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An Italian Meal: Part 1 - Bread

An Italian Meal: Part 1 - Bread
Image: Eddie Jacob
In my Italian food books I entice the reader to a region’s food through the stories of the people who produce it. After all, at the heart of Italy lies its cuisine and the people who create it.

I’ve spent many a happy time with farmers, wine makers, rustic cooks, Michelin starred chefs, bakers, cheese makers and all sorts of delightful characters involved in growing, gathering and preparing food. As John Dickie says in his wonderful book Delizia! The Epic History of the Italians and Their Food, “food tastes better for being seasoned with a story.”

It makes sense to start with the first bite at any Italian table: the bread basket. Some people consider this to be the embodiment of a restaurant. I’m not sure I’d go that far but I do believe that the quality of the bread on offer gives a strong indication of what’s to follow.

Some Italian breads are well-known internationally; focaccia and ciabatta for instance have a permanent presence in my local supermarket in London. But discovering regional specialities and enjoying them in context is one of the fun parts of travelling with a food agenda, and local breads are always an intriguing place to start.

In Italy there are still many small-scale bakers who specialise in their traditional breads, and increasingly chefs in more swanky establishments will bake their own loaves. And there may well be other treats in the basket too: grissini or breadsticks in Liguria, or the dangerously moreish, taralli in Puglia, for example. Puglia also has the world renowned Pane di Altamura - huge loaves from the town of the same name, and at the other end of the country, Trentino-Alto Adige combines Italian and German traditions in its bread making. One of my favourites, Sardinian Pane Carasau also known as Carta da Musica because it is so thin it resembles old music parchment, is a bread that is too tricky to make at home, but will last for several
An Italian Meal: Part 1 - Bread
Image: Eddie Jacob
weeks and is fun to eat layered with fresh sun-drenched tomatoes and some local Pecorino.

Many Italians have fond recollections of bread from their childhood and will need little encouragement to share this nostalgia with you. Aldo Massimo, chef and owner of Chacaito in Foggia becomes quite animated when recommending that bread should be stored in a (clean) pillowcase. He also told me the curious story of being very young and rushing to the family pillowcase to tear off pieces of bread as soon as his mother started to fry things in lard. “My brothers and sisters and I would take pieces of old bread and crowd around her at the hob to catch the hot fat as it fell.” It’s a tantalizing, if somewhat alarming image.

The use of stale bread doesn’t always require such careful handling and there are many well-known traditional Italian recipes featuring bread which is past its best. The Tuscan Pappa al Pomodoro (Bread and Tomato soup) uses unsalted Tuscan bread and is one of those classic dishes for which every cook seems to have his own version, varying from the soupy to the almost solid.

Panzanella is a dry bread salad, which may not sound very tempting, but once the bread has been softened with water, and fresh vegetables, herbs and olive oil added it becomes delicious, and healthy. It is very popular in the centre of the country. Aldo too has his own stale bread antipasto recipe “I take old bread, soak it, break it into pieces, add cheese, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper, make shapes then fry it, mix with cooked tomatoes and eat it. People want to know what it is and are amazed when I tell them that it’s bread. Meatballs without meat!”

It’s easy to see why bread is respected in Italy (many people are superstitious about placing loaves upside down) and it should be treated as an important part of the antipasti. And that's what's coming up next.

Chacaito via Arpi 62
71100 Foggia +39 0881 708 104
Closed Sunday
An Italian Meal: Part 1 - Bread
Image: Eddie Jacob
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13 March 2009
By: Joan Ransley
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