My Private Italy: Why Italians eat so much bread

Thursday, 03 November 2022 15:19 Written by Francesca Inverardi
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Bread is the centrepiece of our Mediterranean diet, a central element of lives and cultures. Christians consider it a sacred food, broken and shared at the table, a symbol of brotherhood. When I was living in America, it was served in Italian restaurants as an appetizer accompanied by olive oil, highlighting that bread was typically Italian. Yes, we do serve bread in restaurants, but it’s not an appetizer, it’s maybe the most important food on the table!

However, its history is very ancient and dates back to primitive men who used cereal seeds by grinding them between two stones and mixing them with water to obtain a very nutritious meal. The Egyptians began to cook bread loaves firsts in ovens made of stone and then in clay pots; after removing the ash, the loaves were put inside, and the pot was closed with a large stone, favouring a slow and uniform cooking of the bread.

The Greeks modified the bread dough by adding milk and flavouring it with herbs, wine or honey and starting to knead and bake bread at night so that in the morning people would find it fresh and crunchy.

The bread-making technique was then introduced in Italy by the Romans, and the term “farina” (flour in English) was coined, coming from the abundant spelt (“far” in Latin), which was used like other cereals for making bread. The Romans elaborated the basic bread recipe further, increasing the number of ingredients that modified flavour and appearance, such as olives or apples. They also invented the water mill, although this invention was used on an industrial level only later in France.

In the 19th century, chemical fertilizers were introduced and the production of cereals increased exponentially; industrial production of bread started, so bread became an irreplaceable food. In Italy, each region holds various breads for ingredients, processes, shapes and traditions.

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Starting from Northern Italy, Trentino Alto Adige is one of the regions famous for its bread. Anyone lucky enough to visit it keeps a perfect memory of its typical bread with a unique fragrance. In this region, the variety of cereal crops turns into a great variety of baked products; in fact, there are more than sixty types of different breads! My favourites are “Pane Nero” and “Pan de molche”. Pane Nero (black rye bread) is a very strong-tasting bread with a thin crust and compact crumb. It is possible to find it in different shapes and sizes. “Pan de molche” is typical of the upper Garda Lake and prepared precisely with "molche", the solid residue of olive oil consisting of the skins and pulp of the olives.

In Emilia Romagna, the most famous bread is undoubtedly “Piadina”, made with wheat flour, lard or olive oil, baking soda or yeast, salt and water, which was traditionally baked on an earthenware dish called “teglia”. The earliest evidence of the Piadina in the land of Romagna dates back to 1200 BC. Most likely, the Etruscans taught the local Italian populations how to cook cereals (“farinata di cereali” was a typical Etruscan dish), also influencing the early gastronomy of Rome. “Piada” was a popular bread in Roman times and in the Middle Ages. Initially, this was a noble food consumed mainly among the ranks of high society. But given its simple and easy-to-find ingredients, it soon began to spread among ordinary people.

Depending on which area you are in, you will be served a thicker piadina (northern Romagna) or thinner piadina (Rimini). The ingredients offered for the filling may be slightly different. The most famous and favorite, is the one stuffed with “Prosciutto, Squacquerone e Rucola” (Parma raw ham, Squacquerone cheese and rocket).