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, 9 February 2010

Sorelle Simili, bakers and teachers

It is so exciting for me to be invited to the home of the Sorelle Simili, twin sisters famous here for their bakery, their books, their cookery school and now their work in encouraging people to bake at home. I met them at the Pasta Madre convention on Saturday, but I first heard of them ages ago from my Head Baker in London - (Is there a better term for 'Head Baker'? Should it be capitalised? Eeh!) They are authoritative and at the same time sweet as anything: they have a devoted fan club over here. Born in 1936, into a baking family, they continue to be part of the evolution of Bolognese and Italian habits and appetites.

We sit down with a pot of perfume-y tea at a marble-topped table (ideal for making pastry on, methinks). Valeria does the talking, with Margherita occasionally finishing Valeria's sentences. “In the world of today, we have lost the habit of making things at home, with you children, your friends. Working together is a way of socialising. In addition, there is the question of our health: Making food for yourself, or knowing the person who's made it, means that you can know or find out what's been put into it. If you buy good ingredients, you'll make a good thing. But we are interested in its importance for our moral health too, not only physical.”

They are convinced that something must be done to save us from ourselves and the treadmills we find ourselves on. “People are losing the occasion and the opportunity for these simple pleasures. We understand that people must work, that people are busy, but to work in front of a computer all day long, without producing anything with their hands, penalises rather than rewarded for their hard work. Without the bella satisfaction of transforming something, with your own hands, life is empty.

“We talk about our children, who grow up without smelling the perfume of something baking in the oven. At least on the weekend, I think people should make something to eat at home. We have less money now, relatively speaking, but the solution is not to buy ready made food or to go out to eat. What can we do about the situation that we are in, where farmers have no incentive to improve the quality of what they produce. Do we really have to eat apples grown in Connecticut? It's absurd! It's scandalous now that you even have to read the ingredients on a bag of flour, to see in there are added conditioners, added gluten etc. Good flour costs three times as much, but the reimbursement may come in different ways.”

Valeria tells me their story, beginning: “For us, the importance of bread is more than for most: our parents met in a bakery: she was the shop-girl and he worked in the bakery.” In 1929, their parents opened their first bakery and in '46, they opened a second forno in Via San Felice, Bologna, which is still there and still carries the family name. It has changed hands, however, and I am instructed by them not to bother going to see it...

“We lived and breathed this bakery, always hearing them talk about it and knowing that they worked with great passion. In 1950, we left school and starting working full-time in the bakery. I'd worked there on-and-off since the age of 12, though not for money. When there was work to be done, they'd call us down to the bottega. Our parents recognised the sacrifice we were making in terms of a social life.”

Margherita also worked for 2 years in a company that supplied the raw materials for bakeries, and so came to know everyone involved in commercial bread-making. They got to know who was good and who wasn't.

When they were in their mid-20's, the death of their mother and the departure of their sister, who went off to get married, left them with 13 employees, round-the-clock work and nothing left for themselves at the end of the day. They sold the business and started afresh, just Valeria and Margherita. They set up a bakery in a tiny posticino by the sea, 28mtres squared, and another in the mountains. It was enormously satisfying to be independently successful and the financial rewards were great, but the constant work asked too much of them. Their working day could last up to 17 hours, starting at 3am, but in this way the businesses grew and grew with their hard work. Each time they left something from exhaustion, as far as I can understand, they took on an even bigger challenge. In 1986 they opened a cooking school. It was a success but it wasn't very lucrative, being “more like an all-day restaurant for 12 people”. They've also written three books, most famously Pane e Roba Dolce – Bread and Sweet Stuff. (Bolognese speech has a monopoly over the words roba – 'stuff' and tipo – 'type', used as we use 'like', like. It's strange, feels teenager-y.)

They keep repeating: -If you work hard hard, you will earn. You will always earn less than those who cut corners and fiddle taxes, but the rewards of honest work are not only financial. On the subject of what price to charge: “It's not possible to sell bread at a high price. Bread is, and should be, for everyone. That doesn't mean you can't make very good bread. The important thing, though, is to make money on the smaller things such as little pastries that will be a treat. If you set out to take on this type of job, prepare yourself for hard work. The rewards, however, are great if you get it right.”

Valeria runs to get her lievito (pasta madre), which is in a Pyrex casserole dish. I ask why the dough, as I have seen also on other occasions, has a cross cut into it like this. She says she used to cut the dough to see when its growth had peaked (at which point it needs to be put in the fridge to calm it down), but now... she does it because it's physical habit, “because it pleases me to do it, he is always like this”. You called it 'him'? “He's our baby – nostro bimbo.”

“The bread we make at home, here, is quite a hard dough.” The newly refreshed pasta madre doesn't have the normal tang, and they tend to keep it from fermenting too fast. (The different alcohols produced by fermentation turn to vinegar, one of the main contributors to the flavour of the baked loaf, and here the idea is to commence with a less acidic dough which allows, instead, a sweeter floury flavour to come through.) “We Bolognese are used to a slightly 'sweet' flavour in our bread. Our bread is naturale, but is easier for those unused to the flavour of sourdoughs.”

They are now on a mission to teach people to bake pasta madre bread at home, but have found an initial stumbling-block is the sanitisation of our homes and materials. To start a sourdough, you need only mix flour with water, and leave it in a warm place to ferment. Yeasts and bacteria living on the flour, in the water, the air... anywhere, take advantage of the presence of food and warmth and start to multiply, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide as they grow. This makes the bubbly, sour culture that can be used to leaven dough. The problem they've encountered is that people's homes are too clean and their flour too over-treated to easily produce a living culture.

If you want to try starting a pasta madre, try new, wholemeal stone-ground flour. It's more likely to get going faster because the natural flora of yeasts and bacteria will be just waiting for a bit of nutrition to wake them up. It makes sense that the yeasts that will grow best in flour will be those found naturally on the wheat grain (like the whitish stuff on the skins of grapes) but our flour is often too 'clean': even if it's called 'wholemeal', it can be a remix from separated and sanitised components. Another way of getting over this problem is one used by the sisters for their students: if a pasta madre is going strong, share it!

They've worked on working out simple systems and timetables for people to follow so that making bread at home is easy. After starting the pasta madre culture initially, it should be easy to maintain and make use of. Their system, which makes a dry dough in the Bolognese style, is: Taking 400g of pasta madre, add 400g flour and 200g water and leave for 3 or 4 hours. At this point, 600g can be made into a loaf, adding salt, and 400g can go back in the fridge for the next time. Simple. Can I try this bread? No, because it was made yesterday. Today they've made biscuits instead. I have a biscuit - a crisp, sweet, mostarda-filled raviolo - and would like to have had more.

I am sad to go - they're so lovely! - they both (though they have no children) seem very maternal and I'm sure that this works in their favour when trying to teach people. I walk back into town past their old bakery, which is closed for lunch but looks closed full stop. Against instructions, I'm going to have a look in when its open.


  1. You can really imagine those ladies from the pictures, Dill, they are so characterful!

    By the way, the words to check that I'm not a spammer leaving a comment get ever more obscure: 'oveleppr'?

  2. Brilliant writing Dill. Who's your publisher?
    luv Wussian


Madeleine (Dilly) Boase