Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pane: From Wheat Field to Baker to Table

Wheat growing in central Umbria

Pane sciapo
        On my walks in the countryside I keep passing wheat fields so green I want to roll around in them. Eventually those grains will ripen, be harvested and milled, and metamorphosize into the piece of saltless local bread on the table next to my plate. The lack of taste discourages mindless nibbles while we wait for the antipasto, but it's terrific for a scarpetta ("little shoe" of bread) to soak up the not-to-be-abandoned olive oil or juices from my dish or for bruschetta with new olive oil.

      To be honest, I really adore the thickly crusted and divinely chewy casareccio in Rome more than the sciapo (saltless) bread they make in Umbria, at least for nibbling. Sometimes, though, history trumps taste, and in the case of this traditional Umbrian bread, I respect the history. This particular bread has been baked here without salt since the mid-16th century, invented in rebellious response to the Pope's blockade of salt to this landlocked region. While it's not the best to eat on its own, it serves very well as a delivery system for olive oil or gravy. 

     The most famous of the saltless breads comes from Strettura, a tiny village on the Via Flaminia between Spoleto and Terni. We went over there the other morning in time to see the raised loaves slid into the fiery wood-burning ovens at Forno Vantaggi. It's said their combination of local spring water, mixed grains and no salt is the best in Umbria. 

Raking out the coals
     The bakers had been working since before dawn and the risen loaves were ready for the oven. But, first, the forno had to be made ready for them. Behind three openings, about twelve feet of smoldering coals burned like Dante's Sixth Circle of Hell (the one reserved for Epicureans). The baker first raked the red embers into an iron barrel, leaving the oven ready for baking at 300 degrees Centigrade. Then the loaves were slid in and the doors closed. 
The risen loaves

The old recipes
In the workroom, various flours, eggs, and other ingredients awaited their turn to become cookies, sweet breads, or tozzetti (aka, cantucci or biscotti). Forget the Inferno, this place was obviously Paradise. On the counter was the recipe book, its pages marked by the fingers of bakers from previous generations. We nibbled warm slices of pizza bread, the tasty flat pane made by Italian bakers to test the heat of the ovens.

Torta al Testa
       Pane di Strettura is only one of many breads made in Umbria. There is torta al testa from the Province of Perugia, historically made on a flat stone in the fireplace or oven. This flat round bread, often served warm from the oven and cut into triangles, is called crescia in Gubbio and pizza sotto il fuoco (cooked under the ashes) in Terni. Today it is often cooked on top of the stove like a pancake in a pan called a panaro.  

    At Easter, Umbrians eat pane formaggio (cheese bread). There is also pan nociato, bread with nuts, and pan caciato, bread made with olive oil, pepper, nuts and Umbrian pecorino (sheep cheese). We are not suffering from lack of choice here in central Italy.

    Note: We visited Strettura as part of the annual Beecoming Festival, which offers events of all kinds in Umbria in late April/early May.

Copyright Sharri Whiting 2012




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