Can’t imagine what Italian food would be like without bread. Bread in Italian society has always been at the very center of religious, family and social life.
Michelangelo once said, “I feast on wine and bread and feasts they are”.
Cereal preference or dependence relatively neatly divided the ancient Mediterranean world in half. In the east, the Greeks cultivated and consumed barley, while wheat was the principal grain of the Latin West.
Italians did not reject barley. They grew it and ate it in various preparations as they still do, usually in soups. But it was never a major or vital part of their diet. Rye was grown to a certain extent in the Alps but it, too, was and is still today a minor food resource. Millet and oats never acquired much of a following in Italy but buckwheat (grano saraceno) is popular in northern Italy and particularly Lombardy’s Valtellina.
Wheat in the form of bread and puls (boiled meal flavored in innumerable ways) was the mainstay of the diet for centuries. With the decline in hard physical labor in recent years, bread has lost some of its essentiality but puls has become a standard entry on restaurant menus not only in Italy but also in countries worldwide. However, it changed its form in the 17th century after the arrival of corn (maize) from the New World. Corn replaced wheat and the result was polenta.
Various types of wheat evolved at an early date. Some are specifically adapted to use in bread because of their substantial content of gluten, which gives dough elasticity. Hard wheat (durum) is more compact and the dough retains its shape during cooking. It is the ideal grain for the production of pastas. Farro or spelt wheat is a rare survivor of ancient agriculture. Cultivated primarily in Tuscany’s Garfagnana zone, it was only recently rediscovered. Today, production barely keeps up with demand.
Italians have developed a wide range of breads over the centuries and many ancient types are still produced–-in most cases on a local or regional basis. Commercial bakers account for most of the bread consumed in Italy today as they have since professionals started turning out loaves in ancient Rome in the 2nd century BC. Baking is still practiced at home to a certain extent, as at Genzano, a village near Rome. The selection nationwide ranges from extremely large loaves, once intended to keep a household supplied for a full week, to small rolls. Most breads are leavened but many are not, like the Sardinian carta da musica (thin as sheets of music paper) or carasau.
Crackers are a relatively recent addition to the Italian roster of breads and related products. However, the concept is basically the same as that of the communion wafer. Grissini or breadsticks are a specialty of Turin, although they are now found virtually everywhere. Most are pencil-thin but in their homeland bakers still shape them by hand so that they are thick and irregular. Flat breads are extremely popular in central Italy and include Tuscany’s rosemary-flavored schiacciata, the Romagna’s piadina and Emilia’s crescentina and gnocco. Some are fried and some are baked. Sweetened breads are common but they belong to the dolce or confectionery category. There are over 350 bread types of which 250 are readily available. We have listed around 100 below and we will describe the history behind some of them.
This flat bread topped with olive oil, spices, and other products an early prototype of modern pizza. The basic recipe is thought by some to have originated with the Etruscans or Ancient Greeks.
“Focaccia, a flat bread which belongs essentially to the northern shores of the Mediterranean and has its origin in classical antiquity. In ancient Rome, panis focacius denoted a flat bread cooked in the ashes (“focus” meant hearth). These came the term focacia, focaccia in modern Italian which has branched out in various directions, both savory and sweet…Numerous regional specialties such as the fitascetta of Lombardy, the Tuscan stiacciata, and the schiacciata of Emilia are all descendants. Also, a focaccia may be made with flavorings such as onion and sage or anise, or honey, etc.”
Altamura bread (Puglia)
The earliest written document describing the Altamura bread is Horatio’s “Satires” in which the Roman poet recalls that during a trip to his native land in the spring of A.D. 37 he tasted “the world’s most delicious bread—so delicious, in fact, that the discerning traveler stacks up on it for the rest of his journey”.
In an era closer to ours, the 1527 statute of the town of Altamura dedicates numerous paragraphs outlining the duties of the town’s bakers, including the taxes they had to pay to the authorities.
This bread was traditionally made in very large loaves and in the old days, it was customary to knead the dough at home and then take it to public ovens to be baked. In order to distinguish the loaves, the bakers would stamp them with the initials of the head of the family that owned the dough before placing them in their ovens.
Pane di Altamura is a very crisp, fragrant bread. Its crumb, the soft part of the bread, is the color of straw and soft to the touch. Its most distinctive characteristic, however, is that it keeps for a long time, an essential quality for a bread that, dipped briefly in boiling water and dressed with olive oil and salt, provided nutrition to peasants and shepherds for a week or more in isolated farms scattered in the hills of Alta Murgia.
Carasau Bread (Sardegna)
Bread and pasta are the mainstays of the Sardinian diet.Among the Sardinian breads with an international reputation pane carasau is probably the most well known. This bread is called carta da musica ( music paper) by foreigners. It consists of very thin circular crisp sheets of pastry and it keeps a long time. “Pane carasau” was the bread eaten by shepherds when they were away from home for long periods tending their flocks. If pane caraus is served with tomatoes and eggs, it becomes a specialty called pane frattau The same bread seasoned with oil and salt is called pane guttiau. Another well known Sardinian bread is civraxiu. It is large and circular in shape and has a crisp crust and soft interior. It is delicious when dipped in the fat of roasted pig or lamb. It is worthwhile mentioning su coccoi which is made from semolina or very fine flour in the Campidano area. Su coccoi is a very popular bread not only for its taste but also for its shape which changes from village to village. There is also su moddizzosu which is a circular and very soft bread. It is particularly good with cheese and sausages. Another bread is spianadas which is circular in shape, soft and easy to transport.
The Grissino (Piemonte)
Vittorio Amedeo II Duke of Savoy was born in Turin in 1666 and was crowned the first Savoy King in 1713.
As a child, Vittorio Amedeo was frail and sickly so his mother, the second Madama Reale, worried by the state of his health called to court a famous physician of the time, Don Baldo Pecchio from Lanzo Torinese. The doctor immediately had a stroke of genius and diagnosed food poisoning (gastro-enteritis in modern parlance) caused by the ingestion of bread polluted with intestinal pathogenic germs. Those days, bread (the so-called ghëssa or grissia) was produced rather improperly from the hygienic standpoint and was generally cooked badly, indeed not nearly enough.
So Don Baldo, remembering certain small grissias his mother was wont to bake for him when he suffered from a similar intestinal form as a child, ordered Court master baker Antonio Brunero to prepare a very thin and well cooked bread, indeed cooked twice, to destroy any micro-organism present in the dough with perfect baking. The end result was the grissino, hygienically perfect and unpolluted by any germ whatsoever. The story goes that the Duke’s physician fed and cured the noble scion with this bread.
The ghëssa led to the ghërsin or small ghëssa, Italianized into grissino.
So the first grissino was made and Turin also won the nickname of Grissinopoli.
As we said, Vittorio Amedeo II, miraculously healed by the grissino, grew to become the first Savoy king. There followed the rapid rise of the Savoy dynasty, that privileged Piedmont, laid the foundations of the Italian Risorgimento and the subsequent creation of the Kingdom of Italy.
The success of this celebrated Turin bread (greatly appreciated by Napoleon who called it Le petit bâton de Turin) grew rapidly and conquered the whole world and became the Bread of Kings and the King of Breads.
Pane di Genzano (Lazio)Lazio – Pane di Genzano
The origins of this product are rooted in the peasant culture of its zone of production. The bread, which households used to make for themselves, is baked in wood-fired ovens known as soccie. Pane Casareccio di Genzano was already known and appreciated in the last century for its particular aroma and fragrance which last up to seven or eight days. It was not until the 1940s, however, that the bread becomes extremely popular in Rome to which it was brought from Genzano at night and sold fresh the next day by local grocers and bakeries. Pane Casareccio di Genzano is made from choice flour, natural yeast, mineral salt and water. The bread is shaped into either round loaves or long broad sticks. The area of production is the whole town district of Genzano in the province of Rome.
The genuine and homemade Romagna piadina has however lost its legendary roots in the mists of time. One of these legends has it that it was none other than Aeneas, the hero in Virgil’s poem, who on landing on Italian coasts after escaping from Troy had to eat unleavened ship’s biscuits that the sailors used for plates. According to other sources, the recipe was handed down to the ancient Romans by the Etruscans, who prepared an unleavened bread using flour and water, cooking it on scalding hot tiles. This idea is recalled by the word teggia, similar to the Italian for tile (tegola), and is the name for the tin with raised sides still used by piadina vendors today.Emilia Romagna – PiadinaCloser to the present day, the debate as to who can boast paternity of the piadina is still disputed amongst the villages and towns of Romagna. Those from Rimini, who prepare a version that is thin and low in fats, are those most convinced that it was of their own invention. But each area of Romagna has a local variation: small, thick and soft in Ravenna and the hinterland, large and thin in the south of Romagna.
In any case, it is an unleavened bread without yeast and its name would seem to derive from the Greek plakous, which means flat bread and harks back to the days of the Byzantine domination of Romagna. The Piadina, piada or “piè” as it is known in Romagna, has gone on to conquer all of Italy with endless kiosks now preparing them, and they are even to be found in New York. It is a specialty made of a disk of pasta that can be substituted for bread. It can be eaten with a soft cheese (squaquarone, a delicacy of Romagna) or with prosciutto either cotto or crudo. It is best served warm and must be cooked on the proper flat iron pan called a testo, on a lively flame.