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, 31 January 2010

A bread story from il Signore Camba's youth

Correcting the grammar in my list of questions, my host Tore' laughs because the question “What does bread mean to you?” is so ridiculous to him. Not in the way that I'd think, that it was bizarre or irrelevant, but because the role bread is too important to call into question. It's like being asked what the colour green means for you, and having to imagine a world without green.

“Se manca il pane, manca un pezzo di se stesso”

-If you're without bread, you are missing a part of yourself-

If bread is so necessary, why is Emilio (the baker downstairs) lamenting the diminishing demand for bread? “Because young people have never experienced scarcity.”

Tore' tells me this amazing story about his youth:

He was one of ten children, 10 “hungry wolves”, and the whole family got through 15-20kgs of bread every day. Bread and cheese was their staple diet: “It sounds like a lot, but it's hard to get fat on bread.” However, the bread ration during WWII was 200g each, next to nothing!

Cagliari suffered badly under air raids, and Tore's parents moved out to a place in the countryside. He can remember joining a stream of fleeing city-dwellers. They went by car, and he recalls the mystified faces of villagers who'd never seen a car in motion before. They weren't poor, comparatively, but there was no goods to buy. You could get hold of bread from 'under the counter' -pane di nascosto- but it was often so bad, augmented with bran, acorn flour or even woodshavings, that Tore's brother came up with his own way to get hold of more bread:

He'd watch the chimneys of the other houses for any sign of smoke, then run to the door of any house in which he saw that a fire had been lit. He knew that this meant they were getting ready to bake their bread, and he'd found the perfect moment to go in and ask for a bit of the refreshed pasta madre- “-because my mother needs it.” A living leaven was a precious and shared resource before the existence of commercially-available compressed yeast. He'd bring home his ball of dough, roll it out very, very thin and toast it to make his own version of Carta di Musica. The other villagers must have been thinking, Tore' says, “wow, these Cagliarese must bake a lot!”

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Pane Carasau

A meeting with Giulia Annis, of Slow Food Cagliari. Giulia throws herself into ringing around all of here Slow Food friends to find someone who knows someone who ...thinks they know someone who makes bread with pasta madre. It feels like a bit of a wild goose chase, but with the added possibility that, perhaps, the goose doesn't even exist. Giulia is lovely, busy but accommodating. She's just been re-elected Convivium Leader for the local branch of the Slow Food organisation and has just returned from a month spent in India with SF bigwig Vandana Shiva. I leave our meeting a little down-hearted because we find so many dead ends, but optimistic because Giulia has so much energy and passion for what she does.

For lunch, after the mandatory tonne of gorgeous pasta, we eat Carta di Musica bread with fresh sheeps-milk ricotta and a glass of acidic red wine.

First, a note on the wine: Table wine doesn't just come in wine bottles, cartons, or plastic bottles, it comes – I couldn't believe my eyes at first – from what looks to me like a petrol pump in a petrol station. Or a wine pump in a wine station, if that'd mean anything to anyone back home.

Carta di Musica, or 'Pane Carasau', as it's called in Sardo dialect, is amazing stuff. It is to my great disappointment that I can't go now to see it being made. It is winter (though this seems hard to believe, what with the hot sun, the flowers in full bloom, and us eating fresh, tiny broad beans) and the workshops are closed. This crisp, delicate bread doesn't have to be made year-round because it lasts so well. It is made by rolling out a leavened dough into very, very thin rounds. These are stacked, interleaved with cloths, allowed to rise and then baked individually. Put into a hot oven (450-500C), the rounds puff up instantly and the baker must, quickly while the bread's still soft, cut through the edge to make two separate rounds, which then get cooked again separately. The paper-thin (hence the name) breads are then stacked again to flatten them, and allowed to cool and dry out.
Carta di Musica is good just as it is, or with a knife-tip of ricotta scraped over its semolina-gritty surface. It was traditionally the long-lasting sustenance of shepherds, and was also dampened until soft and used as the Sardo version of pasta cannelloni and lasagne. I like it most heated in the oven with a bit of olive oil and lots of salt. Tore' smacks the middle of the round sheet of golden Carta to shatter it, then we eat the salty shards with the red wine. The Italian language is very rich in onomatopoeic words, and the ones that leap to mind are croccante (crisp) and sgrannocciante (crunchy).

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Panificio Artigiolas & Porcu SNC, Cagliari

I notice as I walk through the door that there is no hustle or hassle about this place. The ratio of workers to work is, it seems to me, fairly high. Nobody's actually standing about but there's a lot of pausing. The place is spacious, with two large rooms, plus a good-sized pastry department and then the shop at the front. The business takes up most of the ground floor of an apartment block on Cagliari's Via della Pineta. If I lived above it, I would be woken up by the delicious wafts of fresh bread, vanilla and lemon zest. I wish I could bottle this fragrance!

Emilio, the proprietor, starts at 3am by which time there's already dough to be shaped for Pane dei Riti or Coccoi, very elaborate little shapes for special occasions. These command a high price already, so Emilio makes them even more special by using Sardo wheat, Gran Capelli. “Our grain is the best in the world, but I don't use it all the time, no-one can, because it's too expensive. It used to be cheap, or at least the same price as the foreign imports, but the trouble started when Italy joined the European Common Market. We don't have the same intensive farming methods, we don't have the climate or the local varieties that support two harvests of wheat every year. Still, it makes the best bread.”

There are two main doughs, made with cheaper flour from the Italian mainland, one very soft for making facaccine, 80% hydration (this is a Bakers' Percentage: the flour weight is taken as 100%, so it's 800ml of water to a kilo of flour) and the other rather tighter for roselle and tartarughe, machine-stamped 'rosettes' and criss-cross cut 'turtles'. Three separate mixes of each are made throughout production, allowing the customers to always be sure of finding piping hot new breads from the time that the shop opens, around 6.30am, to it's closure at 1.30pm.

During Emilio's life as a baker, what's changed? He says that customers have become much more exacting. Though they eat less bread in total, they want far more choice. Before the two World Wars, they made three types of bread -e basta! Now there are 20. They feel forced to produce this huge variety because bread consumption is dropping so rapidly, they have to offer an enticing choice. There are very few children around, and those that there are don't eat much bread. Now he has to go out of his way to produce a choice, also, of breads of different 'cookedness' because people specify the exact colour that they want their rolls to be. In the past, people just paid their money and took a mixed bag of bread.

The only thing that hasn't changed is the demanding early start and length of the working day. Emilio knows that bread can be made more quickly, but he won't compromise the quality of flavour that a slower rise gives. What time has been saved by the mechanisation of the bakery is again lost in the laborious work of making the thousands of small rolls which have succeeded the old, large family loaves.

Indeed, I am amazed by the sheer quantity of panini being produced. The very wet dough is divided into 6' sausages which are lain in pairs in wooden trays. The trays are filled with semolina grains so deeply as to look like sandpits. This takes the wet dough well, sealing it and allowing the bakers to chop down each length of dough into slices, without it sticking too much. When it does stick, it's like melted chewing gum – difficult to disentangle yourself from. The fragile slices of dough are spaced out on tele, mechanical fabric racks in which the risen breads can be put straight into the oven and deposited neatly in order on the oven base. There's a machine chugging out the roselle and tartarughe straight onto tele, too. I've noticed how well-equipped this place is: three sets of ovens and an abundance of machines, mixers, racks and trolleys.

There is a lack of working surfaces, however. Wearing little, boat-shaped bakers hats (which look classic, but have very modern built-in vents) three burly bakers stand elbow to elbow at one small table shaping larger rounds for Pane Sardo. Meanwhile Emilio and his right-hand man use a tiny table in a nook for their never-ending series of Pane dei Riti. This harder-dough breads rise very little, preserving their delicate forms. They're very popular, but take time as they're created by first slashing, then scissoring the dough. A good part of the production time is filled simply with the sound of snipping scissor blades. Emilio works at a gentle pace, eyes a little dreamy, moustache twitching in amusement at his own thoughts. Occasionally he beckons me over to ask obscure questions – Does Mcdonalds come from Scotland?; Do you use beer instead of water to make bread in England?; Have I seen that Tweed is coming back into fashion? Perhaps he is practising the ignoble Italian art of pulling my leg, but I think he's just following his thoughts.

Emilio is peaceable and content, Tibetan-monkish. He moves very slowly and I realise that he's very short of breath, most likely because of the flour. I haven't seen anyone yet wearing a dust-mask, in any bakery. I confess that I couldn't stand wearing one when I worked in a bakery, because it's so uncomfortable, but this is a lesson to me: -the poor man can't complete a sentence without running out of breath and his skin is grey, not just because we're all dusted with flour by this point.

He was 9 when he started – it was normal for children to work when he was young, and all of his family worked in their father's bakery, he's one of 9. He went to school until he was 11, until he'd learned how to read and write, then he only worked. “I went to work for other bakeries because there they would pay me. At home, they'd never pay you because there was no money.” He learned a lot working for other people- “What you're doing [my visits to bakeries] is a bellissima experience. Travelling and seeing other ways of doing things is very important. You don't grow if you stay still.” He tells me that he went into a bakery in Tunisia and asked, just like me, if he could stay there the whole day and observe: He invited the padrone to visit Sardinia, but the man never did because he was so scared of leaving his bakery in the hands of his juniors.

I ask if Emilio had any choice about becoming a baker: No, not because he was forced by anyone, but because the stuff got a hold of him. He says, slowly: “Bread is love. What happens is, the baker falls in love with bread and then there is no choice.” He adds that producing bread is very hard work and you don't earn much: “don't believe that wages are generous. But you'll never lack work, you'll never lack anything, because bread is everything.”

What about the future of the bakery? Young people are a big concern for Emilio: He sees his workforce ageing, and doesn't hold out much hope that he'll find younger people who want to come and learn this craft. He expects that on the mainland this gap will be filled by migrant workers, but not in Sardinia! Here, they'll find somebody local in the end. He just can't see anyone young wanting to do this job. It's because of the working hours, young people want to be out at discos. (I find this unlikely, there is a real lack of jobs here, as well a real lack of nightlife. Perhaps being told that they'd be too lazy for the job might put young people off?) His own son hasn't become a baker, but works as shopkeeper of Emilio's other shop in Cagliari.


I ask about the traditional large Sardo loaf, Civraxiu: “We only make 'il vero' Civraxiu on the weekend. It takes too long, and people have come to expect it only at the weekends. The dough-making starts very early because it takes 7 hours of 'repose'. It's the kind of dough that needs little work: 20kg of dough done in a matter of minutes, divided by eye, shaped, then left to prove at a gentle pace. There are other types of bread that take so much more of the bakers' time, but the downside is that these Kilo-each loaves of Civraxiu take up space in the ovens for an hour or more. The temperature is lowered to cook the dough through without burning the outside.” In Civraxiu, pasta madre is the sole leavening agent because of its slow fermentation and distinctive flavour, though they put bit of pasta madre or biga in all the doughs to improve the flavour, texture and the length of time they'll last.

Emilio tells me that, in his opinion, this type of bread is on the way to extinction because it doesn't suit young peoples' life-styles. He frowns, then shrugs:- Young people apparently want soft, soft rolls that they can walk and eat at the same time... I suggest that the rise of interest in Quality over Quantity gives hope of saving traditional large loaves like this, and use the example of the popularity (and relatively high price) of large, rustic loaves sold in farmers markets in London. They've been made to seem desirable because of a change of marketing and attitudes, not particularly because of a change in the products themselves. How bad does food need to get before we reach a fully conscious appreciation of quality? For Emilio, it seems to him unlikely that this will happen soon enough in Sardinia: the dwindling demand for Civraxiu is going to end in its extinction. He can see the quality of bread overall slowly worsening.

I am thinking about Emilio's comment: “You can't charge above normal prices for normal bread.” and wondering when this 'normal' bread will be recognised as a luxury. For me, though I hate the idea of it, 'normal' bread is white sliced stuff that comes in packets. The good thing (!) about industrially-produced bread becoming my 'normal' is that I have recognised better bread as being better, which means I'm willing to pay more for it and I'm happy to do so because I'm treating myself to a 'luxury'. I'd like to be able, as a baker, to charge a price that properly rewards the costs of work and materials. There is a balance to be struck.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Arriving in Cagliari

A night ferry on a rough sea over from Civitavecchia to Cagliari, the capitol of Sardegna. It's raining heavily here and the damp air makes me cold to my bones. It's strange because it's hardly cold compared to snowed-in,-no-heating home, but somehow the cold is exaggerated by the presence of (for me) 'summer' vegetables in season and the saturated colours that the normally sun-bleached umber, ochre and burnt Sienna houses have taken on in the rain. My host, Tore', takes me to meet baker Emilio, who I'll be spending tomorrow morning. We buy some semolina-dusted foccacine (they look to me like little ciabatte, very light and nicely chewy) and take them up to Tore's apartment. Tore', my friend's uncle, is an aggressively generous host. There are no half measures in his servings of malloreddus (very savoury Sardo rice grain-like pasta) and there's always another course.
As we eat our way, thankfully slowly, through more food than I've seen in over a month – counting Christmas – we discuss the book I've just finished reading: Good, Clean and Fair, the 'manifesto' for a new attitude to food by Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini. Immediately, Tore' leaps to criticise ideas that I'd considered rational: “You must handle Petrini with pincers!” Similarly to several Italians with whom I've discussed this book, Tore' is sceptical about Petrini's motivations. Petrini must have a hidden agenda (i.e. he's in it for the money, like all those Politicians). When I put forward Petrini's idea that we can be active in re-implementing and safeguarding good practice, the response is always “Why change?” and never “why not change?”, it's always a shrug of “what can you do?” when we've already ascertained that there's something to worry about. What about young people, I ask, when every other advert on TV is for Mulino Bianco and Kinder? (These are respectively the Italian market-dominant industrial bakery with an unconvincing bucolic image, and that chocolate-egg maker cum single-portion snack provider for low attention-span 'healthy'-eaters.) “What can we do? Food is pleasure, you can't say otherwise.”
“And another thing” – Tore' wags a finger at me – “what's wrong with genetic modification, anyway?! It's only a speeded-up version of evolution!” Bingo! I'm trying to make some sort of tortuous analogy where a genetically modified wheat, or even just a plant from a different environment, is planted out and grows so fast is blocks out the light, stunting and killing the other plants... and I realise that it's the same with new and imported foods generally. That which hasn't evolved along with everything else in an environment has not stood the tests of that environment, and the other organisms in the environment haven't stood the test of it. This is how we end up so confused in our shopping and eating, it is the imbalance caused by novelty.
I told you it'd be tortuous. What all this comes down to (rather than, as it may seem, me being just scared of the 'new', of multinationals and industrialisation) is the well-supported hypothesis of Michael Pollan – In Defence of Food – that we should be defiantly anti-fad. Evolution is slow. I love bread because my mother has always made it. When I went to university and started eating Cambridge-process 'French' bread, it made me so ill I gave up bread... and anything wheat-based, completely, including my mother's bread. I'd forgotten to be intuitive and become reactive. I'd forgotten what I knew was good. So, in a way, Tore is right to be so reticent. Perhaps we will return to what we know is good, eventually. Can we afford to wait for the 'lack' to be felt, though? My friend Andy Forbes, baker and researcher, has an interesting insight into this question. He talks about the break in the chain of British baking culture, when the institution of the 'National Loaf', and 'National Flour' served to wipe out knowledge that had been accumulated over generations. My longstanding concern has been that the time it could take to forget what we originally depended on, trusted or knew was 'good', might be shorter than the time it takes to realise what we're missing.
However, in terms of the manufacture of good food, I am beginning to see things a little differently, with a lot more hope. I meet bakers who have inherited knowledge and, though it is venerable in its vintage and durability, it's weak because it can consist of beliefs held without question. I have begun to think that there is no grand secret to tap into, or to be lost, nor any fraternal bond that keeps standards up. There is only the magic created in each individual case. There are processes to copy or take inspiration from, and there are recipes and business plans that work better than others, but they can be modelled. Before, I was blaming the break in the chain of 'traditional' baking for the absence of some sort of (dare I say?) moral element in the production of food. (By 'moral', I mean, as Petrini defines it: good, clean and fair to everyone from the farmer to the consumer.) Now, I'm pretty convinced that that never really existed, seeing as everyone always feels like they're the victim of someone else in the 'food chain'. I'm wondering instead if this is an important opportunity to realise my responsibilities as an individual, to my own standards.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Well, long time no blog. First there was broken toe, which will continue to be a problem, I know; then I was anaemic, such fun; then there was christmas at home, which really was fun as I was able to try out baking techniques that I'd had the privilege of seeing in Italy; then there was snow, snow and more snow, which resulted in me not being able to leave home again to fly back to Italy; and now... I am all set to go back tomorrow, I just hope that the floods don't stop me!

An attempt to rethink my approach, in the meantime. From the first bakery I visited late last year, I encountered a problem of terminology and/or understanding. What began as a project about sourdough (pasta madre) breads has become more directed towards observations of the bakery because it is hard to find sourdough breads (those made exclusively with flour, water, salt and a natural culture of yeasts and bacteria). The bakeries I have arranged to visit generally use commercial yeast, even where I've been assured that the bread is made with a pasta madre.
Perhaps the confusion comes with the way that 'lievito di birra' (what we would call 'baker's yeast' - the strain Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which is cultured for commercial use) is thought of as a 'lievito naturale' ('natural leaven'). No-one's trying to mislead the customer, or me. I am becoming more aware that, in craft practices where knowledge has been handed down through generations of craftsmen, a particular term can take on a different meaning. (Differences in language are assumed to be my problem because I'm una straniera - a foreigner - not because a word is being used in the wrong way. It always make me laugh, and sometimes feel a bit frustrated, that I can say exactly what I want in a shop, and the shop keeper will try to sell me something different. When I say it's not what I'm looking for, I'm told "You haven't understood, signorina".)
The question "What is 'natural'?" is a big can of worms, and I'd be mad to suggest that using baker's yeast was 'unnatural'. However, my interest in sourdoughs, in particular, is more widely an interest in the baker's life and choice of process. Why would someone make the choice of wild yeasts instead of commercial yeasts and, in the rest of their lives as well as in the quality of their bread, what difference does this choice make?

So, going back to Italy, I hope that my change of direction leads to more sourdoughs. And if not, why not? Is the use of lievito di birra as dominant as I have seen so far? Are we seeing the death of the pasta madre bread-making process or, as I'd originally hoped, the a faint beginnings of a revival?

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase