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L’arte italiana bianca

Ottavia Mazzoni travels ‘back home’ to find out what bread means to Italian people and whether it is still embedded in the country’s cultural and culinary traditions.

Photos © Ottavia Mazzoni and Carol Payne

Photos © Ottavia Mazzoni and Carol Payne

I must confess to having fairly romantic ideas of Italian bread, probably because when I moved to the UK in 1999 I was met with a rather disheartening lack both of quality and variety in the baking department. Though Britain is now rediscovering Real Bread, back in the ‘nineties I could not find a proper bakery anywhere within cycling distance of where I lived. But what of bread in Italy today? A common Italian saying used in relation to a nice and gentle person, which roughly translates as ‘to be as good as bread,’ prompted me to question whether bread in Italy is really as good now as some people, including me, assume it to be.


Bread making is fondly known as the arte bianca or ‘white art’ in the peninsula and bread features almost as the centrepiece on each Italian table at pretty much every meal. It is eaten for breakfast, to give substance to fresh salads, and as an accompaniment to meat and pasta dishes alike. Perhaps the combination of pasta and bread can be seen as a surge of carbs, but there is nothing like a piece of fresh bread to perform the scarpetta, the ubiquitous, albeit not very polite, wiping of any pasta sauce from the bowl or, even better, the pan in which the sauce was cooked.

Slow Food compiled a list of more than 200 Italian traditional bread varieties,* but it is estimated that there are hundreds more variations. In northern areas, homeland to ‘polenta eaters’, bread traditionally represented a luxury, was mainly bought from bakeries and tends to be small with a well-aerated crumb. Light as feathers, these panini (such as crocette, barilini, and rosette) have a very short shelf life and are purchased on a daily basis. The further south one moves, the larger and longer lasting bread (like pane toscano, pane Altamura and pane cafone) becomes. This is a result of the tradition of weekly home baking in what were mostly rural areas where bread, together with some form of companatico (companion, literally ‘with bread,’ from the Latin cum panis), formed the basis of peasants’ meals. According to La Federazione Italiana Panificatori, Panificatori -pasticceri ed affini (the Italian Federation of Artisanal Bakers and Pâtissiers, AKA FIPPA), there are around 24,000 artisan bakeries in the country. Official statistics speak loud and clear of three out of four Italians buying their daily bread from small artisan bakers, rather than from supermarkets.

Foreign imports

Although the number of bakeries and types of loaf might suggest that the sector is thriving, recently bread has become the victim of social trends similar to those in the UK. Whether banned by faddish diets for being ‘fattening’ or shunned by people assuming they have an intolerance, allergy or autoimmune response to gluten, baked goods have seen a steady decline in interest. This has been exacerbated by country’s struggling economy and the convenience of supermarket offerings. The consequences include increasing uniformity of flavour and the loss of local identity, as increasingly supermarkets are selling semiindustrial loaves of foreign styles, such as baguettes and pain de campagne, mostly imported frozen from eastern Europe. 

Bakers under pressure

Matteo Calzolari, whose bakery is located in the Apennine Mountains between Bologna and Florence, believes this tendency is also a consequence of the ever-growing disconnection between bakers and the flour they employ. About fifteen years ago he realised with uncommon foresight that simply knowing that flour would give reliable results in the oven and was blended from Italian wheat was not enough. Recognising that true bread quality derives from how flour is milled and ultimately from the quality of the cereals used to make the flour, he became one of the founding members of Montagna Amica. Meaning friendly mountain, this association of bakers, farmers and millers works to rediscover older varieties of Italian wheat (such as Gentilrosso, Montanaro and San Pastore, as well as farro)^ and long-established organic farming methods that are best suited to the mountainous areas of the Apennines. In the same way that the farmers had to adopt forgotten cultivation techniques, Matteo soon found out that he needed to adapt his baking methods to the characteristics of the different types of grain by embracing traditional bread varieties and using sourdough starter.

Similar concerns over the state of the ‘white art’ are shared by Edgardo, 80 years old and still energetically running one of the few artisan bakeries left in Venice. Although I was not intending to pursue my baking culture research while on holiday in the Serenissima, I could not help but follow the wafting smell of freshly-baked bread through the narrow calles that led me to his bakery. When I arrived the baker was out delivering his panini to restaurants and hotels. No sooner had he returned than he began an animated discussion about the numerous political failures that have paved the road to the current state of the baking industry in Italy generally and in Venice in particular. Among the points Edgardo made in his monologue while showing me around the tiny bakery were the unclear legislation, which allows the use of additives, sweeteners and preservatives and does not distinguish between a truly artisan bakery and a simple front shop that sells industrial loaves made elsewhere.† He said that fewer young people were willing to do the long night shifts - his apprentice is a ‘young lad’ of 55 - and that consumer demand for non-traditional styles is forcing small bakers to diversify their production uneconomically. He also pointed at the unfair pricing rule that requires Italian artisan bakers to offer at least one type of loaf at the unsustainable price of one Euro per kilo.

Passionate and generous people

Although I have to admit that the situation in Italy is not as good as I would like to remember, it is still far from the dismal state of the UK baking sector of just a few years back. Culturally and historically Italians are tied to their bread affectionately and still know how to differentiate between Real Bread and the poor imitation offered by supermarkets. Unless pressed by the current economic situation, Italians would choose to buy quality, traditional bread or bake at home, as many have started doing since the breaking down of the country’s economy. And as long as passionate and generous people like Matteo or Edgardo stay in the trade, Italy’s Real Bread culture will remain alive.

* L’Italia del pane, Guida alla scoperta e alla conoscenza, (2007), Slow Food Editore.
^ Italians in different areas apply the word farro variously to emmer, einkorn and spelt, all members of the same genus (Triticum) as modern wheat. [ed.]
† Sound familiar? [ed.]

Ottavia in Cucina runs classes in the Bath area to pass on Real Bread baking and other Italian cookery skills.

Originally published in True Loaf magazine issue 14, January 2013

Published Sunday 2 June 2019

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