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.