Thursday, May 30, 2013

What's special about Tuscan bread?

What's special about Tuscan bread?
Tuscan bread, made without salt!

Baked goods in Italy can be divided into two areas, bread and cakes. Every culture in the world has its own way of making bread, and Italy in no exception. It is very common to find fresh bread on the table in every Italian household. It is sold in different sizes by weight, normally 500g, 1kg, and the larger size of 1.5kg.

You can find larger measures, but normally they are not traditional Tuscan bread. So how do you tell them apart? Well they are divided into 4 basic categories - bread without salt, bread with salt, bread with salt and olive oil, and the fourth category includes everything else, even the famous ‘Ciaccia’ better known as ‘focaccia’.

The most traditional type of bread found in the centre of Tuscany is ‘pane comune’ or ‘pane casalingo’. The ingredients include flour and water, and depending on the baker they can either use yeast to make it rise, or they can let it rise naturally. It is characterized by its round or oblong shape and the fact that it is quite compact - since it doesn`t rise very high.

You can normally find this kind of bread in any shop or bakery, and it doesn’t contain salt. Legend has it that once upon a time the Pope got angry at the people of Tuscany and punished them by taking away their salt trade. Salt is an important part of any diet, even the Romans made salt part of the pay that their soldiers received, and the Pope hoped to bring the Tuscan people to their knees by taking it away.

But the Tuscans were made of tougher stuff and simply started making their dishes without salt. When the Pope finally gave up and let them have their salt trade back, the Tuscans continued to make their bread without salt, right up to the present. Some even say that bread with salt or too much flavour is a distraction from a tasty dish!

During the last 20 years, it has become quite common to find ‘pane salato’ and ‘pane all'olio’ in shops in order to accomodate the large number of visitors that come to Tuscany. This bread is characterized by its light brown flakey crust. It is normally higher than bread without salt because it is left to rise in a different manner and it has a tendency be fresh and soft only for a day or two.

It normally has more flavour, and is less compact than other types of bread. This type of bread is more common near the coast. One of the main differences between this type of bread and bread without salt, is that bread without salt will last a little longer, in fact this type of bread is basis for many of the popular ‘poor man’ Tuscan dishes such as the summer salad 'Panzanella' or the winter treat ‘Minestra di Pane’.

Focaccia, sometimes better known to Tuscans as ‘schiacciata’ or ‘ciaccia’, is the typical bread for snacking. It is a low, flat bread made with flour, water, a little bit of salt and typically found with salt and olive oil liberally sprinkled on top, right after it has come out of the oven.

It has a lot of flavour, and can be found with a variety of toppings (rosemary, olives, etc). This bread is found in local supermarkets or bakeries, and they make it fresh on the premises. There’s nothing like walking into a bakery early in the morning and smelling the bread coming out of the oven!

Since bread is the principle ingredient in any Italian meal, you will find that it comes literally in all shapes, weights and flavours. Just to name a few, there is ‘Ciabatta’, which is characterized by being very flat, but it has a very light and fluffy interior, or the ‘Rosetta’ which is made to look like a little rose.

There is also ‘Pane Pugliese’, this is normally a large round bread, very high and fluffy with a dark brown crust. If you prefer whole grain breads you may want to look for ‘Pane Panda’. It is also common to find Grissini in many restaurants, a long very narrow bread which is extremely crunchy.

The best place to find fresh bread is in the local bakery where it is made every morning. The larger supermarkets have fresh bread delivered every day. Normally you will find the bread pre-wrapped in transparent plastic with a white label. Look on the label to see the name of the baker.

The label must specify the ingredients, the baker, the name of the product, how much it weighs and how much it costs. The cost of bread has been established by the local government, and you will find that standard white bread has the same cost, the price difference is due to the weight.

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