How to Love Bread like an Italian
[First published February 2, 2020.]
Last week I tried, and failed, to make bread.
This was not the first time I’ve tried to make bread. I’ve been trying (and failing) for about three months and counting. But last week was the first time my breadmaking attempt involved public shaming.
Let me explain. I’ve read dozens of recipes, blogs, books, posts and reddit threads about the art of the perfect bread. I’ve read about sourdoughs, ryes, baguettes, ciabatte, kifli, injera…you name it. Flours? I’ve tried all of them. Whether the standard 00 from the supermarket or the stone-ground organic grain from an artisanal mill, I’ve bought it and rendered it into something inedible. And yes, I’ve tried adjusting the amount of semolina, the milliliters of water, the temperature of the water, the yeast, the activation of the yeast, the kneading technique . . . but not once have I managed to create a loaf that could be called bread.
To anyone that knows me, this is unsurprising. My talents in the kitchen would be more aptly described as catastrophes. I did manage to make cookies, once, and never again. And that pretty much sums up the extent of my baking resume.
Yet despite my lack of natural abilities, I am determined to make bread. At least once, I want to put flour, yeast and water together and produce something that can be swallowed. Not because I care about bread. I don’t. I don’t even like bread that much. But I care about words. I care about humanity. I care about civilization.
And bread is all these things. To make bread is to be human.
I learned this truth from an incredible book called Mangiare da Cristiani (Eating as Christians), by the food historian and University of Bologna professor Massimo Montanari. With example after example spanning millennia, Montanari reveals how bread epitomizes human civilization. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Sumerian poem written over 4000 years ago, man becomes civilized at the same time he begins to eat bread and drink beer. In Homer’s Odyssey, men are distinguished from beasts as “bread-eaters” ( sitòfagoi). Bread (and wine, or beer, for that matter) is living proof of human intelligence, innovation, and determination.
Because bread and wine are true creations. You can’t forage for bread. The land must be cultivated. Then the wheat must be sowed, threshed, and stored, after which it must be ground by skilled hands or with the design of complex technology which can harness the power of water and wind. Then the flour must be mixed with water and kneaded, physically pressed and folded, again and again, then left to rise. Finally, the bread enters the hearth of an oven’s burning flames — another tool of nature harnessed by man — until the hard, dark crust has a perfectly soft, spongy center inside. Even the yeast, a microorganism that would otherwise cause food to rapidly mold and putrefy is converted by human intervention to create something substantive. Breadmaking manipulates yeasts’ natural process and reverses its course, from one of decomposition to composition. From destruction to creation.
In other words, bread is the act of creation. Bread is art. Bread is God.
And who doesn’t want to be God?
So, I started practicing. I came in feeling confident. After all, bread is art, and I know art! I’m a writer! What is writing if not a process of transformation, from the flour of letters to the dough of words to the ovens of a finished narrative? Writing is the bread of the soul! (In fact, the most prestigious institution of language in Italy, responsible for the first-ever Italian dictionaries, is called the Accademia della Crusca, or the “Chaff” Academy, because their mission statement since 1583 has been to refine language in the same way a flour mill cleans away the indigestible chaff to obtain the purest grain.)
So how hard could non-literary bread be?
Turns out, super fucking hard.
As I mentioned at the beginning, I tried dozens of times, changing every possible variable to no avail. No matter how long I kneaded the bread, or how long I baked it, not one single loaf could be described as edible.
The only thing I hadn’t changed is the oven.
Of course! The oven! My oven is a tiny, shitty tin box from the 1960s. Maybe my bread, the symbol of my intellect and humanity, needed the power of ancient flame to rise. Luckily for me, every Saturday in Bologna the local bread community fires up the communal oven, a massive refractory dome where people can bring their own doughs from home to be baked by wood fire.
So I woke up early on Saturday and made the best possible dough . . . certainly my personal best. It was spongy-soft and had a nice shiny surface. It looked just like the photo in the recipe.
I brought my flour-baby to the market and dropped it off on the table with all the other yeasty babies. And that’s when I discovered how shitty my dough truly was. I thought my dough was soft. I didn’t even know what soft meant! These other doughs were like magical cloud-pillows. I wanted to cry right then and there.
Just when I was about to grab mine back and return home, one of the breadmakers called my name. “Elissssse! Ciao!”
At first I pretended I didn’t hear, but there’s no other Elise in Bologna ( Elisa, yes. Elise, absolutely not), so there was no way I was going get away with the whole trick of walking away and then a week later saying “Oh, you were at the communal oven too? I had no idea!” So instead I inched over in front of my pathetic lump and hoped he wouldn’t notice.
He did, of course. “Is that yours?” he asked, his finger curving around me to the cold hard criminal I once considered my sweet, innocent flour baby.
“The dough you’re trying to hide. Is it yours?”
I laughed flirtatiously. “Mine? hahaha! You’re hilarious.”
“You Americans are strange sometimes.”
“You loaf it!” At this point I had no idea what words were coming out of my mouth. I decided it was best to leave.
Just as I turned to go, a young woman approached the table and inspected the doughs. She looked at mine and winced. And no, I’m not exaggerating for comic effect. She visibly winced.
“Should I put this one in?” she asked. “Whose is this?”
My friend pointed that same fat finger at my face. “The American. You might as well, there’s space. Maybe we’ll get a nice door stopper.”
So the young woman transferred all the doughs into the giant woodfired oven and shut the iron door.
An hour passed. It was time to come collect our loaves. I bounced on the balls of my feet like a relay racer expecting the baton. I decided that, as soon as my loaf hit the table, I would snatch it and run. It was my best chance at saving face.
But you know what they say about God and plans. As the young woman opened the iron gate to the refractory, a short man with a goatee appeared out of nowhere. Holding a microphone.
“Gather ’round, everyone! It’s time to reveal the bread!”
As commanded, a crowd gathered around.
Then, as the young woman retrieved the loaves with a long wooden paddle, Mr. Goatee pressed gently into their crusts. He smelled their aroma. He knocked on the underside to hear the correct sound.
“And, of course,” he boasted loudly into the mic. “The most beautiful bread wins a kilo of farina from the farmers’ market.” People oohed and aahed. Some started to take out their camera phones.
The breads were gorgeous. My friend’s rustic round was so perfect it looked fake. And the smell! Sweet, sour, pleasantly bitter, with just a touch of wood smoke . . . that perfect balance between flour and yeast.
“Yours is so beautiful,” I told him, my eyes welled with tears.
“I got the mother yeast from my great-grandmother. She ran into a bakery during the war and rescued it from the Nazis just seconds before they bombed the whole building.”
“I bought some dry yeast at the discount store yesterday,” I said stupidly. (But seriously, what is the correct response to a story like that?)
Finally, it was my bread’s turn to come out of the oven. It landed on the table with a dull thud. The paddle woman winced. Again. The goatee with the microphone stopped talking and stared.
“What happened?” he asked the paddle woman.
The woman just shook her head. “It was like that from the start.”
Needless to say, I have not returned to the communal ovens. But I haven’t given up either. And someday, I hope, my next post will be about creating the perfect, whole-grain symbol of civilization itself.
Originally published at https://www.elisezell.com on February 2, 2020.