Buono come il pane
“Buono come il pane” (“as good as bread”) is how the Italians describe a good-hearted, generous person. For the Greeks, bread was “the food of the gods”, for the Anglo-Saxons, “the staff of life”. “Il pane e’ una cosa sacra”, Peppa told me the other day as she sliced crosses across the tops of the two loaves she’d just formed, holding them almost tenderly in her hands. Bread is never baked without crosses. “After all, isn’t the Host made of bread? Doesn’t the Good Lord give us the wheat to turn into bread?” Peppa asked me as she slid her loaves into the oven of her kitchen wood- burning stove: years ago, when she and her husband farmed their land, she would have rolled up her sleeves to knead about sixteen loaves each week, the dough made of about (“tutto all’occhio”) sixteen kilos of flour, water, leavening and no salt. Greedy for added income, in 1540 Pope Paull III levied a salt tax on the Papal States (nowadays, Umbria, Le Marche, Abruzzo and Lazio) so salt was taken out the bread. Times have changed but the salt has never been put back in……
Bread is never baked without crosses
I remember those long-ago bread-baking days down at the farm of our nearest neighbors, Mandina and Peppe. A hefty woman, Mandina’s muscles bulged as she rhythmically rolled the mass of dough into o fifteen or so loaves, each weighing about a kilo. As all the farm women did, she used her own leavening, la massa (or pasta madre), passed on to her by her mother. The lending of la massa to a neighbor in need brought buona fortuna. After slicing crosses on each loaf, she lined them up on a long board (about the width of a loaf and long enough to hold up to twenty loaves) balanced on two chairs nearby; then, she lifted that board onto her kerchiefed head. (When working the land, all of us women wore kerchiefs: not a fashion statement, but a necessity as so many farm tasks required carrying objects – often heavy – on the head. Bread-baking was one).
Board bearing bread balanced on her head, Mandina headed slowly out the kitchen, down the long flight of stone steps and across the farmyard – sending squawking chickens and geese scattering – to her outdoor stone bread oven. She lowered the board gingerly off her head, setting it onto two old chairs near the oven. She’d prepared the kindling the night before, shoving it into the opening under the oven (so the wood would be dried even if it had rained at night). That morning, she had shoved bunches of bound kindling (“le fascine”) into the oven, creating a blaze. As the kindling burnt down, the bricks around the opening turned white hot: Mandina then knew the oven was ready to receive the bread.
Chiarina with her broom near her bread oven
She opened the cast iron door of the oven with an old rag. She raked out the hot coals with a small, hoelike instrument, il tragoletto, then swept out the remaining ash carefully with her broom, actually made of broom (ginestra). La ginestra blankets the Umbrian hills in glorious yellow flower in May and at summer’s end, the farmers cut it and bount it into brooms. These homemade brooms were used for the bread ovens – and others were used to sweep out the stalls of the rabbits, fowl, even pigs (Pino made similar brooms for use in our stalls).
After sweeping, Mandina wiped the white hot bricks with a damp rag to remove any remaining ash, picked up the bread paddle which husband Peppe had made and gracefully slid each loaf into the oven, one at a time. Mandina then closed the door and sealed it with mud, to make it carefully airtight, then tracing a cross or two in the mud with her forefinger to assure God’s blessings on her bread. A half-hour later or so, she would check the bread, unsealing the door by wiping off the mud. Every farmwoman “knew” her bread oven and how long it would take to bake the bread. Total baking time for Mandina’s oven was about an hour. In all the years of eating her good bread, I never encountered a loaf underdone or overcooked.
Mandina is gone now and most of the outdoor stonebread ovens are overgrown with weeds, stones crumbling. Chiarina uses her bread oven now and then, to roast geese as well as for baking bread. Her husband Marino still cuts la ginestra to make her brooms. The last time, I visiited Chiarina, she wanted me to taste their olio nuovo, just back from the mill, on bruschetta. Bread remains sacred and farm friends, Peppe and Gentile, greet us with the traditional pane, vino e salami when we visit. Peppa’s outdoor stone is still there but her bread-baking days are only occasional and she bakes just a couple loaves in her woodstove.
Peppa breaks the first piece, never slicing it
But what bread! We had some yesterday, Peppa breaking off the first piece (“only break the first piece, never cut it”, she told us). Peppa then sliced the loaf, hugging it to her, drawing that long knife right towards her (bread cannot be sliced at table – only broken at table). It didn’t rise as much as Peppa had wished. My fault, she reprimanded. I had been there when she put the loaves into the oven but neglected to say the auspicious, “Che Dio ve l’arcresca” (“May the Lord help it rise” – in Umbrian dialect). I should have known: il pane e’ sacro.
Simple ways to enjoy good bread: Bruschetta is a toasted bread with topping, or just garlic and olive oil, salt. Crostini generally have a cheese topping of some sort and/or are passed briefly in the oven to melt ingredients. Small rounds of a soft baguette are used for crostini whereas we generally prefer day-old bread for bruschetta.
Top rounds of bread with fine slices of mozzarella, then cherry tomatoes which have been tossed briefly in hot olive oil with garlic clove
Top bread rounds with ricotta or mozzarella and finely- chopped radicchio (or spinach – and/or leeks)- add a bit of sliced mushroom if desired
Top rounds of bread with a soft sharp cheese,- we often use taleggio– and then add a few crumbled walnuts . Place the crostini on cookie sheet and broil very briefly – just until the cheese melts.
Click here to read about Peppa’s favorite way to use hard bread
Read more about our rural friends and their wisdom
Read about Peppa and one of her favorite legume soups
Read about Peppa’s foraging for wid greens
Read about a special Umbrian sweet Peppa makes in November
Read about an Umbrian traditions of November, celebrated by Peppa
Read about making a typical Umbrian bread with Peppa
Read about Peppa’s Easter cheese bread