Snippets from the Italian Scene
On Peasant Bread
Moving towards food, I was recently asked for a recipe for Peasant Bread. To be honest, there really isn't such a thing, at least not now. At least not a universal peasant bread; Italian bread, like all other things Italian, differs tremendously from one region to the next. Tuscany provides a good example of this. In much of the region the bread is made in round or oblong loaves that are baked directly on the floor of the oven (no baking tins, which makes for irregularly shaped loaves). The crumb is stiff, with marble-sized holes, and the bread has enough body to be able to withstand being moistened and squeezed dry (this is how one makes panzanella). Moreover, the dough the bread is made from is not salted, which means the bread is quite mild, and may explain the relative saltiness of Tuscan cold cuts, especially prosciutto. In the province of Massa, on the other hand, they salt their dough. As a result the bread is slightly salty, and its texture is different. If we look beyond Tuscany, in Piemonte's Langhe (and, I think, around Torino) they make grissini, bread sticks that are as thick as a finger and 2 feet long, and around Ferrara, in Romagna, there's pane all'olio, bread that has a little oil in the dough, and which is made into rolls that have crunchy crust and an extremely white, fine-grained crumb that's very dry. Large sections of Liguria are known primarily for their focaccia, a flat crusty bread that's also known as schiacciata. Roman bread is again different, as is the bread from Puglia, and I had a fascinating, very rich whole grain bread from Castelvetrano (Sicily) at Slowfood's Salone del Gusto.
The Sicilian bread was coarse textured and quite traditional, and this brings up another point. Up until relatively recently pure white flour of the kind we take for granted today was an expensive luxury, and therefore white bread was something that only the relatively well off could enjoy with any regularity. The masses made do with darker breads that contained varying amounts of roughage; this explains the scene in the film "Night of the falling Stars" (La Notte di San Lorenzo), set in 1944, in which the father of the bride gives out slices of white bread after the wedding. In the cities people either bought bread from the bakers, or made their dough at home, marked their loaves, and then took them to the local baker who saw to the baking -- fuel was just too expensive for most people to be able to afford to bake at home. It wasn't much cheaper out in the country, but people living in isolated hamlets or farm houses didn't have access to bakers, so they built bread ovens that they'd fire up once a week. Tuscan salt-free bread is perfect for this sort of a baking schedule, because it doesn't absorb as much humidity from the air, and consequently stays fresher than salty bread. And once the bread was baked, the farmers would make a focaccia as a treat for the children, sprinkling it liberally with salt and olive oil.
In terms of recipes for all these things, to be honest I don't bake much -- no real need to with 5 good bakeries within minutes of our house. The best source of information on Italian breads that I've come across is a site called The Artisan. Highly recommended. While we're on the subject of interesting websites, I'd also like to recommend Bob Pastorio's. Bob, who's one of the more knowledgeable contributors to the Foodwine Discussion List, has recently begun to sell foodstuffs after many years spent owning and running restaurants. In addition to offering all sorts of things, from lemon curd to hot pepper sauce, he has suggestions for using them, which are always helpful. Worth visiting even if you dont plan to buy anything.
Webweaver, About Italian Cuisine