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Breaking Bad Bread in Italy


Bill Klapp
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This has been bothering me for a long time. I dwell in the Piemonte, the land of grissini (breadsticks), so I have always assumed that bread was just not that important in my neck of the woods. While there is occasionally good bread to be had, most local bakeries serve up 18 different shapes of the same, sorry 60% crust, 40% air bread that stales up within 5 minutes of exiting the oven. I have had Italian friends serve me that wretched bread TWO DAYS OLD, presumably solely for the purpose of sopping. And as I travel around Italy, I have come to realize that lame bread is not unique to my area. By the same token, I have traveled to the French border in Savoie with Piemontese friends, and watched them rave about (and eat prodigious quantities of) what seemed to me to be mediocre baguettes, so it clearly is not the case that they do not appreciate better bread than they generally eat at home.

Now, none of this is to say that there is not unbelievably fine bread to be had in Italy. I can still recall the wonderful focaccia with a sprinkling of sea salt fresh out of the oven from the Giusti bakery in Lucca, not to mention that found many places in Liguria. And there are all of those wonderful crusty, dark peasant loaves in the south. And pizza in Napoli. And a large quantity of excellent quality bread for panini comes from somewhere. It is just that there is so seldom found great EVERYDAY breads, the Italian equivalent of the baguette (although there have been quality problems in France, too).

I recently bought The Italian Baker by Carol Field, which contains, among other great stuff, a brief history lesson. For one thing, I never realized that bread more or less as we know it today is only a couple of centuries old in the western world. She claims that, in Italy, the bread-producing technology spawned in the 1950s caused much of the artisanal bread to be replaced with a product not unlike Wonder Bread in much of Italy. She also makes the case that artisanal breadmaking is on its way back in Italy, and the pendulum is about to swing the other way with vigor. It cannot happen soon enough for me! Anyone else have any theories, or better yet, facts, on this national crisis?

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I spent part of my childhood in Genova and Rome. The only decent piece of bread that I had in all those years was the foccacia with onions that could be found at bottom of the Via Veneto and in the port area in Genova. I think that Italy is the only place I've eaten outside of Asia where one can't get a pretty good idea of the quality of the kitchen/management by seeing what the bread is like. Bad bread usally means that I better forget the rest of the meal.

So, somewhere along the way, I decided that the sure fire thing to do in Italy was to ditch the bread and head straight for the pasta. My waiste line is still suffering from these tactics. On the other hand, I've never shed any calories in France working my way through the bread offerings.

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I totally agree with you guys ,

I've worked in Treviso as a chef for 6 months ,In the north there isn't a place I've had half decent bread like I find here in Montreal.

But in the south the only bread that was good was at my in-laws in benevento

that's about it.

Con il melone si mangia , beve e si lava la facia

My Nonno Vincenzo 1921-1994

I'm craving the perfct Gateau Foret Noire .

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I spent part of my childhood in Genova and Rome. The only decent piece of bread that I had in all those years was the foccacia with onions that could be found at bottom of the Via Veneto and in the port area in Genova.

Come on it's not that bad -- pizza bianca is one of my favourite thiings in the world, and you can get a good filone napoletano in lots of places in Rome. I hate Tuscan bread though -- I need salt.

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Bill,

I have. sadly, to agree with your observations on bread in Italy. As a bread fanatic I often can't understand why many fellow Italians can eat, as you perfectly described, bread that goes stale after 5 minutes and be even enthusiastic about it. There are a few exceptions. I love most of the pane cafone found in Napoli. If properly done, with the ancient method, it is a delicious sourdough bread, not dissimilar to a rustic pain de campagne. Pizza bianca, as balex said. is heaven. I have to admit I've been less lucky finding nice bread in northern Italy (except Genova and Sudtyrol/Alto Adige).

As a rule I found that small villages often still have an artisanal baker who will produce rustic, old fashioned, and often delicious breads. The same is sadly very rare in big cities.

There is, together with those you mentioned, another problem with bread in Italy. Till a few years ago par-cooked frozen bread could not be sold in Italy. This has changed through the EU laws. Therefore many bakers buy cheap frozen goods and re-heat them (a similar problem exists for pastisserie goods). This makes the work easier, less time consuming and more profitable, as you all can imagine. They can do this because many Italians (and sadly my parents among them) don't really know good bread. One of my grandads alway complained that after WWII all the bread except panini was disappointing... at the time I thought it was just age, but he was probably right.

Slow food published ricently (in Italian) an "atlas" of typical Italian breads, with bakeries that still use the traditional methods. It is a quite good guide if you're travelling through Italy and want to taste the local specialties.

Edited by albiston (log)
Il Forno: eating, drinking, baking... mostly side effect free. Italian food from an Italian kitchen.
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I totally agree with you guys ,

I've worked in Treviso as a chef for 6 months ,In the north there isn't a place I've had half decent bread like I find here in Montreal.

I spent 10 days in QC in the summer of 1996, and in restaurants, the only place where the bread was decent was a Greek place in Montreal. The Quebecois restaurants served good food (a little heavy) but awful bread in both Quebec and Montreal.

I've never had bad bread in any restaurant I can remember going to in Italy, but I've never been further north than Tuscany and Umbria.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Pan

I've been to Italy many ,many times I've got family there and every time I go it's the same thing I'm very proud of being Italian ,and the first to say the products and food in Italy can't be beat.But the bread in Italy isn't great and some people on this page seem to agree with me.

As for bread in Montreal ,I have no clue where you ate but if ever you come back

please contact me on the Montreal site or try these places for bread Olive & Gormando , Fougas et Quingon,Margherita,Premier Moisson that's for bread

For food that's another story :biggrin:

Con il melone si mangia , beve e si lava la facia

My Nonno Vincenzo 1921-1994

I'm craving the perfct Gateau Foret Noire .

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I would say it was fair to say the bread in Italy was not great overall, but this is changing and changing fast.

There has been an explosion of small bakeries making fresh bread every day except Sunday. No longer do they sell only the traditional regional breads, but bread styles from other Italian regions and many breads in the French style.

The small family grocery store is being forced out of business by chain stores and super-sized discount food stores. Those old family stores often only sold the bread made by the family down the street and they sold whatever they made: usually 2 or 3 styles. That was the bread there was and they did not go even to the next village looking for a better supplier. In the chain food stores, with their large central bakeries, it is common to see twenty different styles of bread available. While the growth of food chains has forced those family grocers out of business, there has been the opposite effect on bakeries, which are offering growing and improving selections of bread.

In our small village there is a chain food store that offers about a dozen different breads a day. Across the street is a small bakery offering about 15 different styles a day. Although the bakery is clearly superior, many of the breads at the chain stores are excellent also.

Yes they still offer the type of bread that goes stale before dinner time and many people buy it as that is what they grew up with, but they offer many other breads that compete with bread anywhere.

Every morning I walk up to Non Solo Pane and buy some of the best bread I've had in my life.

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Hee hee hee! Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's bread.

I'll have to make a point of checking out the bread the next time I go over, because it's been uniformly horrible thus far. But... maybe I'm not going to the right places.

--

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I recently bought The Italian Baker by Carol Field, which contains, among other great stuff, a brief history lesson. For one thing, I never realized that bread more or less as we know it today is only a couple of centuries old in the western world. She claims that, in Italy, the bread-producing technology spawned in the 1950s caused much of the artisanal bread to be replaced with a product not unlike Wonder Bread in much of Italy.

Bill you'll have to clarify this history lesson. Do you mean that "bread" was a euphemism for "polenta" aka gruel for the vast majority of people because only the rich could afford wheat (except in Apulia), and everyone else had to make do with rye (if they were lucky), millet, and other "lesser grains"? Not to mention chestnut flour. Surely Montanari and Capatti address this issue in that book you just reviewed.

(The point being that the ultimate bread of fantasy was as soft and as white as possible, i.e., wonder bread, and understandably, if you been calling ground chickpeas, chesnuts and dirt "bread" for your whole life).

Of course, this does not explain why the only marginally better off French countryside has historically produced better bread.

But stale bread is better for ribollita.

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Badthings, I will clarify. Yes, there was a period in Italian history when "polenta" was the dominant pre-bread starch (but I think not a euphemism for bread), and there was no consistency to what its ingredients might be, except that we know that corn-based polenta was a Johnny-come-lately. It is also true that the early peasant breads were made with many of the ingredients you cited, and that virtually all were "black" or dark breads. "White" wheat bread was reserved for the upper classes. It is the tradition of "white" bread that I refer to as being only a couple of centuries old, although it is interesting to note that most of the great stuff ultimately consumed by the "upper crust" originated with the peasantry in Italy. Two examples are corn-based and tomato-based foods. The Italian aristocracy originally viewed corn as no more than animal fodder, and they shared the same initial fear of the tomato that pervaded Europe's upper classes. Both were recommended to the masses, and once the peasants demonstrated that delicious dishes could be made from both, the aristocracy adopted the ingredients and refined recipes using them to suit their tastes. Interestingly, there is also a counter tradition in Italian culinary history, where the upper classes, looking for something new and exciting, will delve into peasant culinary history and glorify things like whole-grain dark breads and polenta. In the Piemonte, I would submit that 75% or more of the classic dishes originated with the peasantry, general wealth having come relatively late to the province.

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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And Craig, now to you: I begin by paraphrasing the now-classic Saturday Night Live line: Craig, you ignorant slut! It is entirely possible that Lombardia has better bread than the Piemonte, but I do not covet it. Instead, always fearful of the Apocalypse, I have constructed a wood-fired oven in my backyard in the Piemonte, and cultivated a close personal friendship with an artisanal French baker. Bread is a problem that can be solved in the Piemonte. Unlike, say, the paucity of fine wine in Lombardia. Of course, there are the sparkling wines of Franciacorta, which many consider to be better than Champagne. But then again, I know Champagne, and Champagne is no Barolo. Or Barbaresco. And then there are those boatloads of Lambrusco in your neighborhood...

Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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It is the tradition of "white" bread that I refer to as being only a couple of centuries old...

For the masses, yes, but more like a couple millennia for rich people. There is no reason to grow wheat (because of its inferior yield to the lesser grains) unless you are making leavened bread (gluten). And of course wheat, wine, oil is the holy trinity of mediterrannean civilization. So white bread has been around for quite a while, just not in the peasant tradition (I recently read somewhere that there were many people on Sardinia who had never eaten wheat bread until well after WW II). You would think that there is enough of an urban tradition (going back to the communal period at least) with wheat bread to inspire some decent loaves somewhere on the peninsula.

Yes, there was a period in Italian history when "polenta" was the dominant pre-bread starch (but I think not a euphemism for bread), and there was no consistency to what its ingredients might be, except that we know that corn-based polenta was a Johnny-come-lately.

What I mean is not exactly that bread is a euphemism for polenta, but rather a kind of generic term like "corn" that often means merely "grain-based food". In Rome, "bread and circuses" really meant "the corn (i.e., wheat/barley) dole and circuses". The extent to which the masses kneaded their grain and took it to a baker is debatable, but much of it surely ended up as gruel, which was also the basic ration of the army. In the middle ages, landlords had a double monopoly, on the mill and the oven, which naturally encouraged peasants to find other applications for their grain. And if I were faced with a big pile of millet or barley or spelt, I would try to find something better to use it for than a loaf of bread, for obvious reasons (gluten).

Hope that wasn't too pedantic.

Wheat-based pasta was also a luxury item until the 19th century (except in wheat-growing areas like Apulia and Sicily), yet most italians seem to do OK with that. So what is it about bread that is such a problem?

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And Craig, now to you: I begin by paraphrasing the now-classic Saturday Night Live line: Craig, you ignorant slut! It is entirely possible that Lombardia has better bread than the Piemonte, but I do not covet it. Instead, always fearful of the Apocalypse, I have constructed a wood-fired oven in my backyard in the Piemonte, and cultivated a close personal friendship with an artisanal French baker. Bread is a problem that can be solved in the Piemonte. Unlike, say, the paucity of fine wine in Lombardia. Of course, there are the sparkling wines of Franciacorta, which many consider to be better than Champagne. But then again, I know Champagne, and Champagne is no Barolo. Or Barbaresco. And then there are those boatloads of Lambrusco in your neighborhood...

I am not ignorant!

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Once I drove from Tuscany to the French Riviera just because I was desperate for good bread. I had the notion that the horrible Italian bread was due to lack of salt, because of a salt tax during the Middle Ages. In any event, after a few days in the Luberon, I drove back to Italy for the gelato. So it all evens out!

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This is offered with an admitted twinge of chauvism thar one might expect from a well-traveled third-generation Italo-American with roots in Campania: what passes for bread in regions north of Tuscany is mostly execrable.

For me, the standard-bearer or paradigm for ``il vero pane italiano'' hails from Puglia, with Campania's output a close second.

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This is offered with an admitted twinge of chauvism thar one might expect from a well-traveled third-generation Italo-American with roots in Campania: what passes for bread in regions north of Tuscany is mostly execrable.

For me, the standard-bearer or paradigm for ``il vero pane italiano'' hails from Puglia, with Campania's output a close second.

There is truth in albie's words. Southern Italian bread and central and northern Italian bread are different things.

The best bread in northern Italy is more French inspired these days.

I still don't hate the saltless central Italian bread, but I realize it "needs' something with it - salami, cheese or olive oil to make it really enjoyable.

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Craig, your observations square neatly with my experience; I do think that Tuscan bread has all the elements right EXCEPT for the elimination of salt, hoever.

In Lombardy and the Piedmont, those fist-sized confections of cottony, tasteless rolls they put on the table with the affettati are no match for French baguettes.

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I still don't hate the saltless central Italian bread, but I realize it "needs' something with it - salami, cheese or olive oil to make it really enjoyable.

This makes etymological as well as gastronomic sense. After all, in medieval Latin bread is panis, and every other sort of food is companaticum - 'that which goes with bread'.

So perhaps the idea that bread should be tasty (and, specifically, savoury) in its own right is a relatively modern one.

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