Yes, yes I know … these are strawberries, not bread. (Also not in the picture was a very good Torta Caprese too.) Bear with me.
And this is a main course of grilled lamb chops and beef short ribs. (Roast potatoes were served along with them.)
These, instead, are’nibbles’ that are so typical in and around Rome at this time of year: fresh broadbeans (fava beans) that pair so well with Roman pecorino cheese. As well as a most enticing spice-topped Robbiola cheese to be spread over home-made bread.
As you might have surmised, I am doing a meal ‘backwards’. The meal in question was only less than a week ago, on May 1st, “primo maggio” or Labour Day, a bank holiday in many countries. We were invited to lunch by Wendy Holloway and her husband Maurizio, who live near Riano, north of Rome. Wendy and I met via a Girl Scout course (a long long time ago and that’s another story) and we share a passion for food and cooking. She has been running Italian cooking classes and tours for over twenty years now (her website is https://flavorofitaly.com/).
Also invited were Phyllis Knudsen and her husband Joe from Vancouver, who were visiting Rome. Phyllis is a retired chef and her blog is http://oracibo.com/. Joe is a photographer and Wendy is totally into photography at the moment, so they were able to indulge in some detail over the subject as we ate our way through the ‘very simple lunch’, as she put it, that she had prepared for us. There is genius and delight in ‘simple food’ when presented this way.
And now for getting to the point of this post.
You might have noticed that the back-to-front menu I presented skipped a rather important course in a typical Italian meal, i.e. the ‘primo’ – the pasta or risotto or soup course. And indeed Wendy had prepared a very nice pasta for us that got wolfed down pretty quickly by all of us (I won’t snitch and tell you who asked for extra helpings).
There it is, the pasta (in a guanciale, peas and courgettes sauce) in the plates about to be eaten. Do notice, also, that there are two loaves of bread, prominently placed at the head of the table. Wendy, once she sat down, began slicing the (delicious) bread she had made to serve to her guests, but mostly her husband. She confided to us that ‘Mo’ as she calls him is very Italian and can’t eat a meal without bread. I had to smile. It is a peculiar Italian eating habit that has ancient roots.
In article she wrote last November entitled “Where and How to Eat in Venice”, the Venice Food Guide Monica Cesarato warns:
- Don’t ever eat bread with your pasta. Bread is only eaten with the second course or to do la scarpetta (literally “make a little shoe”) and mop up the leftover sauce on the plate of your first course.
Well, I’ll have to disagree with her … for those who like their bread in Italy, they think that bread can be eaten from start to finish. If anything, it is bread that kicks off the meal, accompanying the antipasto, no?
Fast forward a few days and I am in Venice, about to meet up for the second time in my life with a very ‘interesting’ almost 90 year-old man – I don’t know how else to describe him, so many other adjectives come to mind – the Italian born Victor Hazan, of whom I have grown very fond. He has been living in Florida for the last decades but he and his late wife Marcella had lived in Venice for twenty years previously, running a very successful cooking school. He had written to me to say that this was his last trip to Italy and I could not resist the opportunity of seeing him again. The day I arrived, he invited me and two men for lunch, one of whom is from Bolzano. His name is Andrea Tosolini and he is an importer of Italian foods; also lives in Florida (his wife is from Florida) and he and Victor are friends. Anyway, just as we met outside Victor’s hotel, Andrea presented Victor some some edible presents. See for yourselves.
He was waxing lyrical over the good quality and incredible variety of breads to be found in his home town of Bolzano. And, again, I just had to smile. Only in Italy, I thought to myself, could someone bring bread as an offering, only in Italy is bread taken to be magical and not just ‘good to eat’.
I was reminded of an article I wrote for a magazine called “In Search of Taste” in 2014, which I want to repost today, with the odd edit here and there.
I wrote the original article thanks to, and at the request of, my late friend Gareth Jones from London. We became friends via Facebook, coincidentally on Marcella Hazan’s page, commenting a post she had written regarding salt. And then we became friends in ‘real life’ and met in London, where he invited me to lunch at Joy King Lau’s (http://www.garethjonesfood.com/?p=6615).
And then again, coincidentally, or was it serendipity really? it was through Facebook and Gareth’s page that I got to meet Phyllis Knudsen. She regrets never having had the chance to physically meet Gareth. We both adored him, his outlook, his naughtiness, his refreshing outspokenness, his warmth and sense of humour, his incredible wealthh of culinary knowledge, and continue to miss him (he died in 2015). Do look up his blog, if you like fine writing and unusual and knowledgeable insights on food, you will easily become engrossed.
And now for my article on bread in Italy, I hope you enjoy it.
A SLICE OF BREAD, A SLICE OF LIFE
Sacrosanct. A word more usually associated with the liturgical is indissolubly linked to bread in Italy, and of inestimable value is the place that bread holds deep in the soul of the Italians.
The story is a long one and — “O Tempora, O Mores!” — times do change but, despite the insidious infiltration of an aesthetic equating thinness with beauty, the encroachment of protein-biased diets and the faddish battle waged against the umbrella term ‘carbohydrates’, bread continues to be the first thing that is brought to the client in every restaurant or trattoria all over the country. All menus will state the restaurant’s service price which is called “pane e coperto”, meaning “bread and cover charge”. It is taken for granted that you shall eat bread, there is no need for the client to ask for it. People working in restaurants may now be getting somewhat inured to the vexation that is a tourist ordering a cappuccino at the end of a meal (to an Italian, that would be the equivalent of someone ordering a bowl of cereal at the end of a copious meal) but will understand if a client is inclined to ask for some olive oil to accompany the bread on the table. Though not an Italian custom as such, it makes sense. And a waiter will of course understand if you want to order more bread. Bread accompanies the whole meal, from start to finish until dessert, and is not served only at the beginning as in bread-and-butter eating countries.
Apart from those idiosyncratic individuals who like to concoct their own nutrition régimes, in Italy there can be no weight watching diet without the daily inclusion of at least some morsel of bread. The déluge of allergy driven syndromes is most likely as statistically significant among Italians as it is elsewhere and Italy has become a leading country in the sale of gluten-free foods, with an ever increasing number of shops and supermarkets reserving a shelf for those poor unfortunates who cannot eat their daily bread the normal way.
“Give us this day our daily bread” quoth the Lord’s prayer. The Italian language quoths heavily when it comes to metaphors and bread. In Italy one does not earn one’s bacon, one earns one’s bread: “guadagnarsi il pane” and, if you’re really not earning very much at all, then you are earning just enough to get by on a little piece of crust: “guadagnarsi la stozza”. The Italian equivalent of Murphy’s law states that God gives teeth to those who don’t have bread, and gives bread to those who don’t have teeth with which to eat it. If you are blessed with a good nature, then you are as “good as bread”, what can be saintlier than bread?. If you are not cut out for a particular job, on the other hand, then that job is just “not the kind of bread suitable for your teeth.” If you tend to be tight-fisted, then you will most certainly be known to “measure your bread”. Shall I carry on? If you “eat bread by betrayal” it means that you are earning money without having worked to earn it. But again, if you “remove the bread from your mouth”, it means that you are a self-sacrificing person who would do anything for a loved one (i.e. including giving a loved one your share of bread).
Bread is taken very seriously in Italy. It is eaten daily. It is eaten fresh — ergo it has to be bought every day (these days less so because some breads using specific floursand last longer), a concept that can unnerve the more northern European or American expats who come and live in Italy and are used to buying their bread as part of their weekly supermarket shop. Bread eating may be part of their culture, but buying fresh bread every day is not. In Italy, bread is literally, and not metaphorically, the bread of life — and life is, by definition, “fresh”. It’s like mother’s milk. It is ingrained in the depths of the social unconscious and part and parcel of the DNA survival instinct. And nowhere is this truer than in the average household, where no table is ever considered properly “set” until the bread basket makes its appearance.
Coming from an Italian family whose one member, my mother, decided she wasn’t very Italian at all in this respect and found herself eschewing the whole bread-eating ethos, I grew up as a child in peripatetic circumstances that did not impose bread at the dinner table, it was more of a choice. Later, when I first invited my very Italian in-laws to dinner, I couldn’t for the life of me understand why my father-in-law looked so shifty and … well … pained almost as I went about serving the first course (a big bowl of steaming pasta of which I was rather proud). He didn’t say anything but his body language spoke of unease and of a reluctance to tuck in. For a minute, I thought it might be that he didn’t like the pasta on his plate but luckily just then, almost as an afterthought although of course it was not, my husband brought the bread basket to the table. As if by magic, my father-in-law’s face underwent a visible metamorphosis; his features relaxed, he gave a small sigh of relief, reached for a slice of bread, and was finally able to enjoy his meal.
There exists a word in Italian that is virtually untranslatable: “companatico”. It stands for food or a meal that is to be eaten accompanied by bread — and I can tell you that that would encompass all foods, basically, save for fruit! Walnuts and bread … yes, that was considered a snack a few decades ago. A slice of bread and butter with plenty of sugar sprinkled on top: that was considered a tea-time treat when I was growing up (late 1950s/early 1960s).
My mother sometimes makes her own bread, and very good it is too, but she can’t be trusted to serve bread whenever she invites us over for dinner. She has the good grace, thankfully, to warn me in advance and telephones to say, “I am making duck à la bla bla, and three kinds of vegetable this, that and the other, and rice à la bla bla. But bring bread if you want any.” She has learned that “optional” is not a term I now associate with bread. Yet she too considers bread sacrosanct and accords it the respect it is due in that peculiarly Italian kind of way. She is almost incapable of throwing stale bread away, for instance, and if by any chance she has to, she will kiss it first. Like all of her generation, who underwent the appalling trials and physical tribulations of the Second World War, she well remembers the ravages that food scarcity brought about during the last year especially. Bombed out of their home in Frascati, they were lucky to find rough lodging in the countryside close to the town which they shared with an extended family. Rationing imposed its draconian law but the law of Nature, the law of survival, is even fiercer. My wise grandmother placed whatever bread was available inside the safety of a pillow case, which she would sew tight every evening, Penelope-like, before going to bed and hide in a safe place, knowing full well that someone might be “tempted” to sneak in and avail themselves of a piece of bread.
The history of Italy is also the history of its population’s hunger and the mass emigration that it occasioned over the course of roughly 100 years. And it was bread, always bread, that signified plenty. In a bid to make Italy self-sufficient over imports, Mussolini imposed a policy in the 1920s to reduce the volume of imported wheat, which would then be used to make bread, consumed in Italy. It was his “Battle for Grain” of 1925 and he even wrote an essay entitled “In Praise of Bread” in 1928.
With the benefit of distance, Mussolini’s rhetoric can be analysed from many a critical point of view (not to mention the fact that his policy was a shambles and drove the cost of bread up to unaffordable levels) but it cannot be denied that his overly sentimental “Hymn to Bread” would have struck a chord in the hearts of the Italians he was rousing at the time, using it as part of his propaganda … and who knows, even perhaps falling for the ploy himself?, since he was no big eater and suffered from an ulcer.
Love bread –
Heart of the home
Perfume of the table
Joy of the hearth.
Respect bread –
Sweat of the brow
Pride of labour
Poem of sacrifice
Honour bread –
Glory of the fields
Fragrance of the land
Festival of life.
Do not waste bread –
Wealth of your country
The sweetest gift of God
The most blessed reward of human toil.”
Artisanal bread-making is enjoying a come-back in Italy but there was a time when it was mainly home-made and/or artisanal. Wealthy and aristocratic families might have their own kitchens and ovens but poorer people had to rely on the communal ovens to bake their home-made bread. This engendered the creation of family crests to “mark” each loaf and make it distinguishable from the rest. Larger towns and cities would of course have bakeries where bread could be bought. Home-made bread, however, continued to maintain its hallowed status in many parts of the country.
In an article published in the daily “Il Resto del Carlino” in February 1965, the Italian author Ignazio Silone recalled how great was his grandmother’s sadness upon parting from him those many years ago, when he had to flee Italy for political reasons. It was his grandmother who had raised him and his brothers when his mother had been killed in a terrible earthquake in the Abbruzzo Region of Italy. When he tried to re-assure his grandmother that he would be able to find bread to eat no problem where he was going, her infinitely tragic response was “Yes. Bought bread. My poor child, having to eat bought bread!” Silone’s article coincided with heavy snows that year isolating several small villages in the Abbruzzo, making it necessary for helicopters to drop food for the inhabitants – including bread, because by then, by 1965, no one used communal ovens any longer and thus the art of baking bread at home was lost.
It is estimated that there are about 250 different kinds of breads throughout Italy, some of them still baked in a wood-fired oven. Each Region will have its specialty and some breads have achieved formal status, be it PGI – whose Italian acronym equivalent is IGP (which is awarded by the European Union – indicating protected geographical denomination ) or DOP (Protected Designation of Origin). The most notable examples are the breads from: Altamura DOP, the Casereccio di Genzano Igp, the Matera Igp and the Coppia Ferrarese Igp. The bread of Altopascio near Lucca has been famous since the Middle Ages when it was meted out to pilgrims walking their way to Rome on the Via Francigena. The bread Bozza Pratese, from Prato near Florence, also ranks very highly in longevity and popularity. Tuscany, so far as bread goes, is especially famous for scorning any inclusion of salt whatsoever, a practice that has several historical explanations including making virtue out of necessity, in that the tax levied on salt was so high that people learned to make do without it. Whatever the reason, however, the Tuscans soon got used to this canon and have revered it ever since. Dante even refers to it in his Divine Comedy.
“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale”(Il Paradiso, Canto XVII, lines 58-60.
It is from this canto that Dante learns of his imminent exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties and desolation awaiting him. ”You shall learn how salty is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs,” he is told. Talk about rubbing salt in the wound …
It is interesting to note, too, that the bread of Terni in southern Umbria is also “sciapo” (without salt) as is that from other parts of northern Lazio just across the border. Tuscany and this central area, known as Etruria, which includes the southern Marches, were the lands of the Etruscans and one may suppose that the disdain for salt might have been Etruscan in origin. By contrast, the bread of Naples is very savoury indeed, the salt lavishly included.
The flours for bread making may vary too, from wheat to rice to corn flour (to make “pan giallo” – yellow bread – in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy), bread using millet in Milan (pan de mej), from durum wheat in southern Italy to the use of rye wheat in the north (Valle D’Aosta, Piedmont, Trentino Aldo Adige and the Valtellin in Lombardy). Oil will be used in some breads, lard in others. Nuts can be added, or seeds, or dried fruits and raisins. Special breads are prepared for occasions such as Easter, as for example in Umbria and Basilicata, or for saint’s days, parties and weddings, as for example in Sardinia and Sicily. In these two islands, bread is used for decorative purposes too, as an art form, in celebration of saints’ days and religious occasions.
An old custom, now virtually vanished, was to bring a slice of bread and some salt when visiting a friend’s house for the first time, as a token of well wishing. I was surprised to see the same gesture acted in the 1937, black-and-white film “Conquest”, starring Charles Boyer as Napoleon. When Napoleon enters the house of Marie Waleska (acted by Greta Garbo), the married woman he wants to seduce, he dips a bit of bread in a bowl of salt before rushing to embrace her.
Bread is called into question even when it comes to polite behaviour at the table in Italy. When there is a delicious sauce left on the plate, it is normal for some to use a bit of bread to mop up this sauce with the bread. It is called “fare la scarpetta”, making a little shoe out of the bread to clean up the plate. This behaviour is heavily frowned upon in polite society, however, and no one in their right mind would dream of “fare la scarpetta” in a formal setting. But …furtively … most people will enjoy such an atavistic pleasure and think nothing of it. In public, you can get away by apologising for what you are about to do, knowing you will be forgiven.
In terms of superstition, the Italians are not as worried about spilling salt these days as they are about spilling olive oil. In the past, superstition ruled that breadcrumbs must never be thrown away, they must be burned. When making bread at home, a cross marked the loaf before allowing it to prove, in order to invoke God’s blessing and in sign of gratitude. When cooked, the bread must always be cut on the flat side down. Doing it otherwise would have meant turning your back to God. If ever there was any leftover bread, it would be used to add to soups (“pancotto” – literally cooked bread, or “pappa al pomodoro” for instance). Slices of day-old bread would be toasted to make bruschetta or fettunta or crostini. Breadcrumbs are still toasted in a little olive oil to scatter over pasta dishes, to add a crunch factor. When no parmesan cheese was available to sprinkle over pasta, the breadcrumbs became the cheese of the poor. Meatless meatballs are still made with bread, to which some cheese or anchovy or vegetables can be added. Certain breads are even fried – coccoli in Tuscany are fried balls of bread. And if the bread goes stale to the point that it is really hard – no problem! revive it in water, then squeeze the bread, place it in a bowl, add tomatoes, spring onions, cucumber and lots of basil and olive oil and voilà -you have the perfect summer dish, the “panzanella”. Older, toothless people would sup over chunks of bread dunked in hot milk. If the bread were stale, no matter, the hot milk would soften it.
For a nation that values bread to the point that it will include reference to it even in Christmas cakes (“panettone” – which means big bread, “pandoro” which means golden bread and is similar to a panettone but without any raisins, or “Panpepato” – peppery bread, made with spices and nuts), it is perhaps surprising that Italy has no equivalent of bread and butter pudding or pain perdu. It was bog standard , instead, for Italians to eat bread in the mornings, dunked in milk or caffellatte. Butter and jam to grace the bread were also normal. If it is usual for English speakers to describe the usefulness or desirability of something as “the best thing since sliced bread”, the same would not be true of Italy where industrial sliced bread is truly atrocious and cloying and tasteless (not to mention that it contains “alcol etilico”, i.e. ethanol). Good, soft white bread slices do exist when properly made , however, and are referred to with foreign words: pan carré, pan brioche – perhaps because only the upper classes would have had access to this sort of bread in the past, and these people spoke French and were genteel.
The triangular sandwich with the crusts cut off is called “tramezzino”, roughly translatable as “in-between”. It originated in the very French-influenced and refined Turin in 1925 at the Caffé Mulassano in the Piazza Castello, as an alternative to English tea sandwiches. The term “tramezzino” is said to have been coined by the author Gabriele D’Annunzio, a colourful figure if ever there was one. This was during the early fascist era when Italians were being told to eschew foreign terms and words in favour of Italian ones and hence this neologism would have fitted in perfectly with the climate of the times. Tramezzini are still very popular today and to be found all over Italy. They take the edge off hunger as opposed to replacing a meal, and are often served with an aperitivo too or at parties.
Soft bread rolls, made with very white flour, are called “panino all’olio”; they are usually rather small and dainty and are also popular, for obvious reasons, with people who have trouble with chewing harder or crustier breads. If, instead of a tramezzino, you want something more substantial, you will ask for a “panino”, which means “small bread”, linguistically akin to France’s “petit pain”. It is a bread roll that can be stuffed with cured meats and/or cheeses of various kinds and will be a lot more filling than a tramezzino. The roll will be called a “michetta” in Milan and a “rosetta” or a “schiacciata” in Rome. The “ciriola” was famously Rome’s typical bread roll. Another roll goes by the name of “turtle”, because the grooves on the top of the bread roll are indeed reminiscent of a turtle’s back (“la tartaruga”). The panino can be either round or oblong.
These days there are kiosks dotted about on certain main streets of Rome and its suburbs, catering to young people who have been out on the town and are absolutely starving by 4 a.m. These kiosks go by the name of “paninari”. In the early 1980s, however, “paninari” referred to the cohorts of a youth scene that was besotted with a consumerist and ‘fast’ lifestyle, in opposition to what Slowfood would propose. The fact that this wealthy youth scene liked to identify itself by its designer clothes says a lot. It started out in Milan, always the trendy and ahead-of-the-times city in Italy, but spread out to other cities in the north as well as to Rome. They were called “paninari” because their preferred food of choice was a hamburger bun … they started out at Milan’s café called “Al Panino” in Piazza Liberty and then moved on to Italy’s now defunct hamburger and fast food chain called “Burghy” in Piazza San Babila. In1986, the group Pet Shop Boys even wrote a song entitled “Paninaro”. They have not been heard of since then, the paninari that is, and do not appear to be at all missed.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation is headquartered in Rome. Any Italian would see the logic of its logo, a sheaf of wheat, and of its motto — the Latin “Fiat Panis” … meaning, “let there be bread”. The reverential attitude of Italians towards bread goes all the way back to the Romans who gave us the name for friendship: companionship. The word derives from the Latin “cum pane” meaning “with bread”. If you could break bread with someone, you could be his or her friend. A “compagno” in Italian is a comrade, a friend, a partner.
Rather like the Martini television ad of a few years ago (“No Martini? No party!”), it seems fitting to conclude with: No bread? no company! Being breadless is a lonely business in Italy …
P.S. If you have the time and inclination, take a look at this link for images of bread sculptures in Sardinia: https://it.pinterest.com/xperiensardinia/sardinia-best-bread-il-meglio-della-sardegna-pane/?lp=true, and …
At this video about how they (still) make a ‘decorative’ bread in Sicily to celebrate Saint Joseph (since my name is Josephine I think it’s only proper that I should quote him). Incidentally, the bread thus produced used to be given to the poor as an act of charity and good will.