Daily Pane – The Italian Way
by Nancy Hartman
Bread is a serious staple in the Italian food chain – it has been a part of Italy’s cuisine since ancient times. The roots of bread are baked deep into Roman culture. The bakery way not only important, but also a part of religious ritual with ovens built in temples. The Romans were the first bakers to refine milling practices to produce flour for baking what is known today as “white bread.”
The ancient Italian breads were made with flour, water, and yeast. However, there are many different types of bread made with flour from other grains such as corn, mixed grain and legume, and soy beans. The dough was prepared and left to rise for a couple of days in a cool and dry place. The freshly baked loaves were shaped into large oblong loaves and made once a week. The weekly bread supply for the family was kept in a cool dry place to slow the bread from turning stale.
There are three different procedures to making bread:
Direct Method – Consists in mixing all the ingredient at the same time.
Semi-Direct Method – Mixing all the ingredients than later adding to it previously raised dough.
Indirect method – Combining water, yeast, and flour (called biga). After two days, all the other ingredients are added to the biga.
Breads in Italy are not like our trip to the grocery store where we buy a loaf of “Italian bread.” In fact, there are vast regional differences in the recipe for bread with over 300 types of bread. Travel to northern Italy, and you will find breads such as Michetta, Pan biscotto, Ciabatta Italia, Pane nero di Coimo, and focacina classica, just to name a few.
In Central Italy, some breads you will find include Panina gialla, Ciaccino, Neccio, Pane casereccio, Torta al testo, Focaccia Farcita, Crostolo Pizza blance, Ciambella, Pane di spiga, and Pane di senatori.
In Southern Italy, a few varieties include Pane del pescatore, Pizza, Puccelto rustico, Rota Ciambelle, Buccellato, Pane di Monreale, and Moddizzosu.
Another regional difference in Italy’s bread is the use of salt. In the Tuscany region, salt is not used when making bread. Long ago, the ruling class imposed a tax on salt. The citizens rebelled and the bakers decided they would not use salt in their bread. Therefore, they would not pay the tax. The tax was eventually lifted, but the bakers kept the no salt bread.
The breads in Italy were traditionally baked in store or brick ovens in a bakery or home. In most nations of early societies, ovens were communal and rarely owned by just one family. In Italy, many Roman homes boasted their own small stone oven which made bread a plentiful staple in Italian cuisine.
Today the average Italian will consume a half pound of bread a day! I am sure many Italians still make their Bread at home, but likely in larger cities, the daily bread is purchased at the bakery or local Sunday market.
My first exposure to Italian bread was our first dinner in Rome. We ate at BarbaRossa Ristorante Pizzeria. I watched the ristorante owner thoughtfully fondling the leaves of bread in a large basket on the counter. He would turn each over, give them a slight squeeze, and arrange them artfully in the basket. I immediately recognized the importance of the bread. They had made it there, in the ristorante, to serve to the customers that evening.
In the United State, bread is served right after you take a seat. The bread baskets are plentiful, filled with soft rolls or sliced bread. The bread baskets are refillable and considered a part of our meal.
In Italy, the bread is a course of its own. It also arrives first, but is a basket with sliced hard rustics with rich texture still smelling lightly of yeast. It is fresh (just made today), not hot, but rested from the morning bake. There is a separate charge for the bread on your conte (bill). Do not expect to see butter at your table – instead soak your bread in the flavors of Italy, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Even at our hotel’s breakfast buffet, we toasted slices of bread cut from an Italian loaf. No soft squishy bread from the store was to be found!
Making bread is intimidating for most Americans. I, for one, pull out the cookbooks and read through the pethora of recipes trying to figure out which to use and how long this will take me. The Italians arrange a few simple ingredients to individual taste or by regional tradition. All you need to make bread is flour, water, yeast, and sometimes salt.
Today’s technology has made bread making a cleaner and less labor intensive process than in the past. Use your bread machine for the work, but make sure you do not bake the bread in the bread machine. Traditional Italian bread was baked in the family stone/brick oven, which not many homes have in their kitchens today. What you can do instead, pull your dough from the bread machine, shape it how you like, and place it on a pizza or baking stone to bake in your oven to imitate the texture of Italian breads.