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TUSCAN BREAD FOOD & COOKING ARTICLE

Tuscan BreadWhen thinking of the staple diet of Italy most of us would assume pasta to be the most common dish. Though the average Italians get through quite a lot, approximately 26kg each per year, they consume bread at a rate of 66kg per annum! Pasta only started to become generally available in the late middle ages whereas bread has been consumed around the Mediterranean since about 3500 BC.

Like much of the rest of Italian food, bread is produced very differently in the various parts of the peninsular, most of it being baked locally by small family businesses. In the UK 77% of bread is mass-produced, in Italy only 10%. Tuscany and Umbria have a particular variety, loved by the locals and pretty much disliked by everyone else, its lack of salt making it relatively tasteless. Visitors often ask, "Why is it that everything else here tastes so great, and the bread seems like cardboard?" The answer lies in its evolution, the result of a particular history. It didn't always taste as it does now.

Tuscan Bread : Flour

Flour can be made from three of the different parts of the grain, the white bit in the middle, mostly starch is sold as white flour, secondly the husk on the outside, sold as bran, and if you put the two together you get brown flour. Whole wheat includes the third element, wheat germ, the equivalent of the yoke in an egg. Original Tuscan bread would have included this too, giving the bread a nutty taste. These days only white flour is used.

Tuscan Bread : Milling

Milling, the process of grinding up the wheat, used to be done just once a week. Whole wheat flour is difficult to store in Italy’s hot climate, as the oils released by milling go rancid. So the wheat itself was stored whole and turned into flour when needed, in village mills. However wheat kept for anytime attracts creepy crawlies so the grains were washed before processing. This encouraged them to start germinating, turning some of the starch into sugar. The result being a slightly sweet or “malted” bread. Modern mills don’t do this any more.

Tuscan Bread : Yeasts

Yeasts are the little microbes which turn sugars into, amongst other things, carbon dioxide. This puts the bubbles into beer and the holes into bread. These days bread makers use a pure, fast working, refined version. In the old days they just kept some of the dough from the last batch with the yeasts still breeding in it. Living alongside them in older the “sour dough” version were acid producing bacteria, giving the bread a tangy taste.

Tuscan Bread : Salt

Salt is an important ingredient for most breads but was not used in Tuscany being too expensive. Made so by a lack of any occurring naturally in the region and the state monopoly which sold it with a heavy tax on top.

(Historical note: Salt is “sale” in Italian. Roman soldiers were paid in salt, this is where the English language gets the word “salary” and the phrase “worth your salt”)

Tuscan Bread : Baking

Baking could only be done once a week, there wasn’t enough wood to fire up the ovens more often, or the spare time to do it. To make sure the bread didn’t go mouldy, Tuscans had to cook most of the moisture out of it, they still do. So after a day it becomes hard as a rock.

Tuscan Bread and Benito Mussolini

Benito Mussolini too left his culinary mark. Ever the populist and rarely farsighted, he set a limit on the price bread could be sold for. This was revised by various governments but left in place up until the 1990’s. Bakers had little incentive to use better ingredients if they couldn’t sell their products for more. Politicians, with an eye to votes, kept the price low ensuring a very basic product.

All relatively interesting, you might say but why carry on making it! Why not make something better? Tuscans actually like it just the way it is, no doubt this is partly due to familiarity, but its relatively bland taste does go well with their highly salted and seasoned, soups and sauces. Some of the tastiest Tuscan dishes, such as Bruschetta, Panzanella and Ribolita, probably inventions of necessity, only work well with Tuscan bread.

TUSCAN BREAD RECIPE

The ingredients have been put in weights for three reasons.

  • With digital scales it is much easier, using less measuring equipment.
  • Flour amounts can vary a great deal when using volumetric measurements, depending on how much it has been allowed to settle.
  • As will be seen, all the weights mentioned are the same so you can use pounds, ounces or whatever with a similar result.

Ingredients for Tuscan Bread

Fresh or dried yeast
Tsp sugar
1/2 liter (1/2 kg) of water
1 kg all purpose or strong flour

How to make Tuscan Bread

  • Put half a small cube of fresh, or a packet of dried, yeast into a bowl with the sugar and ½ kg of water.
  • Whisk till all is dissolved then add ½ kg of flour, whisk again until it becomes a smooth paste.
  • Allow to ferment and rise, this will take two or three hours in a warm environment or overnight in the fridge.
  • Now add the remaining ½ kg of flour and kneed for 10 minutes.
  • Roll into a log shape about four times as long as it is wide and place on a baking tray. (A little oil will help it not to stick).
  • Allow it to rise until it has doubled in volume, the time will be the same as before.
  • Bake at about 200°C/400°F for half an hour, then take it off the tray and bake for a further 15 minutes on the wired oven shelf.
  • Once out of the oven it must cool on a wire tray or across a couple of chopsticks, anything to let it breathe.

REBOLITA RECIPE

Ingredients for Rebolita

100g boiled barlotti beans
2 eggs (optional)
Grated parmesan cheese
1 onion
2 sticks of celery
2 carrots
100g spinach
Stale Tuscan bread
Broth

How to make Rebolita

  • Finely chop and sauté the onion, carrots and celery.
  • Add half of the beans and about half a litre of broth then blend until creamy.
  • Then add the rest of the beans, spinach and more broth to make a soup like consistency, season and boil for a few minutes.
  • Line an oven dish with slices of the stale bread and cover with the soup mix so the level of the liquid is well above the level of the bread.
  • Whisk the eggs and add two tablespoons of the grated parmesan then spread the mixture evenly over the surface of the liquid.
  • Finally re-heat in a medium oven for 20 minutes.
  • Serve with a little olive oil poured over the hot dish at the last moment.

Jonathan Arthur
Italy with Relish

 

This Tuscan bread article was provided by Jonathan Arthur who runs Italy with Relish cooking and villa holidays in the Tuscany region of Italy. For details of the cooking holidays <click here> or visit www.italywithrelish.it

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