians for centuries.
Adapted from “The Italian Baker” by Carol Field.
Who can resist bruschetta rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil, thin crusted pizza with fresh sweet tomatoes and tangy mozzarella or grissini dipped in fresh basil pesto? Once you’ve learned the art of making your own authentic artisan Italian breads, you’ll never go back to the flavourless, doughy imposters sold in the supermarkets.
The breads below represent some of the classic tastes of Italian baking. Recipes are from Shipton Mill’s “Discover Italian Baking” Day taught by Salah Bournemman from our Celtic Bakery.
Many of the recipes for the classic regional breads begin with a starter dough made from small amounts of flour, water and yeast allowed an initial fermentation and then used to infuse the actual bread dough. The starter, known as a biga in Italy (or bighino in small amounts), not only gives strength to what in Italy are weak flours, it also produces a secondary fermentation from which comes the wonderful aroma, natural flavour, and special porosity of the final loaves and wheels of bread. A biga once started, can be kept going indefinitely and like fine wine will only improve with age, but because the first biga must come from somewhere, you can start your own using the recipe here.
Ciabatta means "slipper" in Italian; one glance at the short stubby bread will make it clear how it was named. Ciabatta is a remarkable combination of rustic country texture and elegant and tantalising taste. It is much lighter than its homely shape would indicate, and the porous, chewy interior is enclosed in a slightly crunchy crust that is veiled with flour. Eat it for breakfast; slice it horizontally and stuff it with salami and cheese; slice it on the diagonal, toast on a griddle, rub with the cut side of half a clove of garlic and drizzle with olive oil; or use for bruschetta with a topping of your choice.
Focaccia has become a national dish in Italy. This disk or large rectangle of leavened dough is found from the tiny towns of the Italian Riviera to Naples on the Mediterranean and Ostuni on the Adriatic, but its true home is Genoa, which is to focaccia what Naples is to pizza. It is called focaccia in Genoa and much of Liguria, but it changes names elsewhere. Focacce are simplicity itself; herbs of the countryside and the golden oils of Liguria flavour the interior, while a little local garlic or tiny savoury olives stud its surface. Elsewhere in Italy tomatoes, garlic, oregano, capers, oil, anchovies and cheeses are used to flavour the bread. Bake your own and like the imaginitive bakers of Italy add your own toppings to create a focaccia unique to your own tastes.
If anything indicates the changing pace of Italian life, it's the explosion of panini, the little rolls that appear in numerous shapes and sizes all over Italy. Walk into any caffè bar in Milan, Rome, or other good-sized city after mid-morning and you'll find glass cases full of rolls bursting with the most extraordinarily inventive combinations. Here's lunch between two slices of bread, eaten standing at a counter elbow to elbow with masses of other Italians, who can no longer spend several hours over lunch. Try our recipe and make your working lunch an Italian one!
Most people know grissini as those pale breadsticks in the long waxen envelopes that appear on the tables of Italian restaurants. Sadly these bear about as much resemblance to authentic grissini as packaged industrial white bread does to true country loaves. Real grissini are made of yeast, flour, water, and either olive oil, lard or butter. They are shaped between the hands by gently stretching the dough to about the length of your forearm and are traditionally baked directly on the floor of a wood-burning oven. They are as thick and irregular as knobbly fingers. They have crunch and an earthy taste. Even when made at home using the recipe that follows they are still redolent of the countryside and old ways.
What are pizze (pizzas) but primitive rustic food made of the tastiest ingredients harvested from the fields, the vines of the hillsides, and the seas? Clever Italians simply take a little dough, sprinkle it with the products of the countryside, and turn it into a delicious and edible plate.
Flat or slightly raised with rims, these breads are easier to eat out of the hand than with a knife and fork. As with all Italian breads there is no comparison between the bland, doughy pizza bases churned out by mass production and the delicious, rustic bread base made with a biga starter and a slow fermentation process to develop flavour.
Basil Pesto is a classic accompaniment to breads, grissini and antipasti. We serve it with lunch on our "Discover Italian Baking" day and the recipe is re-produced here by popular demand from the students!
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We are beyond excited to announce the launch our first cookbook with Headline Publishing.
“A Handful Of Flour” explores a myriad of flours and their different flavours, in a selection of well-worked classic recipes with a fresh and contemporary twist.
More than just a baking book, this is a book to introduce you to cooking with flour in general, from popular and classic varieties to ancient grains and gluten free flours.