Chasing Levito Madre

Sound like some Sundance indie flick? Luckily not so dramatic…

We arrived in Trieste 2 days before on the back of a 25 day through-hike, slightly weary, but highly attuned to the outdoor lifestyle. The sights, noises and smells of urban life quickly became distressing. Hatching a romantic plan to follow the slowfood guide ‘Fare la spesa con Slow Food 2016 by Slow Food Editore) visiting artisan sourdough or ‘levito madre’ bakeries through small towns in northern Italy. Shortly after purchasing the book, we stumbled on a unique and intriguing concept for any aspiring baker, a “farinoteca” (or flour store) for a local stone mill Mulino Moras. It had a raft of different grades and varieties of flour for sale, a testament to how the Italians take their grains seriously.

Unfortunately the reality didn’t quite match up to the idea, but we did learn a lot.

While many of the bakeries listed in the slow food guide celebrated the ideas of Good, Clean and Fair, time-after-time we were left without a sour taste in our mouths. We visited bakeries in eight different towns across the breadth of northern Italy but only one or two loaves had the characteristic sour taste we had come to expect from “sourdough” in the UK, Norway and New Zealand.

Nothing should detract from the artisan skill though and there were numerous highlights including 72hour fermented pizza dough in Cerea (the middle of nowhere) and a loaf so packed with raisins, it almost looked like panforte. Some breads were beautifully flavoured with nuts and fruit, or enticingly rye or whole wheat loaves almost always containing flour sourced from a local stone mill.

In Turin we relaxed our stringent guidebook following and were lucky enough to stumble upon a monthly farmers market in central Turin with fresh goats cheese, sausages flavoured with Barolo wine and a stall belonging to yet another stone mill. The market was bubbling with energy and excited shoppers haggling and tasting, it served as an important reminder that slowfood is a movement, an idea, a culture rather than a list or accreditation from an organisation.

The highlight of our whimsical trip was a visit to the Mulino Sobrino antique flour mill in the town of La Morra, Cuneo. We thought ahead, and pre-arranged our visit a few days in advance but it would have never have been an issue. We got a delightful little tour of the antique stone mill, seeing their one mill in action being hand fed with scoops of rice. We had a great time discussing grain types, heritage wheats and the owner’s stern disapproval of ’00’ flour (too finely milled for any health benefits apparently). We left happily with a few bags of heritage wheat and their world famous polenta, a combination of 3 breeds of heritage corn.

Hand shovelling rice into the stonemill — Not quite Fonterra-rate throughput.

Despite our complaints, none of the bread we tried was poor, it was just bread as we already knew it. Strangely that was the poignant lesson about naturally leavened bread from our little tour. Sourdough is not a ‘type’ of bread as people in New Zealand may think rather a method or technique. Natural fermentation can be used for anything: pizzas, baguettes, ciabatta, large fluffy bloomers, dense and dark rye. The possibilities are endless and we got to taste many of them, which will serve as great inspiration for our future repertoire which we will need to produce to service the expectations of the modern bakery customer. At the same time, we affirmed our desire to bake loaves that are truly sour with complex tangy taste profiles.

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