The infinite surprises of Italian bread
by Emilia Crippa
I feel like I need to start from the essence of the word “bread” itself, and the concept that sums up “knowledge”, “goodness”, “peace”, and much more. Bread is permanently connected to that absolutely human experience that over time turns into culture.
It is itself a culture that has left a mark – impossible to miss – even in today’s fast-paced and impatient present. I discovered it almost as soon as I embarked on my quest for real, good bread that can last way beyond one day: bread that has waited long enough for starter to trigger the leavening of the flour and water mix, bringing a true prodigy to life.
Bakers’ yeast is a mix of water and flour that in a favorable environment ferments all on its own, thanks to the activity of bacteria and yeasts. Enzymes developed during fermentation pre-digest the yeast contained in flour, and allow our body to assimilate all of the wonderful components in wheat while maintaining bread’s nutritive values intact.
The lengthy process yields a unique result based on balance: bread that will taste fresh for as long as two weeks, without losing its character – in fact, refining it over time. Natural yeast is the most suitable for our nutrition, makes bread easier to digest and keeps it fresh for longer… and gives it the best flavor and smell ever.
If you wonder whether such ideal bread really exists, follow me in my journey of research. Like a child looking for some treasure, I set off from Northern Piedmont, almost at the border with Switzerland. Reaching my first destination required more than a little stubbornness: Fobello, in the Mastallone Valley, is very little known despite being home to an important summer event for anyone who loves both the mountains and good food: “Sentiermangiando”.
The secluded location is where Eugenio Pol has settled down to live and work – making bread for a living – after a gastronomic and culinary adventure in the city. Pol has grown a beard worthy of a fairy tale, and his bread is nothing short of magical: his amazing ‘micche’ weigh up to two kilos, are an amber brown color, and smell like the sky, like earth, like water and flour… “Vulaiga” – his nickname in the local dialect, meaning “fluttering flour” – makes his bread with pure spring water from the valley, fine mountain air, flour from a mill that uses wheat from the Alta Langa region, sometimes grown especially for him! He is like a poet, creating a treasure that is celebrated on the tables of famous, multi-awarded restaurants and fine delis in many of Italy’s major cities (Massironi, in Via Corsico 2, Milan is only one of the many examples). His specialties motivate a number of daring connoisseurs to make the long trip here, to rediscover a type of bread they thought had disappeared long ago.
In contrast to the solitary mountain haven of Fobello, my next stop was in one of the most urban places in Italy: Milan, Via Tiraboschi, near Porta Romana. This is where Davide Longoni opened his bakery, to make exclusively natural leavened bread and merge tradition with a modern business mission, crystalline projects, and ambitious goals…
Longoni was raised in Brianza at the height of the economic boom, and grew up between school and his family’s bakery. His ongoing research on bread is much more than a job for him now, as he explains in his recent book, “Il senso di Davide per la farina” (which might be translated as “Davide’s sense for flour”, published by Ponte alle Grazie).
Although different breads are made in his bakeries – so far, he’s opened branches in Milan and Monza – one ingredient is always the same: incredible knowledge amassed by a man out to select the best grains and flours available. Longoni also handpicks for his clients a few products made by smaller bakeries in Central and Southern Italy.
Finally, I must point out Panedieri, an association that specifically seeks out “bread as it used to be made”, and “bread that is just as good the next day”; once Panadieri finds such exceptional prize, it supports production by helping small bakeries stay in business, despite the damaging effect of current market trends on tradition. It is also thanks to this driven association that we can taste surprisingly delicious bread, in all of its variations from the Venosta Valley to Apulia, passing by Lunigiana. What a beautifully simple way to celebrate Italian cuisine!