History of Tuscan Cooking pt.2 – The Bread

“There is no salt”. Those speaking are the Italians from other Italian regions who are accustomed to a different bread than the Tuscan one. Let’s pay attention to the crunchy crust and the uniform soft side. It is not only a type of food but a real treasure in the history of all foods. You may say that this is the most excellent Food (we will not get into the symbolic and religious meaning that bread has).

Let’s start with an important date, 1861, date of the Unification of Italy. At that moment, Florence became an important center for the diffusion of the economic and cultural activities that could build a national identity. In 1861, on the wave of the great universal expositions, where the first one was in London in 1851, Italy had its own. Here, all innovations were presented not only within the field of technology but also within that of food. The foods that characterized, and still do, all regions in Italy were shown here.

Amongst these, bread had been given a place of importance as the omnipresent food on the Italian table even though kneaded in various forms and given as many characteristic names. Visitors showed great curiosity when they realized that, even though the kneading machines and new instruments had developed through the years, Tuscan bakers still worked the flour without adding any salt to it. This is said to be “the ancient way”. The renowned Peruzzi bakery introduced a well cooked and crispy bread which released the characteristic light scent of bread as it is just taken out of the oven. No matter the confrontation with other Regions, Tuscan and Florentine bread was, and still is to this day, prepared without salt.

But, why is that? The sea coasts where to extract the precious material, which was salt, were not few. The spice trades were flourishing. Nevertheless, the lack of salt was the result of the long and endless war between Florence and the Maritime Republic of Pisa, the great opponent to the Republic of Florence’s dominance. Pisa held control over the trade and conservation of salt. They forbade trading it or, according to other sources, imposed such elevated taxes to take revenge against the Florentines. The latter were then forced to make virtues out of their necessities. Medieval historians have various explanations but had the certainty that salt arrived to Florence at exorbitant prices after taxes and duties. Consequently, given that bread has always been the “paupers’ meal”, in order to avoid rebellions, the guild of bakers created saltless bread. “Sciocco” , in Florence means without salt. The term plays on its use all over the rest of Italy, where “sciocco” is a person who does not ponder on things and thus “has no salt in the head”.

Dante, in Canto XVII of the Paradise, which is famous for its prophecy about his future in exile to his ancestor Cacciaguida states:

Tu proverai come sa di sale lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle /lo scendere e ‘l salire per l’altrui scale.…

Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt the bread of others, and how hard a road/ The going down and up another’s stairs…

Here, tradition, as witnessed by the popularity of the Divine Comedy, underlines the meaning of salted bread, in the specific case, as a metaphor for Dante’s roaming through different regions of Italy after being exiled from Florence ( the meaning is sour, as it is the bread of others).

This noble food has accompanied throughout the centuries the tables of all Italians and not only.

The names of the various types of Tuscan Bread are very indicative; there is the “filone”, the “bozza”, the bread of Montaione, the one of Altopascio, or the “black” one, which is made of whole wheat, from Vinca, an isolated small town in the province of Massa. Historical bakeries still luckily exist, one of which if the famous  Semellino, behind via dei Calzaiuoli, where you can still find some lost treats such as the milk bread or the “pan di ramerino” (rosemary bread).

Invention is a great resource in the kitchen. Essential nutrients were so scarce and frugal that a simple cake  was seen as a delicacy from the mythical Land of Plenty, sweets were available only on the tables of the aristocratic families or those of rich merchants. But the wise bakers did not give up and started taking out of the oven the “pan di ramerino”. Rosemary, is a Mediterranean aromatic plant with strong phytotherapic virtues, harvested in every countryside and optimal to add flavor to any food.

Chopped rosemary leaves are kneaded in the light dough. This was then shaped into a braided bun brushed, even though not always, with a little bit of honey. Ultimately, it was put in the oven. This was the sweet bread prepared during the Easter holidays, bringing happiness to children and adults alike. At the beginning of ‘900 in the most popular neighborhoods, San Frediano, Santa Croce, you could still find “pan di ramerino” vendors, with their baskets filled with this “cake”. Nowadays, it is prepared with raisins, a little sugar and it is always brushed with honey. You can find it in bakeries or more traditional pastry shops.

Lastly, The history of the Tuscan bread would have to continue by mentioning other tasty recipes which have as main ingredient “raffermo” bread (slightly stale bread, a couple of days old). These are, the “ribollita”, “pappa al Pomodoro” and summer “panzanelle”. But it is a story for another time…

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