the Life around the Loaf

Everyday bread can be Extraordinary. I am a baker and good-bread-seeker with a particular interest in Sourdoughs (see first post for explaination) but also a general interest in Life and Happiness and the role bread can play in it.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Bari, capitol of Puglia

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

La Mensa delle Figlie della Carita, Lecce

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'.


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

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.

The breads are nearly all gone by closing time. On the shelf behind the counter, there are bags of raw dough which people buy for making pizza or focaccia at home. The bags balloon as they sit in the warm shop. Stephania, behind the counter, clears the last of the breads into flour-sacks.

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

Piazza d'Italia and Porta san Biagio, Lecce

Lecce, la Puccia

My first stop is Martignano and Lecce, in Puglia - the 'heel of the boot', to visit Il Forno di Nonno Felice, the bakery of the Maggiore family. The bakery produces many of the specialities of Salento - the tip of said boot-heel, including Taralli and Friselle, but I am particularly interested to see the making of their durum wheat loaf, known as Puccia.
In contrast to Lecce's fantastical architecture, (a flashing sign at Porta san Biagio welcomes tourists to "the most Baroque place in Italy"), la Puccia is, in the case of this bakery, a humble-looking cobble of bread. It was originally one of the few foodstuffs permitted during times of religious fasting, hence its unassuming exterior. However, its compact shape and dense interior make it suitable for keeping in this climate, where anything more elaborate would dry out.

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.
I've hired a bike to see the small city and its surrounding countryside. Though it's officially winter here, and everyone else is in Serious Winterwear, it's blissfully warm. The air smells of sandalwood and cinnamon, and later in the afternoon, jasmine. The countryside is littered with houses, all in the butter-coloured Salentine limestone, either half-crumbled or half-built. The only sign of activity is a group of men planting out an entire field of solar panels.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Lecce, Puglia

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.

Italy, and why I'm here

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.

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase