Today we’re continuing our look at the Italian love affair with bread by looking at the logistics of bread making and some of the different regional breads available. Part 1 explored the history of bread in Italy and you can read it here.
There’s a common idiom that derives from the Bible (Ezekiel) that calls bread the staff of life, if this is so, then flour has to be its foundation. Unlike most countries that measure their flour by its gluten content, Italy usually doesn’t (unless you are a professional bread maker or chef), making it difficult to make a comparison. Italian flour is graded from 00 through to 2, with 00 being the finest and 2 being almost wholemeal and there’s some debate which of the flour grades produces the best bread, in particular a white loaf. Some cooks swear by the softer 00, while others prefer the higher gluten content of 0 graded flour. Either way it is all down to personal preference.
Another popular flour is semola di grano duro, a milled durum wheat flour that is coarser than the 0 and 00 flours and is most used by bakers in Southern Italy. In Northern Italy, particularly in the Valle D’Aosta and Trentino Alto Adige, farina di segale (rye flour) is a popular addition to white flour to create Austrian/Swiss influenced loaves.
As with the type of flour, there’s also controversy over which lievito (yeast) is the best for baking bread; dried or fresh. Fresh brewer's yeast is readily available in Italy, usually coming in inexpensive 25g cubes, found in the refrigerator section of the supermarket, while dried is usually sold in sachets. Another popular method is natural yeast: as yeast is a single celled fungus that consumes carbohydrate as it multiplies thus creating carbon dioxide which causes bread to rise, some people prefer to harvest their own, which is called a starter or lievito madre (mother).
Some shops sell prepared lievito madre mixes and all you need to do is add water; if you can’t get one of these, then making your own is relatively easy. You can find out how to make it here.
Another popular way of getting bread to rise is keeping a little of the previous made dough behind and allowing it to ferment naturally in the fridge, then add it to the next batch of bread being baked, retaining another portion to keep in the fridge. Some Italian bakers swear that this is the secret that gives their bread a superior rise and flavour.
Italy has a vast range of regional breads, but outside the country most of these are only available through specialist bakers and delicatessens. However, there are two that have become so popular, almost every supermarket outside Italy will stock them. These loaves that have crossed borders and become a staple for lovers of all things Italian are the ciabatta (slipper bread) and the focaccia. That’s not to say that other Italian breads are not available; it’s not hard to find pizza bases and grissini (bread sticks) outside of the country.
Liguria is considered the birthplace of focaccia and when baked to perfection the centre should be soft and springy and the crust crispy. The beauty of this bread is that it lends itself so well to both savoury and sweet additions. Hot focaccia with fresh figs and honey make for a sublime breakfast, whilst fennel and garlic focaccia is a great accompaniment to pasta dishes.
The Ligurian town of Recco is famed for its cheese focaccia, warm pockets of bread filled with stracchino, a soft cheese native to the region and, since 1976, the Gastronomic Consortium of Recco have organised the popular Sagra della focaccia to celebrate this dish that was awarded a protected trademark back in 1995.
There is much dispute over the origin of the humble ciabatta; some say it hails from Como, others from Marche and a baker from Adria, a town near Venice, claims it is his invention. Arnaldo Cavallari claims he was so concerned that the Italian sandwich industry was endangered by the importation of the French baguettes to sustain the lunchtime market that he created the ciabatta to meet the needs of the sandwich buying public.
The ciabatta is made from flour with a high gluten content and is said to be the easiest yet messiest bread to make, as it needs to be a wet mix that requires no kneading.
First introduced to the U.K. in 1985, it now makes up a large percentage of the United Kingdom’s bread consumption, with most bars and restaurants selling them as small filled panini.
Most beloved worlwide? Ciabatta
Every Italian region has its own bread recipe, everything from the piadina flatbread from Romagna in the north to the hard-crusted pane di Genzano from Lazio, so it would be an impossible task to list each one, but some are so unique it would be a shame not to mention them here.
Sardinia has for centuries produced a most unusual bread, pane carasau, also known as carta da musica (Music paper). This is a flat bread that is produced as thin as tracing paper. These wafer thin sheets, which have a very long shelf-life, were originally made for the shepherds to take into the mountains to warm over an open fire before filling, rolling up and eating. Another peasant dish that uses the bread is zuppa dei pastori galluresi, a hearty lamb stew which has layers of the bread within it, in much the same way as lasagna uses pasta sheets.
Puglia is the home of taralli, a circular bread snack with a similar texture to breadsticks. Formed into rings with a circumference of around 5 inches (12 cm) before being immersed in boiling water prior to baking, the taralli can be either sweet, flavoured with honey or glazed with vanilla fragranced sugar or savoury, seasoned with onions, fennel seeds or chili. These rings of bread are often served as bar snacks, but don’t be surprised if you see someone in Puglia dipping one into their dessert wine at the end of dinner.
The extraordinary four horned bread from Emilia Romagna called la coppia Ferrarese is said to have been invented in 1536 during a dinner party held for the Duke of Ferrara during a local carnival. Made from two ribbons of dough moulded together, the bread is twisted to create the characteristic horns. This compact bread made with pork lard and malt extract keeps well for several days but does not do well if frozen as the process diminishes its savoury flavour. It is best eaten still warm with salami or the popular Zia Ferrarese coarse grained sausage.
Trentino Alto-Adige is home to pane di segale croccante, a bread that also shares the German name, schüttelbrot meaning, shaken bread. It is a typical southern Tyrolean bread produced with rye flour flavoured with sesame. The dough is left to prove then is shaken manually to create a flat round shape before being baked. The bread discs are almost entirely crust and are served with cheese, sausages and bacon.
There is some confusion as to where the popular sweet white bread roll known as michetta or rosetta originates from, some say Lombardy and others claim it is Ligurian, needless to say, we can assume it’s from the north/north-west. Easily recognisable by the bulging shape where the internal crumb has been reduced to create a hollow bread roll, these rose shaped rolls are now popular all over Italy.
Possibly one of Italy’s most well-known regional breads is Pane di Altamura from Bari. Made from grano duro, a hard wheat flour cultivated in Puglia’s Murgia region, the dough is worked into the shape of a hat with knife marks up its sides. Traditionally baked in a wood burning oven fed solely with oak, the loaf has crispy crust and a soft internal texture with a uniformed crumb. With a shelf life of up to 15 days, it is often served with cialled, a chili spiced stock with vegetables, olive oil and garlic into which hunks of the bread are dipped.
It is safe to say that the Italian love affair with bread has no chance of diminishing soon, and no matter what region you are visiting, there should always be a type of bread to compliment any Italian meal you choose to enjoy.