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.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010


A train through a soggy, snowed-on mountainous landscape to Pianoro, south of Bologna, to meet Paolo Canto of MontagnAmica. This is the organisation that allows Matteo Calzolari, of il Forno di Calzolari, to source and mill his grain locally. Covering only a small geographic area, MontagnAmica aims to shorten the physical distances between - for example - farmer, miller, baker and consumer, as well as attempting to reduce the number of middlemen involved in the system, making sure the money goes to those doing the work. The idea is that, by promoting good farming practice and publicising its benefits to the consumer, the local area will gain both financially and socially.

I walk across the station forecourt to the office of MontagnAmica, past a life-sized plastic cow that is tethered to a milk-tank done up as an Alpine chalet. A lady pulls up in a 4x4, puts some coins into the machine which then pumps a litre of milk into the bottle she's brought with her. My friend Marco tells me that these machines were installed four years ago, by local dairy farmers who wanted a fairer deal. So progressive!

Paolo, with his goatee, looks a bit like Mr Tumnus (the snow helps). His office is festooned with leaflets about local produce and shelves hold bottles of local wine, packets of local produce and a sad-looking dessicated loaf of bread. I explain my interest in his organisation, expressing an interest in taking the route of the walk he's designed: la Via del Pane – the Bread Route. No can do, have I not seen the snow? Ok, I'll settle for an interview: What does this project mean to him? Though bread is only a part of what his organisation deals with, fortunately for me, it turns out to be his main 'thing'.

“I love bread – to make, to eat; I love trying new recipes and different types of grain...”

He learned bread-making at home, from his grandfather. Now he makes bread with his family two or three times a week using a pasta madre, plus public bread-making demonstrations (there's one on Sunday in Bologna) to encourage people to try baking for themselves or, at least, to think about what they're eating. He's not so interested having a leaven of some venerable age. If he's away for any amount of time, he'll throw out his old leaven because, for his tastes, it will have become too sour. Combining his personal love of good bread, and a mission to improve the lot of the local community, his main task in MontagnAmica, after setting up and maintaining relationships between producers, is to encourage local consumers to shop conscientiously.

“It's becoming more and more important to orient people, families, children, towards better food, for example: bread made in a certain manner, with pasta madre, locally-produced grain and locally-milled flour.” They have managed, commendably, to contain the whole process within a 10km area. “Also, we need to orient the farmers, millers and bakers towards activities that benefit the local community – to strive to optimise the quality of their work so that the final product, the bread, is guaranteed to be of higher quality.”

MontagnAmica aims to create a Filiera Corta. Bakers can pay more for their flour if their other costs, particularly transport, are lower. Farmers are encouraged, by being able to charge more for better quality grain, to farm the land less intensively, rotating crops and planting older grain varieties. Though non-modern grains give a lower yield, they produce much needed diversity, both for the environment and in the eventual flavour of the bread.

“We are responsible for labelling our products clearly: we have a lot to boast about and we need to tell people why some products are better that others. We can say how good the flour is, both to taste and for your health. At least it won't make you ill!” Does he mean he wants other products to be labelled 'this will make you ill'? “It's a pity, but it's generally the case that food is made with little regard for those who will eat it.”

He feels he's up against the publicity of the Multinationals, who cynically use all of the same qualitative, 'natural' and 'local' language that he does, and that he feels is rightfully his. “They succeed in convincing too many people.”

“Economic Colossi do the same marketing as we do, but I know the field, the mill, the oven: everything is transparent for everybody.” People can look at their local surroundings and see what they'll be eating. “But we don't have the economic means to make this into a national campaign.” I've been thinking a lot about this, about the difference between top-down and bottom-up approaches to effecting change in consumer habits. The benefit of MontagnAmica's tiny territory is that they can organise and discuss things as individuals. The disadvantage is that they feel that what they're doing is only a drop in the ocean, they feel their power is too small.

On a local level, he's doing everything he can to get people to engage with the project: They have set up signs to guide people around their own countryside, literally labelling the view. They've also designed a series of walks that link, in a short circular walk, the 'four essential elements for making bread': A field, a mill and a source of water (though not a working mill -there's only one functioning right now, though the countryside around here is peppered with abandoned watermills) and a wood-fired oven.

I leave him making a long phone-call about practicalities with a MontagnAmica colleague, gets quite agitated, repeating that he thinks someone's “fuori” (meaning fuori della zucca -out of their pumpkin). I can see that the beautiful idea of communicating on a personal level has it's problems. I can understand that it is possible to be more businesslike if the supply-chain is longer, as it renders individuals anonymous and less complex to deal with. The other side of the coin is that these people in this Filiera Corta eat together, talk together, are friends as well as colleagues. With a job as life-consuming as farming or baking, it is important for me that pleasure is found within the work rather than put off for when, or if, there is day off and earnings to spend.


  1. 'This WILL make you ill.' Yes, that would have been a useful lable for the bread M bought recently from Sainsburys. It was seriously designed to make you feel suicidal.

    'Wherefore spend ye on that which is not bread?' (Isiah?)

  2. yes, very clever Isiah! But, as I think Paolo would agree, the trouble is that, if we start quoting from the bible, what's to stop the Multinationals doing it too?
    The proof is, as always, in the (bread) pudding


Madeleine (Dilly) Boase