The first people in Italy were the Etruscans, who were there about 900 BC – they were already planting millet and had even invented a rolling pin by the time the Greeks and the Romans took over! They didn’t know how to grind yet, the Romans taught us that.
In Ancient Rome in 168 BC a bakers guild was formed and the baking industry started to grow on its own, with bakers achieving special status. Once a baker always a baker and they and their children had to remain bakers and were not allowed to leave the industry. However, they were the only craftsmen that were freemen! Romans preferred white bread – the whiter the better. Notwithstanding that, bread was made from wheat flour, groats, rye and even from acorns and millet. It was baked on a hearth, mixed with cheese or cream and always served with every meal. Pliny wrote about white bread because he disapproved of the ‘modern fad’ and he often gave instructions on how bread should be made. One of his famous sayings was “the wheat of Cyprus is swarthy and produces a dark bread, for which reason it is generally mixed with the white wheat of Alexandria” . That caustic comment illustrates how incensed he was by the white bread habits, not to mention those bakers who used sea-water to save on salt in the baking of the bread. They had several kinds of bread with curious names – for example, oyster bread (to be eaten with oysters), ‘artolaganus‘ (cake- bread), speusticus (in a hurry bread), oven bread, tin bread, Parthian bread and the dense, rich breads full of milk, eggs and butter made for the privileged few. According to Athenaeus (a well known bread fundi in 300 AD) the best bakers were from Phoenicia or Cappadocia.
Chie hat pane, mai no morit – those that have bread will never die – the Sardinians said so in this old Sardinian proverb. In the tiny towns in Italy, bread was baked by the women in those days and it was a celebration – for each occasion there was something different and for feasts and festivals works of art, unsurpassed by any other country, emerged. It is common cause that bread is the centre of Italian life and that Italians are as passionate about bread as they are about everything else. Like everything else in Italy, bread is regional – and since I became an Italian 25 years ago I have lived in and always, somehow, returned to the Centre as that is where my heart lies. It lies there and with its people who have all given me more love and care than I have ever found anywhere else in the world.
In the North there are many fine breads but it serves no purpose to list the more than 350 types of bread commonly known if one has not actually eaten them. I do know the pan biscotto of Veneto, the grissini from Piemonte and the divinely delicious pan coi fichi of Lombardia though.
Grissini were born in 1679 when Antonio Brunero, himself, baked them in his bakery on specific request for the Duke Vittorio Amedeo die Savoia, who was ill at the time. Today the whole world tries to make the bread, but never manage to do it quite like the Piemontese – the breadsticks packed for your local supermarket do not taste anything like the real thing.
In Umbria the pan nociato and the pizza di pasque are classics. The pizza di pasque is so special that I need to give you a recipe that works in an ordinary electric oven:
180 gr sugar
4 huge eggs
Extra virgin olive oil
Aniseed liqueur and aniseeds
1 packet of yeast
Butter as needed
Make a dough from the flour, 1 tablespoon of melted butter, 2 of the eggs well beaten, some oil and the liqueur to which you add the yeast. Knead it until you have a smooth and silky dough.
Use two thirds of the dough to form a long shape (pagnotta) and roll the rest into a long, thin sausage strip.
Put two raw, uncracked eggs in the middle of the dough, making sure there is dough on either side and take the other thin sausage shaped strips and cross it over the egg, so that it looks like a doll holding the eggs close to her body.
Allow to rise, brush with a little beaten egg, place on a floured and buttered baking tray and bake on 200 C for 2 hours, depending always on your oven – until it is golden, anyway.
In Rome the rosette are legendary, the recipe not traded and nobody has ever managed to get it right anywhere – even if they had some reason to come by the recipe. If Romans have to leave, they spend their lives looking for, but not finding the exact thing. In Sabaudia, Lazio the finest breads in all the world are born, to my mind, but I hesitate to name the many fine woodovens, small bakers and fine outlets where one can buy it since this is not a retail post. The breads of Sezze and Frosinone and Circeo and the bread from the wood ovens at Mezze Monte would keep me happy forever. The pizza bianca (image above) and the Roman ciriola together with the ciambelle are well known and in the South the Pizza is known and attempted all over the world. The pane di castagne of Calabria, the pane birra of Sicily and Sardania’s pane carasau (image below) is worth buying an airticket for – it is also well known as carta di musica – the fine round crispy layers are known around the world as it conserves with ease.
Flour contains a very high proportion of starches (complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides) and wheat and a few others contain proteins called gluten. When we knead the dough the gluten molecules become ‘cross-linked” to form a complicated gluten network which makes the dough elastic. In other words the little gas bubbles are trapped in this way so that the bread is soft – and not a solid brick. In Italy flour is divided into two types – grano tenero and grano duro. The zero’s refer only to how much the flour was sifted. It is okay to use 00 for foccaccia, but I would use the 0 for bread. Grano tenero is neither very high or very low in either starch or gluten and you can use both sifts for making bread. Grano duro is not available at every supermarket, as I recall, and the other kinds of flour (of which there are plenty) are kept mainly in more specialised shops. Grano duro is used chiefly in the production of pasta.
Bread is expensive in Italy today. Pre-sliced, pre packed bread is still somewhat new in Italy and is found more in the North and used chiefly for toast or sandwhiches. There is a shortage of professional bakers nowadays and much influence is being exerted on politicians to assist in aiding the immigration of the very talented bakers from North Africa to come and work as apprentices in Italian bakeries. Young Italians don’t like the hard work. I guess starting in the early hours of the morning and working for very long hours, including Sundays seems to put a bit of a damper on their enthusiasm. Wheat prices have risen dramatically with many Italians having to bake bread at home again. One wonders whether young qualified bakers could not start their own businesses?