Stretching from snow-capped Piedmont in the north to sun-kissed Sicily in the south, the diverse, exquisite geography of Italy has given rise to hyperlocal food cultures focused on quality produce and long-standing tradition. The supposedly ubiquitous bulb of garlic is seldom seen, and how very grateful food lovers like us are for the variety!
Italy’s time-out-of-mind history and rich agricultural heritage have nurtured a complex cuisine – this, in turn, is informed by cultural cross-pollination. The Greek love of herby fish has been sustained, as has the Arab proclivity for rice and almonds introduced in the 9th century. From the Americas came the now unquestionably Italian maize and tomatoes. Each of Italy’s twenty regions possesses its own unique culinary character, birthed from these myriad influences.
In the alpine climes of Lombardy, French and Swiss influence, combined with a culture of dairy, create some of the country’s richest offerings: creamy risottos, veiny blue cheeses, and hearty osso bucco. Emilia-Romagna in the northeast boasts the culinary Mecca of Modena and the export of Parmigiano Reggiano, along with the original ragu Bolognese. Central Italy luxuriates in warm weather; this region has given the world Tuscan olive oil, Roman carbonara, and Umbrian game served with delicately sweet vegetables. A profusion of fragrant citrus appears as we roll further down to the Mediterranean. Along the coast, we are spoiled by Neapolitan pizza and Sicilian meatballs in spicy tomato sauces. Limoncello and fresh seafood tempt from beachside trattorias.
Don’t be alarmed by the scale of these choices. Too much of a good thing, after all, can be wonderful. But what about something closer to home? Something that pigeon holes with your actual eating habits?
BreadEx takes great pleasure in introducing our family to the arguably less celebrated Italian carb – bread. The hyperlocal nature of the cuisine extends to breads, which range from crusty fruited loaves for Christmas to pan-fried chickpea flatbreads. In our month of eating Italy, we are bringing you four unique Italian offerings:
This nutty semolina bread, best friend to soups everywhere, is marked by the contrast between its deeply toasted crust and its soft golden crumb. It is traditionally eaten on the feast day of St Lucia, the patron saint of vision, and is shaped into an ‘S’ symbolizing her eyeglasses. Legend has it that on December 13th, 1582, she took pity on the starving faithful, and filled the ships in their famine-struck harbor with grain. Ravenous, the masses fell upon the grain and boiled it into porridge before it could be ground for flour. As a result, semolina became a popular ingredient for wheat-free breads made to honor Santa Lucia.
Possibly the most celebrated Italian bread, this crowd-pleaser receives the BreadEx twist in the form of a lavish topping: blistered cherry tomatoes and fresh pesto, with garlic confit and Parmesan to top it off. We’ve worked hard to achieve what we feel is the perfect Genoese-inspired focaccia; our dimpled flatbread, by turns crispy, tender, and fragrant, will form the canvas for an exploration of other global flavors down the line. If you’re feeling exploratory, try your hand at the paper-thin, cheese-stuffed focaccia di Recco from Liguria.
We have a competitive baker named Arnaldo Cavallari to thank for this classic sandwich bread. In 1982, Cavallari developed a super-hydrated dough made with a preferment, or biga. Liberally dusted with flour, the dough baked into a spongy loaf with a chewy crust. Thus was born a direct rival to the French baguette. Ciabatta, meaning ‘slippers’, is the perfect bread for a toasted panini, and fits the Italian expression fare la scarpetta perfectly – an instruction to ‘make a little shoe’ to sop up the juices from your meal.
Lightly buttery, ever-so-sweet, and authentically eaten with gelato or sorbets, Sicilian brioche traditionally comes in adorable buns shaped to represent a woman’s chignon. Our fluffy loaf version is more sliceable, but just as delicious, and makes an excellent ingredient for bread-based desserts.
We hope our glimpse into the world of Italian breads inspires you to try something new from this vast culinary smorgasbord. To keep abreast of other exciting global baking traditions, join our mailing list.