The bakery

The bakery

By
Emiko Davies
Contains
10 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781743790038
Photographer
Lauren Bamford

The shelves of the neighbourhood forno (bakery) are heavy under the weight of baskets filled with the morning’s fresh loaves of bread, while wide, flat loaves of schiacciata (a Tuscan focaccia) lie on chopping boards, where they are easily sectioned. The glass counter has a heaped selection of oven-baked treats, such as almond or chocolate biscotti for dipping into vin santo after meals. Seasonal specialities also feature, such as autumn’s schiacciata all’uva (flatbread filled with red-wine grapes); and for winter’s Carnival, cenci (deep-fried pastry with a thick coating of powdery icing sugar) or schiacciata alla fiorentina, a simple cake scented with orange zest and vanilla, dusted with icing sugar and emblazoned with a giglio (the Florentine lily and symbol of the city) in contrasting cocoa powder. The forno is also the place to grab a quick savoury snack – in particular, schiacciata (plain or sliced open and filled with prosciutto or mortadella) or schiacciatine (small round discs of schiacciata topped with cheese, green olives or seasonal vegetables). Some bakeries offer a simple, long, flat margherita pizza, which can be bought by the slice; or cecina, a besan (chickpea flour) crêpe borrowed from the Tuscan coast, which is baked in large, hot ovens and served in pizza-like slices garnished with freshly ground black pepper and extra-virgin olive oil. Florentines head to their local forno early to get the pick of the best bread before it sells out, or in the mid-afternoon for a savoury snack. This chapter features some of the most popular, traditional Florentine bakery items from the forno, delicious treats that are a constant at any of the city’s bakeries.

Medieval Florence and the importance of bread

Florentines have been making their distinctive pane toscano (Tuscan bread) for centuries, at least since the Middle Ages. Dante Aligheri (1265–1321) even refers to it in The Divine Comedy. Traditionally it’s made unsalted – or sciocco, as the Tuscans say, which means bland.

Boccaccio speaks of ‘temperate food’ in The Decameron and bread was the ideal medieval food – perfectly balanced between hot (the wood-fired oven) and cold (the uncooked dough), humid (water) and dry (flour). It was a staple for peasants and nobles alike. Nobles used bread to gather up roasted meat, like an edible extension of the hand. Peasants ate it on its own or, when stale, in soups with vegetables or fragrant herbs – just like it’s eaten in ribollita or pappa al pomodoro today.

Food was generally cooked in just two ways: boiled or roasted. The restored original kitchen of medieval home and museum Palazzo Davanzati reveals how the kitchen’s large open fireplace took centre stage – ideal for roasting whole beasts on a spit or holding bubbling cauldrons. Medieval Florentines made thick soups, stews or gruels with millet, chestnuts or stale bread, or whole roasted animals, with meat and vegetables usually cut into convenient finger-sized pieces or even mashed before serving. Much of what was eaten was easily managed with hands or, at the very most, a spoon.

Spices such as cloves, nutmeg, saffron and pepper were an important part of the historical kitchens of the Middle Ages and well into the Renaissance, where they were used in abundance on practically everything in noble kitchens. As expensive commodities, they were highly prized and the use of them was a display of wealth. But other than a status symbol, spices also boosted the flavour of otherwise bland dishes (salt was too expensive) and were used to disguise the unpleasant smell of meat that was past its prime.

Wine and olive oil were well used, and the beating heart of the city was the Mercato Vecchio (‘Old Market’, razed in 1885 and rebuilt as Piazza della Repubblica as you see it today). One of the oldest cookbooks in Italian gastronomic history, the Anonimo Toscano del XIV Secolo, survives from this time. It was named for the anonymous Tuscan cook who wrote it and was, most likely, from Florence. Florentine cuisine as we know it today was already taking shape.

Tuscan Bread

‘Un pane più buono ogni giorno che passa’

A bread that gets better each day that passes

There are two absolutely essential ingredients in any Florentine kitchen: olive oil and bread. But not just any bread – pane toscano, Tuscan bread. As its name suggests, Tuscan bread is used and loved in the kitchens of the entire region, but it is particularly special to Florence, where this humble staple has a very long history. It dates back to at least the Middle Ages, when Florentines likely began making this bread without salt as a result of the expensive cost of this precious commodity.

Tuscan bread is a large, rustic, oval or roundish loaf with a hard and crunchy outer shell harbouring springy, white bread. It has the characteristic of only staying soft and fresh for one day but being useful for many days afterwards, even in its stale state. By far the most important feature of Tuscan bread (and the most obvious, once you bite into it) is its lack of salt. To use the Tuscan word, it’s sciocco, which means bland.

Dante Alighieri refers to this saltless bread in The Divine Comedy, with this quote from Paradiso, a moment where he learns of his exile from Florence and is given some idea of the difficulties he’ll face: ‘Tu proverai si come sa di sale Lo pane altrui, e com’è duro calle Lo scendere e il salir per l’altrui scale.’ In other words, ‘You shall learn how salt is the taste of another’s bread, and how hard a path the descending and climbing another’s stairs.’

For those not used to it, a plain piece of Tuscan bread can be an acquired taste. But it all begins to make sense once you try it the way it is meant to be eaten, with the heavily salted, tasty local ingredients such as prosciutto toscano (saltier than prosciutto from Parma, which is known in Tuscany as prosciutto dolce) or pecorino stagionato (an aged sheep’s milk cheese), or using it to wipe up a plate of peposo (peppery beef and red wine stew) or trippa all fiorentina (Florentine-style tripe).

This bread’s importance is proven even today in the many traditional dishes of Florentine tables and trattorie that would not be complete without this ingredient.

When fresh, Tuscan bread accompanies every antipasto or secondo (main); in the latter case it is often used like an extension of your hand for mopping up juices. Charmingly, this is called fare la scarpetta, which roughly translates as ‘to do the little shoe’, a popular, pleasurable way of combining this delicious bread with a meal’s tantalising leftover juices. It can be transformed into literally hundreds of variations of crostini after a light grilling, topped simply with a rubbing of garlic and peppery extra-virgin olive oil in its simplest form (known as fettunta), or with a classic Tuscan chicken liver pâté. When stale, it can be turned into rustic breadcrumbs, revived in water and vinegar until springy and tossed through a summery panzanella salad, or added to thick soups like ribollita or pappa al pomodoro.

Stale, saltless bread would be quite useless to most other people, but Tuscans have always been incredibly inventive and good at recreating delicious, hearty meals from yesterday’s leftovers, so pane raffermo (hardened day-old bread) never gets wasted. I would even go so far as to say that you are likely to find equal amounts of fresh and stale bread in any Tuscan, but particularly Florentine, meal.

Recipes in this Chapter

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