Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Tuscan Bread

Dante and the Mystery of the Salt-less Bread

Cacciaguida speaks with Dante (in blue) in Paradise. Padua, Biblioteca del Seminario, ms. 67.

In Paradise XVII of the Divina Commedia Dante hears a prophecy about his (ostensibly future) exile. Cacciaguida tells the Poet:  

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui...

You are to know the bitter taste
of others' bread, how salt it is...
trans. Mandelbaum 

Naturally this may simply be a metaphor, but as anyone who has spent time in this part of the world will know, Tuscan bread is without salt. It is made from flour, water and yeast and there is NO salt whatsoever, not even a pinch. 
a Tuscan loaf

Italians call this bread sciocco (shokko), meaning silly but also, in this case, without salt. According to learned Italian etymologists, the concrete sense of sciocco predates the abstract one, but the meanings appear to be linked. Bread without salt seems pretty silly to me too.

There are various reasons proposed for this salt-less bread. Some say that since much Tuscan companatico (what you eat with bread) is salty and that Tuscan food is generally savoury (at times, frankly, over-salted), the bread has no need for seasoning.

Others say that the explanation is historical and goes back to the wars between Pisa and Florence when Pisa blockaded the salt arriving in its port, in a bid to force Florence to surrender. Florence replied by simply making its bread without salt, and the adaptation stuck. Yet this doesn't explain why bread is salt-less in Pisa and other places. 

Another theory blames the high price of salt in Florence, which obliged families to make a virtue of necessity. This could be so: the Florentine state profited from indirect taxes and heavy levies on items such as salt. Incidentally, pepper was another valuable commodity; at times in the Middle Ages peppercorns were even used as currency. 

Still, in adjacent regions such as northern Umbria and Lazio, like Tuscany once the domain of the Etruscans, bread is salt-less too. Consequently yet another theory posits that the habit is Etruscan, which would make it a Venerable Tradition, but would not excuse the silliness.

Etruscan tomb, Tarquinia, a funeral banquet
For the salient question is surely this: is the bread good? As will be clear from comments above, I think not. Tuscans stoutly defend their pane sciocco (which nowadays is invariably white although in the past the poor baked with unrefined flours), to the point that it is often difficult to find anything but Tuscan bread in regular bread shops. One can resort to '5-grain' bread or a dryish wholemeal if one craves a little salt with one's staff of life.

Of course in principle we should be grateful (to the Etruscans/ to the tax collectors/ to Pisa?) for keeping salt out of our diet. But old habits die hard and I am among those newcomers to the region who have developed an active dislike for the local staple - and bread is the basis of many Tuscan dishes.We either bake our own bread or buy the alternatives, when possible.
I only use pane toscano for crostini or bruschetta, where salt is a component in the topping anyway or for ribollita where it is essential, also because of its texture.

Ultimately, the sad fact is that bread is not one of Italy's culinary strong points. The bread that is most prized here, that of Ferrara, is soft, fine, white and characterless, although interestingly shaped. 

 In my opinion the best Italian bread is from the south (eg; Altamura), where durum wheat and a natural leavening (sourdough) are used. This bread tastes wonderful, with a distinctive, slightly sour flavour, it has a good crust and a strong, almost chewy texture. 

bread from Altamura, Puglia
Just for the record, word is that the best Tuscan bread comes from Altopascio, where they have been baking bread since the Middle Ages when pilgrims walked the via Francigena (but are weary, hungry pilgrims the best judges?); and from Prato whose bozza pratese is praised even by the Florentines.

medieval bread mill, Altopascio, Lucca

Poor exiled Dante may have missed his bozza pratese. But give me crusty bread from Puglia, a fresh baguette or a loaf of German rye any day.*

* Speaking of German bread, we have just discovered a stall in the Panzano Sunday market which sells home-baked German-style sourdough bread: very good. The proprietor, who was sporting full Bavarian gear down to the trinkets on his lederhosen, is in fact German and runs a small gourmet shop in Colle Val d'Elsa.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are welcome but will be checked before publishing.