Marco, my ex-colleague from my London bakery days (*sigh*) proposes taking me to visit a baker he's heard of in the Romagnan countryside, well south-east of Bologna. We dawdle towards the bakery because we're so early, and Marco decides to pass some time by taking me to the house of Romuolo and Maria-Rosa, to show me some thatched roofs made of bulrushes. There turns out to be far more to see: Romuolo collects old farm-machinery, from huge tilling contraptions to tiny bits and pieces from farm kitchens. He's not there when we arrive, but his wonderfully mad-as-a-hatter wife Maria-Rosa shows us around, shouting explanations at me from about my waist-level (because, as we English-speakers know, foreigners understand things better if you say them LOUDER). The collection is just for Romuolo's own interest: -it's not generally open to public viewing. Amongst the very organised exhibition, which takes up three large barns, a shed and a cottage, there are lots of old bread-related things: sieves, pans and most interestingly for me, hand-operated kneading machines. Two of them are wooden chambers containing an extended cog turned by a wheel on the outside. The dough was locked into the chamber and the handle turned to squash and stretch the dough against the cog until the gluten is developed and it feels smooth. The second kind of machine is a two-person job: one would raise and lower a lever connected to a plank that pivoted across the kneading table, the other would place the dough under the plank to be flattened, then gather it up, turn it and repeat the squashing. Maria-Rosa shows me an etching of two turn-of-the-century ladies in massive skirts operating this machine. Though it's not depicted in the image, I can imagine that you'd get pretty impressive muscles from this one.
We are invited to lunch here, and after we've been down the road to meet the baker, Cesare, we arrive back for a warming bowl of home-made, filled pasta cappeletti in ragu' ...followed by slices of coppa di testa, slices of a different coppa di testa, smaller peppery pork sausages cooked over the fire, radicchio, ricotta, hard cheese, oranges, home-made liqueurs, coffee, fruits in liqueur... Plus bread (this is the photo: the quarter-round is a bit of Piadina made by Maria Rosa. Piadina is the bread of this area - all the way here, we've been seeing signs for La Vera Piadina (The True Piadina) pointing the way to roadside eateries. Leavened with baking powder, rolled out flat and baked in a pan, it must be eaten fresh and tastes similar to scones. In the middle is a fruit-bread from our visit to the bakery, fragrant with fennel and delicious enough to eat even after the rest of the feast. On the left, scattered about, is white bread from the Hypermarket, which Maria-Rosa says makes her feel ill but she 'has to' buy it. Under its dry crust it has a certain nothingness to it, like candy-floss, when you press it between your fingers.)
It is a huge privilege to be invited into someone's, a real person's!, home and to be able to observe their not-so-normal life and attitudes. Perhaps she thinks nothing of it, but I am inspired by Maria-Rosa's masterful approach to her surroundings, being fairly self-sufficient without showing off or apparently struggling. Their son, who has his mother's same way of talking non-stop as if the only way to expel air is in the form of words, is more consciously 'regressive' in his lifestyle, because he's a keen scuba-diver and links modernised farming directly to the disappearance of the underwater flora and fauna of the local coast-line. He is absolutely convinced that the world is mad and dangerous, and the only thing to do is to reject the world. The world is mad enough to make his mother feel compelled to buy bread that she doesn't even like. I ask her how bread has changed in her lifetime:
“Once upon a time, bread gave off a perfume. It perfumed! Maria Rosa - that's me – made bread with her mother when she was only two, or three years old. My mother was a baker, as fast-moving as a bird in flight. So I know very well how to make bread. I do recall that my mother would put chemicals, a pinch of something, in her bread to make it rise better, but now we have all sorts of poisons in our bread and they're not used innocently any more. If you return to very basic bread-making, it's as simple as this: If the flour is good, the bread will be good. Today, the bread that you can buy disgusts me (except perhaps Cesare's – I've only ever bought biscuits from him).
“When I was young, I had to have my tonsils taken out. My mamma recalls me crying- “Even though I can't eat bread, at least let me smell it's perfume!” Now, in the winter, my grandchildren come to see the tractors. I tell them that the tractors are sleeping, but under the snow, I tell them, there are stems of wheat bursting from their seeds. They must be told that you have to be patient for good bread. La Pazienza e la virtu' dei forti – 'Patience is the virtue of the strong'
"I make bread today but, with lievito di birra, the things I make dry out too quickly, they're only good on the day they're made. It has all changed. You -” (me) “-must do beautiful things, and in this way we will maintain the equilibrium of the world. Life is hard enough to drive you mad if you don't find beautiful things within your days. Go and make good things!”
We visit the tiny bakery of Cesare at Mandriole Sant'Alberto, driving through vine-covered plains that are fertile because they were originally part of the now-drained lagoon of the Po delta. Dykes protect the lower-than-sea-level ground. As the temperature drops, mists roll in and I feel like I'm in a watercolour painting.
The first thing that Cesare wants to talk about is the oven, which is horse-shoe shaped, 3m in diameter (as big as the bakery itself). He personally restored it with the help of the son of the original builder. It must be lit every day to maintain the right temperature for bread-baking. It takes years to get used to, and become good at using, the oven. Although electric ovens are easier, they do not produce the same results. “The oven itself has decades of experience.” His system for telling when the oven is ready for the bread involves spraying a jet of water from a bottle into different areas of the oven and listening to the specific pitch of the 'ksssshhhhhhhh!' it makes. He cocks his ear towards it, and 'hears' the temperature is right to start loading in the trays of fastidiously neatly-laid biscuits.
It's a black oven – the fire is lit in the oven chamber, then brushed out once the stone walls are holding enough heat to bake bread and afterwards, as he's doing when we arrive in the late morning, baking biscuits. There's a banana-shaped metal trough hugging the inside right-hand curve of the oven, which is filled via a tap operated on the outside wall. This provides steam which, in the initial stage of baking, softens the crust of the bread so that the loaf can continue to expand, and at the end of the bake, gives the crust of Cesare's bread a lacquered gloss.
Generally, I like to ask something about how bakers see their trade within the broader context of the food industry, whether they feel like they 'lose' or 'win' from the food chain. It this case, though, Cesare gets there before me, telling me about his determination to make his contribution to - and rewards from - the system, are fair. He has consciously chosen this work because it allows him to stand by his beliefs, and he hopes to contribute to a more happy and just society. His principles follow those laid out in la Carta della Terra, a document or manifesto for a new attitude to citizenship produced in 2000, that ends, “Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life” (www.earthcharterinaction.org). How amazing, that when I started out, I was just asking people about what temperature they bake their bread at, and now I've got to this...
He is 43 years old, though his fresh and lovely face suggests something closer to 25. (Is the secret to eternal youth hidden here, somewhere between the lines of perfect biscuits?) I ask him how he started baking and his face lights up, cheeks go even pinker, as he tells me that the passion came to him when he was young, from watching his father bread-making. His father was also a fornaio, beginning professionally in '56, and before him, his grandfather made bread, but only at home. His grandfather had a forno comunale to which other people would bring their home-made loaves to be baked. “For the most part, it was the women who'd bring their loaves to our house, and they stay for a gossip. My father became a sort of telegraph for all the news of the area.”
Cesare didn't immediately choose to take up the same profession as his father, but went off to train as a chef. (This explains the orderliness. The bakery is warm but sterile-feeling, in its white-tiled neatness. The two rooms are tiny but sparklingly clean and perfectly laid-out, more like a large laundry-room than a small bakery.) After Hospitality college, he did lots of work-experience “to learn the right attitude” - self-disciple that has continued to serve him well as a baker. He worked as an hotel chef, “but at a certain point, I decided that I'd have to be mad to continue with this work, which was non-stop and left no time for myself, and so...(he shrugs, points around him and smiles.)” His experience as a chef gave him both pride in his professionalism and a passion for creating beautiful combinations of flavours. Being a chef in a small kitchen and being a baker calls for different strengths - while often the chef is called on to create variety, the baker is expected to excel in producing consistency, year in, year out.
Some of the recipes are his grandfather's, others are his. He is able to be creative, but “you have to know traditions too.” Customer demand at the moment, for example, says that it's worth his while to make traditional Carnevale sweets, fried chiacchiere ('chatters' - so called because they make such a noise when you eat them) and Tuscan castagnaccia, rich and addictive chestnut-flour and cocoa pudding strewn with pine-nuts and sultanas. I ask if good bread is an elitist thing for him: He doesn't want it to be, but he finds himself surrounded by neighbours who are fairly poor and buy cheaper bread than his at the Hypermercato. His higher-paying customers come from a good distance away, knowing of him by reputation.
For Cesare, this is more than work, it's a way of life that concerns him morning, noon and night, because caring for the oven and the pasta madre doesn't fit into normal working hours. This can be a problem: “I have a colleague who helps out here sometimes, who lives 20km away, and he sees it only as a job. If you do so, you soon start asking yourself: -what's the point?” He's looking for someone to share the work with at the moment, but can't find anyone who can do the hours. “They see only the complexities, and none of the opportunities that this work offers.” He himself lives opposite the Panificio, so he - conversely - has plenty of time to enjoy life with his family, occasionally popping across to do what needs to be done. It suits his, as it suited his father.
“When you put in passion and professionalism, and you stick by your own values, what you do in your work will be of great value to you. Other than monetary value, I mean. The experience that constitutes a life lived, in which you have seen the gratitude of customers for the efforts you've made... and the economic return that that brings. When you work from the spirit, from your own values rather than only for the money, you see everything that the extra effort produces and it is complementary to the joy of the work itself.” This is such a lovely attitude! Instead of seeing his work as a wrong to be righted, he feels both rewarded by the work and it's returns.
Another Japanese name for me to remember: He talks about Kiguci, who taught that we should base our choice of work on the principle of 'beni, bello e buono'. Beni – 'benefits' for Cesare, economic, enough to survive on, bello – 'beautiful', something that pleases you to do, and buono – 'good', something that you can share with other people in society. After I've heard all of this from Cesare, I am filled with excitement to get home and get to work... something I'd generally never say!
The pasta madre he uses was started by his father at the birth of his bakery in '56. “Lievito di birra makes bread that looks good, whereas lievito madre makes bread that, maybe doesn't look great -” (I disagree!) “- but gives the bread greater flavours, perfumes, longer life and better digestibility.” He uses the metaphor of a wild trout and a farmed trout: the farmed trout, whilst larger and more convenient, lacks the flavour and the vitamins of its wild cousin. He refreshes his pasta madre every day in the morning, evening and at midnight. It's then fairly active, and bread can be made from it within 4 hours. He makes plain loaves, one of which we buy, as well as breads with strutto (lard) and a kind of sweet, fruited lardy-cake, a local speciality that he revived.
We drive back at break-neck speed because we're late for lunch, with me clutching a loaf of bread that is satiny-brown, light and hard-shelled like a blown egg-shell. We eat this loaf later with supper. It is intensely vinegary, which I'm not sure I like, and it's too fluffy for my tastes but it disappears within five minutes, between 8 of us (I'm in Marco's friends' kitchen). The shattered crust lies in pieces all over the table and we all sink into a collective post-white-bread coma.