Italians take their bread seriously. Along with pasta, bread remains a fundamental staple of the Italian diet. I do not recall having once sat down at an Italian dinner table and not been offered bread of some description. The variety of bread available is staggering, matched by the fact that every region, indeed every province, has its own specialities and style. But bread is more than just a product in Italy. It is an intrinsic part of Italian culture.
Traditionally, across Italy, the trip to the bakery, along with the grocer and the butcher was a daily ritual for people living in provincial towns. With the advent of supermarkets and changes in contemporary lifestyles, independent bakeries are being forced to adapt to compete. In a short period of time, bakeries across Italy are reinventing themselves. Today, the artisan bakery represents more than simply a place to buy bread; it has become a communal hub.
STEEPED IN HISTORY
This trend is no better exemplified than at La Casa del Pane, a small independent bakery in the provincial town of Castell’Arquato in the region of Emilia Romagna. La Casa del Pane is steeped in bread history. With a river flowing under the building, it originally housed a flour mill. In 2000, the building was rescued from its derelict state by the current proprietor who, in a fashion, returned it to its roots by establishing a bakery.
In just seven years, La Casa del Pane has established a considerable reputation for the quality of its bread and other products - so much so, that customers travel from as far as Milan, 75km away, just to purchase its bread. For Francesco Filograsso, head baker at La Casa del Pane, the secret of the shop’s success is simple - "passion".
"Whatever you sell, it has got to be the best product you can make," says Filograsso. "But you also need to have a consistent product. A product that is made the same way each day, not one that is like this today and like that tomorrow. It’s got to be consistent. You know, it can take a lifetime to gain your clients... but only a moment to lose them."
Manuela Casalini, front-of-house manager, is more pragmatic. For her, the key to success is twofold: variety and quality. Both are evidently in abundance at La Casa del Pane. Initially offering just a few signature breads, the shop has gradually expanded its range to over two dozen types of bread including Bocconcini, focacce, ciabatta, potato bread, a natural yeast bread, mixed cereals, wholemeal, rye breads and so on, in all different shapes and sizes. "We are constantly introducing new products," explains Manuela. "Demand is almost always initially high. People want to try new things. The real test is whether it remains so. If, after a month, sales are still high, it becomes part of our permanent range."
The owners have gone to great lengths to adapt to today’s market. What started as an artisan bakery has, in recent years, been transformed. Two years ago, the owners expanded the café to provide a seating area. "Many of our customers would come in here in the morning, buy bread and then walk down to the piazza to have coffee and maybe a brioche," says Casalini. "Now they don’t have to." The flow of customers is steady. Both locals and tourists stop, whether it’s for a breakfast brioche with cappuccino, a light lunch of pizza or freshly-baked ciabatta sandwiches, or just to sample some of the shop’s patisserie with their mid-morning espresso.
In addition to the extensive range of breads, the shop produces seasonal specialities, such as Pandoro, Pannetone and Colomba, individually crafted Easter eggs and year-round regional specialities such as Sbrisolona, a mixed nut-based crumble cake, Sicilian cannoli and their signature sweet biscuit, Ciottoli di Castello Arquato (castle pebbles), a meringue-and-hazelnut based biscuit. Weekend specialities also include a delicious fruit loaf, crisp mini-focacce, topped with fresh tomato and olives and savoury ham-and-cheese stuffed scones.
Filograsso knows bread. He should do, as he has been baking it all his life. His "passion", he says, was "born through need". From a small town in Puglia, in the south of Italy, his mother sent him north to Milan at the age of 12 to find work. He found a job in a bakery and worked seven days a week for "three meals and a bed to sleep in each day".
Few other professions, at the time, he explains, offered this ’all in’ solution. But one finds it hard to imagine that it was just by coincidence that Filograsso arrived at his chosen profession. The eldest of six children, all of his brothers and sisters now work in the bakery trade. In fact, his great-grandfather was a baker, he recalls, so there "must be something in the blood".
For 50-something Filograsso, a typical day begins at 3am. He lives with his family above the shop, so the commute to work doesn’t pose much of a problem. He starts with the brioches - eight different varieties in all - as the first customers begin arriving as early as 6am. Then there’s the bread, first wholemeal and cereal mixes, then rolls and, finally, the larger loaves.
From this point, the day can take a variety of twists, depending on the day and the season. Filograsso works to demand. The weekend is naturally the busiest period. Castell’Arquato is a popular tourist attraction for day trippers from Milan and surrounding towns. "It’s difficult to say how much to make each day," he explains. "For example, we make Colombas at Easter. I can’t tell you how many I make. It’s based on demand. We don’t just make a certain amount and say, ’That’s it, we’re not making any more’. Times have changed. We follow the customer."
Filograsso isn’t just a baker. He is also an accomplished patissier and chocolatier, having acquired his considerable skills in bakeries across Italy over the past four decades. "There are many people who have taught me," he says, "many elderly people with a certain amount of experience. But you’ve got to adapt what you’ve learned and that can only come from passion. I believe that without this passion, you’ll never be a great baker." The diversity of products on offer at the Casa del Pane is testament to Filograsso’s passion and talent. Along with two assistant bakers, all of the products offered at the bakery are made in-house.
Filograsso’s real passion is for baking bread and he is quite philosophical about his work. "For me, making bread is more difficult because you need to understand it. You need to feel it. If one day it’s hot, if one day it’s cold, things change. You may need to add a bit more yeast one day, leave it to rise more, or leave it to rise less, knead it more one day and less the other, hot water, cold water - you get my point? It’s a game and it’s a game I still love to play." n
=== Recipe for Bocconcini ===
Franco rarely reveals the secrets of his great breads. Indeed, even the owners of La Casa del Pane have been cajoling him for years to divulge his recipes. I’m not sure if it was my Irish-Italian charm or that, after three days of questions, he just wanted to get rid of me, but he finally conceded and offered the following recipe for Bocconcini, the shop’s number one seller.
Flour ’0’ 25kg
Flour ’00’ 25kg
Fresh yeast 300g
Water 35 litres
To make the pasta madre (biga starter), mix 17.5kg of ’0’ flour and 17.5kg of ’00’ flour with 17.5 litres of water and the fresh yeast. Leave this mixture to rise for 12-14 hours. Then add the remainder of the flour, water, malt and salt. Mix for at least 15 minutes in an electric bread kneader. Leave the bread to rise for approximately 1 hour. After it has risen, shape the bread into little rounds and leave to rise again for approximately 20 minutes. Bake the rolls at 260?C for 20 minutes.