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.

Saturday, 13 February 2010

A trip into the countryside with Marco

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” ( 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.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Panificio Simili, via della Felice, Bologna

As I said, I wanted to go and see the bakery that carries the name of the Simili family, despite the fact that the Sorelle Simili have not been involved in it for years, and they told me not to bother looking in.

It is large, high-ceilinged and empty-feeling. Is it by some unfortunate coincidence or is it my imagination, that this bakery seems to attract Bologna's most petite residents? Everyone who enters, in their fur coats and berets, looks tiny in front of the high glass counter.

I have come at the end of the day, and there is next to nothing left in the display. A steady stream of customers comes in, each on asks for something the shop's already run out of, and most people leave empty-handed. I say 'ask', but to me it sounds like they demand, but this is just a cultural difference that I've not got over yet. Italians don't use as many 'please's and 'thank-you's as perhaps we do in English. Ordering a coffee, you say "a coffee", rather than what I say: "Please can I have a coffee, thank you very much" - I end up sounding excessively polite here.

The lady behind the counter manages to keep up an unbroken phone conversation for the hour that I'm there, despite all those pesky customers. When she finally rings off, it's time to close the blinds and shut up the shop for the long lunch-break. She shows me the bakery, which is long and low, with a small white-enameled oven at each end, and the ready-weighed flour sitting in the bowls of the mixers for tomorrow morning. The workshop also produces filled fresh pasta in the Bolognese tradition, and biscuits whose buttery perfume still lingers deliciously.

The shop itself looks like it's been gutted. I ask whether it was all sold today. "No, there's just no point in filling the shelves any more. Up to about three years ago, people would come here for their flour, oil, vanilla and baking powder as well as bread, but now there are three big supermarkets close-by and no point in even trying to keep up with them." She tells me that they're going to take out the empty shelves and put up big photos of the shop dating from when it was the booming family-run business it used to be. I wonder what the Sorelle Simili would think of this, let alone what purpose it would serve.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Mulino Ferri, Sasso Marconi

I have taken the bus from Bologna to Sasso Marconi, named after the inventor of the radio. His family lived here. Marconi's tomb, a massive fascist-era monument, is along this road. I am coming to visit Mulino Ferri, supplies of flour to il Forno di Calzolari and member of MontagnAmica.

Miller Marco Ferri, shoulders hunched, meets me at the door of his mill. The machinery is running but he and his family - brothers, sister, brother-in-law, and niece and nephew - don't have to do much more, at the present moment, than oversee it. The air in the mill is cold and he has his shoulders hunched and his hands tucked into his pockets. To replace the normal Italian hand gestures, at each outburst, he flaps his elbows.

How come your family are millers? “It's because we're all mad. They started it for a joke in '53.” He expels a mad laugh and his family, who are eagerly gathered around him as we talk, all fall about laughing too, all pink-cheeked. “The mill is like a beautiful woman, una bella donna, it draws you in, you fall in love and you couldn't leave it even if you wanted to.”

At the start, 'third-party' individuals would speculatively buy wheat, bring it to be ground, then sell on the flour. Now small entrepreneurs like that have been replaced by the very big industrial mills. He can remember, not so long ago, when the grain would arrive on ox- or horse-drawn carts. The iron rings to which the horses were tethered are still in the wall out front. He recalls them carrying all the grain-sacks on their backs up the set of steps to tip into the hopper of the stone mill. This is the mill whose photograph is displayed on their flour-bags, which now sits, looking tiny and hic, in a cobwebby corner.

Now, they mill the flour between rollers. They progress from grain to fine flour in small increments so as not to overheat or damage the flour. The mill could work faster, but they are happier to work more slowly for a better quality of flour. You can see the contained rollers in the picture of the family, with the tubes that whisk each grade of flour up though two floors, down through the sorting machine and back to the next set of rollers along for step-by-step refining. The whole building vibrates, it feels like I'm in the stuffy engine-room of a ship, complete with gangways and treacherous ladders connecting the 4 floors of machinery.

His considers his work for MontagnAmica, whose grain he machines, to be more for the community than for money. He sees himself as part of an effort to maintain local grain cultivation and keep the community together. “If we don't act, everyone will disappear from the countryside.”

Next door to the tall, square mill, his sister Anna is running the shop. It sells flours and biscuits a well as animal feed. He presses two bags of flour into my hands and then he and his sister take it upon themselves to brush all of the flour from the air in the mill off me. They dust me down, then give me a thorough sweep with a stiff brush. It's like a flour spa-treatment.

I ask Marco what he particularly likes about this job: “The flour, when it's milled well and it's come from the mill into the flour bags. It's not compacted at this point. I run my fingers through it and it's like clear water - limpida come' l'aqua.”

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.

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.

Il Forno di Calzonari, Bologna

Today, the shop of the bakery I'll be visiting on Thursday. I met the baker and proprietor Matteo Calzonari at the Pasta Madre convegno, where he gave a presentation on his business's involvement in the organisation of local, organic producers called MontagnAmica. He and his forno are located in Monghidoro, 30km South of Bologna, but every morning half of the bread is driven into the city to his other shop in Via delle Fragole (Strawberry Street, next to Raspberry Road: Via dei Lamponi).

Matteo and his wife Stefania, who runs the shops, sell – as well as bread, pizza, biscuits and stffed fresh pasta – local, organic wine and beer, cold meats, milk, cheese, jam and ready-to-eat pasta sauces. Information about Organic (Biologico) certification is displayed on a music-stand, and every product, including bread, has a handwritten tag giving the the ingredients and their origin. The choice of breads changes from day to day: today, there's one dotted with hazelnuts. The speciality breads are popular enough that people come by to ensure that they'll get a loaf from tomorrow's farro – spelt – mix. At the same time as being convincingly 'organic', this shop feels modern, in being clean, light and warm. Whilst stressing the goodness of the produce, the didactic shop display gives an explanation of what's good about the bread and a big, stunning photo of a Munghidoro field of wheat.

Everyone who comes in for their pane quotidianale pauses after they've got their bread and asks for una fettina -a little slice- of this, un'assagio (a taste) of that or un pochino of the other. The shop's quite small and the warm air smells not only of bread, but chocolate, toasted nuts and seeds, biscuits, honey and lots of other temptations. Alessia, the girl behind the counter, tells me that people seek out this bakery because it's unusual in its holistic approach, then they keep coming back because of the quality of the bread. Seeing one of the shop's older regulars approaching, Alessia runs to put a chair by the counter for him, and he stays for a good half an hour - I talk to him and discover that coming here is the highlight of his day. He stays for half an hour, tells me about his wife who can't leave the house, his wooden leg, his child and grandchild who died, his few surviving siblings from a family of ten. While Alessia brings him his bread and pasta, putting it in his bag for him, I try to think of something more positive to talk about. What's the secret to his longevity? “Eat little, but eat well. If you eat this bread, you eat well.”

Monday, 8 February 2010

Bologna streets

A day spent wandering through the city streets of Bologna. In the province known as 'the Stomach of Italy', Emilia Romagna's capitol city is clearly enjoying the bonta' - a word that I've heard used far more frequently in Italian than it's English equivalent: bounty - of its varied and generous cuisine. Around the central Piazza Maggiore, the incessant clatter of cutlery and of coffee-cups rings through the little side streets. University students stand about looking gorgeous in the dappled sunlight under the frescoed vaults of colonnaded walkways. Coming from Cagliari, this city feels so Northern and cosmopolitan. That said, there is no Big City rush about this place. It seems absolutely acceptable, thank goodness, to dawdle in front of each bakery.

The bakerys' windows are stuffed with with Bolognese pastries and breads, crunchy and rich with strutto and coccioli (lard and pork scratchings-type pieces of pork), as well as hand-made fresh pasta, panettone and colourful and delicate Viennoiserie. Though I thought that bakeries down South offered quite a range, theirs would look somewhat limited next to the dazzling choice offered here.

Right at the start of this trip I realised that, because I'm used to paying so little for my food in the UK, I find all food in Italy expensive. This place, however, seems to take the (expensive) biscuit. Entering a supermarket and feasting my eyes on the beautiful way that everything is packaged, I note the international choice of foods. I always feel rather disappointed that Britain's contribution to the world of food is always Instant Porridge Oats, to be eaten 'for slimming'. Queueing behind a fur-coated Signora who pays €11.45 for tinned Brussels Sprouts (I'm not sure which bit of this sentence not to italicise), I decide that I can live quite happily on the bread and fresh cheese that Luigi gave me yesterday, and settle for un'etto (100g) of garlicky Mortadella di Bologna.

Yesterday at Luigi's gave me a lot to think about in relation to the distance between producer and consumer. I'm a bit humiliated that my home country (that's Britain, I'm not foolish enough to narrow it down to Wales) is hardly represented on the international food scene, in terms of recognisable traditional products, and I find it maddening to be told all the time how bad the UK's food reputedly is (“You don't have any good bread in your country, do you?”). However, I realise that it's not my problem, or rather, I'm only responsible for doing the best that I can without a 'mea culpa' for the past and present dross. I don't want to make something to be sold in Bologna, I'm looking far closer to home. I saw, in Luigi, the immense satisfaction of being personally in contact with the people eating his bread.

Since the beginning of this trip, my interest has leaned more and more towards an interest in a quality of life rather than simply the qualities of bread. I have found delicious bread at every stop, but I wouldn't want to take it home with me, even the loveliest, longest-lasting pasta madre loaf. It was never my intention (even if I were able) to recreate recipes that I've encountered here, back home. Far more important, I feel, to be in and of my own community. At the moment, and in the best way, my inspiration is coming far more from the bakers than their bread.

Madeleine (Dilly) Boase