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.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009


Written later: This picture, the sign of the church linked to the centre I was staying in, pretty much sums up my trip to Ischia: -nothing went right and, despite the kindness of strangers, I just had to escape back to the mainland as soon as I could. I found the bakery that supplied our dark-crusted bread. The baker's wife, who was young and very happy in her work, showed me around the silent and fairly large workrooms. Nose-tingling wafts of fermenting biga escaped under the lids of wooden dough troughs, and the ovens rattled as they cooled from the night's bake. She invited me to come and see the production, "especially"- (she blushed at her own enthusiasm) -"the wood-fired oven. It's beautiful!". It was, the lip of the hearth-stone worn shiny, and the straight-twigged faggots resting against it to dry for the next firing.
However, because the bakery would not open for another 2 days, the next day being a Sunday followed by a Feast Day... and I didn't want to stay in Purgatory for that long, I decided to call it quits and head back to the mainland.
What did I learn, then, from such an abortive trip? I think back to what the bus driver was saying, recall that he changed the bus route so that he could show me 'the best bakery on Ischia'. What I saw was a brand new building, done up with massive, yellow wheat sheaves in lit-up plastic. It looked like a fast-food drive-in, and it made me feel uneasy, this glowing monster could swallow anything.
I thought about Michael Pollan's introductory chapter in his book In Defense of Food: He supposes that we will be asking something like "Why should I listen to an American [Pollan] telling me [a European] how to eat, surely America's food culture is worse?". He answers that we should listen to warnings from America because they've already been through the worst. For us Europeans the worst is still to come, if we let it. He argues that Europe is not superior to America in eating more healthily, it is simply behind. We have yet to experience the realisation that novelty and ease should not exclusively guide us in our choice of foods. Pollan is keen to help us avoid that point of desperation that America reached, where skill and a sense of connection to, and responsibility for, oneself and one's neighbours become so lost that it would take a revolution to recover it. Around America, in pockets, a renaissance in traditional, 'Slow' food production is taking place. People are trying to get back to the holistic life that accompanied naturally-evolved ways of making food. Despite the long-term benefits of the holistic approach, it takes a level of commitment that condemns it to remaining (sic) simply a fad for most of us if there are other, more easily visible temptations in the way. I felt the truth of this very keenly on Ischia, where the bus driver's sentimental attachment to the good bread of his childhood was overruled by the draw of clean-cut, brightly-lit modernity.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

New Horizons, Ischia

My bus driver from Ischia Port asks me if it's okay by me (the only passenger) if he speeds round this circuit, it's the last of the day and nobody's out on a Sunday night. As we go, I tell him about why I'm on Ischia at the moment. He tells me, for the next half hour of hairpin bends and avoiding other vehicles, exactly how much better his grandma's bread was that anything he can buy now. "It would last for a long time, but even when it was stale, we'd halve it, dry it in the oven and eat it as a new thing." When he, too, claims: "We never throw anything away here", I'm cynical-"Really?" (I've been in Napoli, I've SEEN bread in a bin with my own eyes). He concedes that it's not the case any more. But you'd never throw away bread like that of his Nonna's...
Arriving at the hostel I'd booked and finding it dark and locked up, I begin to panic. It's nearly midnight and I consider just curling up on their step with my blanket and reading Pinocchio 'til I fall asleep. (No really! Pinocchio is such a beautiful story - and he has a hat made of bread!) But then a lady drives by, scrutinising me carefully. This is not unusual: -I think as long as One remains a signorina rather than a signora, One is public property for a good old stare. However, I jump up, get her to wind down her window and explain my predicament, and she says she thinks she knows another place. She drives me back the way I came, then down a side road, down another smaller road, to a pair of solid gates.
She leaves me here at the New Horizons centre, a Catholic institution for recovering alcoholics, ex-homeless people and others with problems. Everyone comes out of their rooms to see what's going on and the capo of the centre tells me the problem, for him, is that I'm not wearing a wedding ring. No need to remind me. I am completely delighted anyway, to be welcomed in and given a room.
Someone suggests I might be hungry and the two young guys on night duty slip into the kitchen and magically create - at one o-clock in the morning - a hot bowl of perfect pasta with meat sauce. It comes with bread, which is stale but has been heated in the oven to give it another chance. The bread is black on the outside, from its first cooking. The bitter burnt flavour of the crust competes with a tangy, slightly sour-perfumed crumb. I ask where the bakery is found, and get three different replies and lots of laughing. "Where am I, now?" Tomorrow, vediamo.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Panetteria Mercadante, Altamura

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

An unexpected use for bread...

With the advent of, er, Advent, Presepi - Nativity scenes - have started appearing in the town squares and churches. They are often life-sized, and always produced with painstaking attention to detail. I have wandered into this exhibition by Altamuran model-maker Vito Cicirelli without being fully prepared for the bizarre and ingenious craftsmanship that can be inspired by religious devotion. Here the Holy Family shelter within the comforting goodness of... a 5kg loaf of Pane di Altamura. A light brings out the lovely yellowness of the durum wheat crumb.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Panificio e Biscottificio F.lli Di Gesu', Altamura

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

Non Solo Pane, Altamura

Altamooooooooorah, as it is locally called, is 600 metres above sea-level, with roads of modern tower blocks trickling down the hill from the beautiful walled historical centre. It's wintry compared to Lecce. The streets are shiny with drizzle and I am forced to walk very slowly because the stone is so slippy and sloped. It feels very christmassy here, there are beautiful hams hung in the window of the Salumeria, wrapped in red paper like bouquets. Their exposed bone is gilded. Food is a celebration.
In Italy, shops can be serve a very specific purpose. In fact, Italian law makes it hard to sell too many different things under one roof - If the range is daringly varied, however, the shop might be called "Not Only...", Non Solo....
In this Non Solo Pane, you could buy pizza by the metre, pies and sandwiches. I like the way that it's necessary to warn customers that they'll find more to tempt them than they might expect.

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase