Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The artisan baker

Back in the Balham neighbourhood where I once lived, the demand for housing barely faltered throughout the recent recession. I heard from former neighbours that this was, in large part, down to the reputation of the local school – people wanted to live in the area because their children were guaranteed a place. I can understand this. I chose my home town here in Italy because it has a great bakery!

It’s no longer straightforward finding a good bakery in Italy. There was a time, I remember, when you could walk into any town and buy freshly baked local artisan breads. Most popular were the huge country loaves – pagnotta - dark crusty wheels, crispy to the touch, chewy and full of flavour - baked in wood burning ovens throughout the country. You could buy a piece, wrap it in a paper bag, place it in the credenza [sideboard] and it would last a week.

These breads originated from a time when people would take their dough once a week to the local fornaio – baker. Each loaf would be marked with the family’s personal signature – usually a wooden stamp - and it would be baked for a small charge. The loaves were large and made to last. The forno was a communal hub.

Thankfully, you can still find a pagnotta in Italy, but you will have to make the effort to find it. Alternatively, a recent survey estimated there are something in the region of 1,500 varieties of bread made in Italy which, taking into account regional dialects and shapes, can be broken down into 200 main types. So, if you take into consideration the ones we all know - the ciabatti, focacce, pane di Altamura, pane pugliese and panini all’olio etc of this world – it means there are still a good 190 waiting to be discovered.

Back in my home town Franco, an experienced artisan baker, makes 20 varieties of bread daily – and they’re all worth discovering.  Needless to say he starts work early – about 3 a.m., every morning, 7 days a week. And he’s been going steadily since he was 13 years old. He’s now over 50! Hardly surprising, it’s a regime that not many of the younger generation are willing to endure. Luckily Franco reassures me that he has no plans to call it a day. “Baking’s a game I still love to play,” he tells me. Some neighbourhoods might well revolve around the school. Mine revolves around the bakery.

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