the Life around the Loaf
Tuesday, 8 December 2009
Sunday, 6 December 2009
Saturday, 5 December 2009
Panetteria Mercadante, on the outside of the city wall that surrounds the ancient center, facing into the modern city beyond.
In the background of my drawing, you can see an Artofex mixer. The D.O.P. Altamuran bread must be mixed by this type of two-armed dough kneader. It is designed to replicate the action of hand-kneading. It works relatively slowly, which keeps the dough cooler as it ferments.
I talked to the apprentice, who was in new lab-coat and white baseball cap that kept popping off his springy hair. What's drawn him to working in a bakery? [*shrug*]. What does he like doing most? "Pastries. Bread is all too samey."
Friday, 4 December 2009
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
I enter through the thronged shop and, on my way being pressed to take a slice of scorched onion focaccia, I'm led through a single doorway to the large production room. I have come here to see the famous, D.O.P.-marked bread of Altamura, which I first saw in the Salumeria in Bari.
It's hard, as usual, to divide the process from everything else that's going on. This bakery only completely closes once a week, on Saturday night, so the rest of the week sees a constant round of shift-workers and a rolling production. Albano, one of the apprentice bakers who's keeping an eye on the mixers, has a go at explaining to me the order of things, but it's a matter of feel and he gives up trying.
In very general terms, then, the D.O.P. Pane di Altamura ('P.D.O.' in English: 'Protected Designation of Origin') is made with a pasta madre which is reinforced then mixed to a production dough with Durum wheat flour, water and salt. A fist-full of pasta madre dough sits is the mixing bowl throughout the day, being refreshed and built-up with durum wheat flour and water, two or three times, until it has reached the desired strength and acidity. “It's about 3.3pH, but your can tell by its fragrance when you pinch off a piece.” Beppe DiGesu' says, showing me around. Using the lively, though dry, paste at one-fifth of the final production weight, the baker adds the same flour, about 58-60% water and locally-produced sea salt. To claim the D.O.P. title, DiGesu' must use the approved rimacinata Durum wheat flour, and local water and salt: Is the quality of ingredients given a personal assurance – do you know the producers? -I ask. No, for Giuseppe, the certificate of quality suffices. He has enough to do already!
The production dough is mixed by the night-shift man in the small hours. After about half an hour of mixing, he covers it and leaves it to rise in the bowl for 3 hours. The morning-bakers then heap the dough onto the metal worktable where it trembles, light and soft, as one man cuts and weighs pieces from one end. He tosses them along the semolina-dusted table to another worker who balls them, one at a time, and puts them between cloths on a board for a second rise. After about an hour, depending on the speed of rising, the rack of boards is pulled, via a ramp, into the oven room.
The oven is enormous – 20 metres squared approximately, high-ceilinged with a fairly large door and the kind of worn-away floor that I have become used to seeing. The fire, which has had time to burn down to embers, has been scraped to the front left of the oven – for the D.O.P. bread, only oak may be used, and the fire must be in the same oven as the bread itself (a 'black' oven, as opposed to a 'white' oven, where the fire is contained in a separate chamber).
The bakers set-to energetically shaping the loaves (again, only five official loaf forms are permitted). Though they work at an aggressive speed, they have a lightness to their gestures that allows the dough to keep some of its puff. It's very marshmallowy stuff, with its dusted skin. As the end of a row is reached, the oven-man starts to load from the first two. He pushes smaller loaves together in pairs before he peels them into the deep oven. This makes the loaves 'kiss', leaving the joined part of each without a crust. This is generally undesirable if you're not making 'batch' bread, but I guess that's how they've always done it. Now these shapes are protected by law, that's how it'll always be done. There's probably someone in every family who loves to get that bit of the bread.
The oven is filled in a little over 30 minutes, the last loaves so close to the fire that the oven-man lays branches in front of them to deflect some of the fierce heat. Then he stops up the door, filling in gaps with wet sacking. Forty minutes later, the door is opened and the loaves are pulled out as rapidly as possible, everyone suddenly moving fast and getting red-faced. The bread 'dink's like popping light bulbs as it is brought out from the depths. The oven-man flips loaf after loaf onto the hearth stone, where his assistant grabs them with gloved hands, smacks the flour off their bases, splits the 'kissed' loaves and nestles them together on boards so that they can cool in sympathetic humidity.
The salesman from the attached shop comes through asking for loaves for the queueing customers. One lady wants a well-done one, another always has a blonder bread... He bears the piping loaves through to the counter at arm's length and calls out further orders as he sees familiar faces entering the shop.
The bakers have nearly finished unloading, but with an oven so vast is would be easy to lose a few: the oven-man tosses torn pieces of flour-sack onto the embers and uses their glow to find and gather in the few loaves that eluded his peel first time around. The air outside in the street is heavy with the heavenly smell of the new bread – within the panificio it smells of oregano, olive oil and onions. Distracting varieties of focaccie are sizzling in the electric ovens next door.
Giuseppe DiGesu', the man in charge (at least, the man most in charge – there is a constant mellee of family members) sits me in his office to tell me about the history of the business, and I discover that this bakery and the DiGesu' family is not only a torchbearer for the D.O.P. Pane di Altamura, but was instrumental in its recognition and preservation. His office is the type that many bakers would recognise: a tiny table tucked in a niche opposite the oven. Making, marketing, selling, distribution, everything is done under the same roof. He must hold a lot of his business in his head. The bakery is definitely an institution, one seems to run under its own steam.
What really impresses me about Giuseppe's spiel is the first thing he says: (and it is a spiel, he's honed it. His family's ambassadorial skills have ensured the success of the company which now sends bread not only around the region, but around the Continent)
“The bread of Altamura is different: It's not better, it's different.”
He goes on to explain that it is rarified air here (600 metres above sea level) that holds a special quality of muffa – mould – cultured in their pasta madre, that makes the difference. Oh, and everything else, as specified in the D.O.P. list.
This panificio was born in the hands of Giuseppe's great-great-grandfather, Francesco DiGesu', in the 1820/30's. When he first acquired the oven (which was already in use. It is, then, even older) it was used only to bake off loaves made in private houses in exchange for flour, eggs, meat etc. In the 1870/80's Giuseppe's great-grandfather took on the business with his brothers. They began speculatively to make their own doughs and sell breads from their oven. The oven was still used communally, though today there is only one Signora who continues, every Saturday, to bring her own dough to be baked in DiGesu's venerable forno. Guiseppe's grandfather and 9 children began to make other products, local sweets and specialities, but the quality of their Pane di Altamura was central, historical and, they decided, worthy of protection from imitation.
After exactly 30 years of legal battles, they achieved protection of the title Pane di Altamura from the E.U.. Giuseppe's uncle and father founded the Consorzio di Paneficatori di Altamura to ensure the continued checking of any bakery that is allowed to sell its bread as Pane di Altamura. Today, running from job to job, Giuseppe and his cousin Beppe tirelessly seek to maintain the standards that were instituted generations earlier.
I wondered what it would be like to be born into such a family. Giuseppe says he wouldn't want his children to follow him into the business. Unless one really wants to work for the work alone, to be part of an historic business that is so hugely respected, 'the rewards don't outweigh the pain'. He says he hasn't had a Sunday free in ages, because when not here, he's out promoting his product. For himself, however, he can't not do this job – bread is his family's life (he uses the word 'campare' - to sustain oneself). He loves the creativity, the fact that every day is different and nothing's ever static. This rings true for me, the idea that literally nothing stands still, from the fire to the dough, from (sorry for mentioning them) the creeping flour weevils to the fact that if you don't sell your bread, it'll go stale! The oven, particularly this colossus, never falls cold.
I watch Beppe sweep semolina grains from the work-table to do his paperwork, and ask him if he and Giuseppe get their hands in the dough too. “Of course, always!” Perhaps to prove his point he goes to make business calls with one hand whilst squodging soft chocolate biscuits onto a tray with the other.
“Without passion, you couldn't do this work.”
Tuesday, 1 December 2009
Sunday, 29 November 2009
Bari started badly for me. As I am wandering, gazing at the sea, the sky and the ancient limestone walls, trying to find out where I am on the map, I fail to notice a marble bench until I walk into its end. The weight of my bag flips me forward along the length of the bench, where I land heavily on my face. I'm more embarrassed than hurt. But, per fortuna!, it seems that not one of the morning church-leavers, in their black coats and sunglasses, has seen me. I take off my bag and dust myself off, then take another look around. On a balcony high above, there's a stout signora. I know she's seen my acrobatics, but when she sees me looking she just shrugs and goes inside. To recover, and to wait for Panificio Fiore, which is a street away, to open, I sit - on the same bench - and draw the view.
Saturday, 28 November 2009
I ask what happens to the bread that is not sold: Wait and see! At just before closing time, a man - Antonio - arrives in a Piaggio 3-wheeler, bustles in and picks up the sacks of old bread put ready for him. "Where are you going with them?" "I'll show you, vieni!" So I trot willingly after him and we fold ourselves into the tiny cockpit. It's probably pretty comical to see, as a Piaggio is not so much a car as a trike with two seats, and I'm 6ft tall. Thankfully, the destination is only a few blocks away. We go by a roundabout route because, with my knees in the way of the handlebars, we can't turn tight corners.
We arrive at a tall, modern building and, summoned by the doorbell, a nun opens the door. The two sisters and the Mother Superior of the order 'the Daughters of Charity' use the basement of this building as a canteen for the homeless and poor. My arrival causes a fluster and they crowd me with questions, hold my hands and pinch my cheeks. I try to explain my project, though each question is asked three times and I get a bit dizzy. Antonio leaves, shrugging at the scene. At first, there's a bit of confusion. "But we don't make bread here!" says Mother Superior. "And we certainly don't sell it!" cries Sorella Carmella. Then they grasp my meaning and suddenly they lose interest. Mother Superior and Sorella Carmella leave the third nun to take me downstairs to a functional canteen in the basement. It is embarrassingly at-odds with the locked-away Baroque luxury upstairs, but a meal has just ended and the smell of food that lingers is comforting. The Sister describes mealtimes here, how the bread is central to as wholesome a meal as they can offer. She proudly reads out loud, and explains for me, a poem posted on the end wall, a sort of 'ode to bread'.
ONORATE IL PANE, GLORIA DEI CAMPI, FRAGRANZA DELLA TERRA, FESTA DELLA VITA; NON SCIUPATE IL PANE, RICCHEZZA DELLA PATRIA, IL PIU SANTO PREMIO DELLA FATICA UMANA; AMATE IL PANE, CUORE DELLA CASA, PROFUMO DELLA MENSA, GIOIA DEI FOCOLARI; RISPETTATE IL PANE, SUDORE DELLA FRONTE, ORGOGLIO DEL LAVORO, POEMA DI SACRIFICIO
This translates as something like:
Honour bread: fields of glory, fragrance of the earth, celebration of life;
Do not waste bread: wealth of the country, the blessed reward of human fatigue;
Love bread: heart of the home, flavour of the table, joy of the hearth;
Respect bread: sweat of the brow, the pride of work, poem of sacrifice.
Il Forno di Nonno Felice has two bakery shops, as well as supplying other businesses. I'm spending a few hours in the Lecce shop, just by the Porta San Biaggio drawing and watching customers nip in for bread for today and tomorrow, Sunday, when the shop will be closed.
Friday, 27 November 2009
Gabriele, the son of mastro fornaio Antonio Maggiore, picks me up from the main piazza of Martignano, 15-or-so Kilometres from Lecce. As we drive out of town towards the bakery in the Zona Industriale, asks me if I like dogs. Yes, luckily, as we arrive at a compound containing 5 huge Alsatians and a bakery. Gabriele tells me the dogs' names as they crowd delightedly around him, then he invites me into the front office of the bakery. The dogs follow. They are sent back out, though they continue to play Grandmother's Footsteps all day.
Gabriele is very young, self-possessed and unruffled by his work or the added task of showing me around. He works with his father, mother, aunt, uncle and two other female employees. The bakery is fairly mechanised, with a machine for shaping loaves and another, a more elaborate affair, for shaping Tarralli and Friselle, the double-cooked (biscotto) breads that are popular here and in Campagnia - also in Calabria and Sicily, hot places where it's best to start with your bread pre-dried as it'll only dry out anyway. They have 3 ovens, two electric and one (Gabriele's face lights up as he shows me) forno a legna. He opens the door and shines a torch inside to show me a low, wide oven space with stones worn-down and wonky from use. This is something I've never seen before - how many shoves of the peel and scrapes of the fire-hoe would make a oven floor look like this?
“We can only bake the large loaves on this one,” he says “smaller breads... well...” I can see it would be frustrating to try fishing Tarralli out of the gaps between the stones. The fire is lit on the main oven, using faggots of olive twigs, then scraped into the left-hand corner. Heat is maintained by moving the coals to the fire-chamber below the oven door. Afterwards, the oven is wet-mopped and loaded by two people, one lifting the breads from the boards that they've been rising on, and the other operating the peel.
Dough is made a day in advance. Durum wheat flour is weighed out on an upright scale and tipped into the spiral mixer with flour, water salt and yeast. "We do put in old dough, but only when we have it, it's not part of the recipe" says Gabriele. The mixing is watched-over by Gabriele's uncle who checks its readiness then pulls it out of the bowl and throws it into a hopper for semi-automatic weighing and balling. 'Semi'-automatic because it still seems to take a certain amount of human intervention to get a correct shape out at the end. The balls of dough drop either onto a conical baller, which twirls the dough upwards and shapes a taut ball by friction, or through a tunnel on a conveyor-belt that flattens, then rolls, the dough into longer filoni. As they pop from the machine, G's aunt catches them with both hands and carefully puts each one onto the waiting, semolina-dredged board.
After their single shaping, the balls of dough left in a retarder overnight on their boards. Production is limited to the amount they can fit onto the three carrelli – (trolleys) that can be wheeled into the retarder.
The air is hot and smells of olive oil, cooking vegetables and rising dough. There is constant noise from the chuffing and wheezing machines but, above all else, the sound of voices. They yell and argue and then laugh and simmer down. It seems that always someone has forgotten to do this or finish that. Nobody's really angry, it's just a family working together in a hot kitchen.
While Gabriele is away meeting a client, the other 4 scrape-down the metal tables, sweep up and put all in place for the next day (Gabriele's father comes in at 4.30am to fire the oven). Gabriele's mum invites me to supper at their home, or is it lunch? Anyway, it is very welcome. They continue to discuss business over their food, then conversation moves to the politics and what's happening with TV in Italy. Italy's going completely digital this year, which is seen by many as Berlusconi's way of building his domination of the Italian media. As we eat (no bread at this table), we watch the news. After, Gabriele drives me back to Lecce with a bag full of gorgeous-smelling bread. He's a bit pensive: Although business is good, he's set his sights on finding a sales outlet in Britain and he's worried that his country is not taken seriously by the rest of Europe. He's intelligent, though, and the bakery business is not so exhausting for him yet that he doesn't have time to step back and see it in perspective.
Wednesday, 25 November 2009
The Pugliese dry, hot climate and the stony but fertile soil supports the growing of high-gluten, high-protein 'hard' wheats, in particular durum wheat (grano duro or gran duro) which is made into pasta and bread.
Tuesday, 24 November 2009
I arrive in Lecce on the night train from Rome. Explaining my project to the only other person in my carriage (he spots me as a foreigner immediately, and wants to try out his English), I find it tricky to convince him that the bread I'm interested is the simplest and most plain-seeming everyday loaf. He enthuses about the more decorative breads, those with added herbs, tomato and olives (“watch out for your teeth: -they don't take the olive stones out!”), those enriched with Pugliese olive oil and then the pastries, pasticciotti... ah! He becomes misty-eyed. He's on his way home to his parents in Lecce.
I realise it'll be similarly difficult to convince bakers that they can keep their plaits and pastries, their torte salate and focaccie, I'd like to see the simplest-looking loaf they've got, please!
Okay, okay, I'll try a pasticciotto too. A pasticciotto turns out to be a small custard-filled pie, like a tiny, oval gateau Basque with friable lard pastry. Warm, with a bitter coffee, it is a heavenly introduction to Lecce.
A leavened loaf of bread at its simplest is flour, water, salt and a leavening agent. I have come to Italy to meet bakers and observe how they take that basic recipe and make it their own. I want to find out why they make bread as well as how they make it. I don't intend to take recipes home and copy them – these breads are the product of specific people and places, of their lives and the things that surround them. Though a particular loaf may become a famous export, like the Pane di Altamura, it is never so good as when bought from the bakery and eaten in the context for which it was produced. The purpose of this trip is to observe and note the particulars and peculiarities of each baker's work in order to both compare their differences and find what unites them in their craft.
The bread that I am most interested to see is that risen with a pasta madre, a biga or with 'old dough'. Bakers here (in Italy) generally make a variety of breads and dough-based products, but their signature loaf is often a sourdough, a Pane Biga or a Pane di Campagnia. This is both the most humble and the most complicated product of the bakery, the one in which the baker unpretentiously demonstrates his sensitivity to his materials and his oven.
A pasta madre or 'mother' is a culture of wild yeasts and bacteria (lactobacilli), produced by fermenting a flour and water mixture. Some bakers 'seed' their pasta madre with extra micro-organisms by adding something like a piece of fruit. However, it suffices to simply use a flour that hasn't been overly processed because the yeasts that naturally bloom on the grain itself are those most adapted to feeding on it. Wild yeasts and bacteria are found everywhere. The benefit of culturing them is that, in digesting the carbohydrates in the dough (as they respire and reproduce), they change the structure and flavour of the dough. This produces infinite varieties of textures and flavours in the resulting bread – a far bigger range than that which could be achieved with the use of Baker's yeast alone.
'Biga' is the italian term for a pre-ferment, often a stiff dough, that is made several hours before the main production. Making a pre-ferment allows bakers to use Baker's yeast, which in many cases is preferred because it is reliable and easily transported and stored, without losing all of the qualities of traditional sourdough. A comparatively tiny amount of yeast and a dry mix is used, allowing a longer fermentation period and encouraging particular bacteria. The dough that the biga is added to gains acidity and flavour and results in a longer-lasting loaf.
The 'old dough' process is, as it sounds, a method of leavening each batch of dough with dough from the previous batch. The added dough will contain salt. Adding old dough to a new mix, apart from making good economic sense, conditions the dough, adds flavour and makes a loaf that stays fresh for longer. The original leavening agent can be Baker's yeast, but as un-refreshed dough becomes acid over time, it could arguably be said to take on the characteristics of a sourdough. In more acidic conditions Baker's yeast (with an optimum pH of around 5.6) becomes less prolific and other strains of yeast and bacteria can begin to dominate as the pH level drops below 4. Though this method relies on having dough ready in advance, the addition 'old dough' to a new mix can actually speed up production, so bakers use it to make a more interesting loaf that can compete time-wise with a straight Baker's yeast dough.
'Old dough', biga and pasta madre-based doughs can also have more Baker's yeast added during the main mixing, partly for speed but mostly for insurance. The hegemony of Baker's yeast is understandable as it is cheap, reliable and fast. However, it sidesteps methods and timetables that have been in place for centuries.
The use of home-grown leavens fascinates me because the processes are inevitably more complex and individual. The processes of pasta madre, biga and 'old dough' breads are complex but enchanting because they are derived from experience and knowledge built up over time, from necessity and from experimentation. In looking at these breads, and seeing how they are made and by whom, I'm seeking confirmation of what I feel when working as a baker: There is more to being a baker than producing something in exchange for money; that baking a good staple loaf is a matter of heart and soul.
- ▼ December (6)