Why is Italian Bread special ?
As spectacular as italian pasta in terms of variety, italian bread is tightly linked to that: all considered, the basic ingredients (wheat - or other cereals - and water) are exactly the same.
Perhaps because of its flexibility in the use of the most diverse basic and additional ingredients and its transportability, bread can boast as illustrious a past as pasta's... and maybe an even longer one.
Just to let you understand our relationship with bread (in all its expressions), in the italian language we normally distinguish two fundamental forms of food: "pane e companatico", meaning "bread" and "whatever comes along the bread".
I truly believe this is still today a living testimony of the importance we italians give to this magnificent aliment, and of the relevance it has had on our culinary customs and eating traditions since the dawn of the (recorded) time.
Building on that, did you know that the word “companion” (“compagno” in italian) derives from latin “cum + panis”, that is "with the bread" ? (bread is “pane” in italian)
Now you do!
It would probably be a never ending exercise to try and enumerate all the different varieties of italian bread, but I will do my best at sharing with you all the types that I know of and the less widespread ones that we will meet along the way.
In each region, city, town, specific varieties of italian bread exist: furthermore, these increase in number if we consider not just the different cereals that can be used, but also the different, numerous additional ingredients that are mixed with this splendid "simple" basis and their combinations!
Wow – I would simply live on bread.
I personally come from families (my mother's, from the North East, and my father's, from the Center) where the bread has always been an essential part of every meal (and even snacks!).
Especially when a kid in my maternal grandmother's house (in Quinto Vicentino, near Vicenza, deep in the italian North East) I clearly remember being sent early in the mornings during Sundays and when coming back from school during the rest of the week, to buy fresh bread.
Each day, new, freshly baked bread would be enjoyed at our table.
One thing dieticians all over the globe would tell you to avoid, was one of my absolute favorites back then: eating "pasta col pomodoro" with "pane"... I guess typical of a certain peasant, agricultural culture that permeated those places.
...more than once my father, born and raised in Rome (in Lazio, central Italy) would scold me when seeing I was "importing" these traditions from Quinto Vicentino, arguing with my mother that this way of eating was "good for peasants" (...lovely for me...)!
The smell of freshly baked bread is the best in the world: it is the smell of peace on earth, of happiness, of love, of childhood, of home and of times long past.
Also, having been bred like a good catholic (...I'm sure they tried their best :) ), bread has always represented a physical bond of the divinity with men: a celestial gift to the inhabitants of Earth.
Ok, I'm carrying myself away here, so back to the italian bread!
I suggest that we approach the discovery of the italian bread by performing the following distinction as "no bread is like the rest".
Perhaps the easiest distinction is the one that talks about “common” and “special” bread.
"Common" and "Special" Italian Bread
In reality, all the different breads can be traced to two basic typologies of bread, because of some basic characteristics.
The so called “common” bread is prepared with wheat flour, water and yeast.
Salt is present in almost all the recipes, but it is not mandatory: the key element here is the flour, which can only be wheat flour.
Even wheat flour, though, exists in different varieties and it is this variety that confers distinction to the different common breads.
With wheat flour type 00 and type 1, the so called pane casereccio (“home made”) is obtained, with a compact crust and a rich, tasty crumb, whereas with integral flour o cereals integral bread, still type 2 flour gives rustic bread, with a typical irregular, crisp and crumbly crust and a thick but very soft crumb.
Whatever the shape and size, the common bread always has a nice crumb inside, which can be more or less dense or thick: crumb, though, is a distinctive characteristic of the common bread, since it is the wheat flour to produce such results.
By using other types of flour, crumb will also change, becoming less distinctive.
So far, what I told you applies to common wheat (or “bread wheat”), but durum wheat can be also used, especially for the production of bread with thick, crunchy crust and a dense, “foamy” crumb.
The second “variety” of italian bread is the “special” one, which is obtained by mixing other ingredients to the basic ones: these additional ingredients enrich texture and flavor of the bread itself.
Despite what one may think, the list of the ingredients that can be added is not really endless as there is a limit to what, for various reasons, can be mixed with bread (matters that range from taste to chemical composition).
In Italy, some of the more common “basic” special breads are:
-bread with milk, in which milk is used instead of water to be mixed with the flour, and some sugar is also often added to the dough
-multicereal bread, in which different flours are mixed, from wheat, to chestnuts, to soya
-bread with potatoes, in which boiled and pressed potatoes are mixed to the wheat
You might have guessed, starting with these few special ones, that not just all the special breads can be successfully paired with the courses that are normally prepared for the daily meals.
Well, just imagine pairing milk bread, with its sweet taste, with a nice steak, for example… possibly not the best result right? Whereas it is perfect if consumed as a snack, mainly with chocolate or spreads.
Mind you, I am not telling you that you cannot do it (in the end, it is a matter of personal taste and… experimentations!) but that would NOT be the way this bread would be eaten in Italy.
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