I am completely fond of etymology and the way one word or expression can condense centuries of history, stories and anecdotes within a bunch of syllables.
Take the Italian expression pane e companatico, for instance.
While it is quite easy to work out that ‘pane’ means bread, ‘companatico’ is slightly more challenging to decipher.
The word derives from the compound of two Latin words, cum + panis (with + bread) and indicates anything that goes with bread.
It gets more romantic if you wish to go down this etymologic path: companatico has the same root as the word compagno (companion), someone you share your bread with.
You get the idea of the place bread holds in the Italian food culture: the realm of edible is essentially divided into ‘pane’ and ‘anything else’.
As for any other food, variations of bread across Italian regions are countless and have their own stories to tell. The most famous example is Tuscan unsalted bread. This type of bread is called ‘pane sciocco’ (silly bread) in Italian and there are multiple versions about why it got to be bland.
Some say the recipe changed during the Middle Ages as a consequence of Pontifical taxes on salt, a precious good at the time. A spicier version of the story has it that litigious Florentines took salt off the recipe out of sheer pride, after a fleet from the enemy city of Pisa had prevented a salt cargo from reaching the city in the year 1100.
Whatever the historical reason, since Middle Ages unsalted bread has become a symbol of the city of Florence, and its custom spread across Central Italy as Florentines conquered new territories.
Not to hint any comparison, but even my father, in a song he wrote for me before I was born, sang “you haven’t tried my home’s bread yet, you’re not yet my daughter”.
Well, by now you can tell that bread can be quite emotionally loaded in Italy.
When I moved to the Netherlands, I was very surprised to find out that the Dutch are heavy bread eaters too, possibly more than Italians.
Having very few Dutch friends in the beginning, and knowing Dutch people only from work – for all I knew, bread was all they ate. It came in the shape of sandwich bread, to be exact.
As far as I understand to this day, Dutch people have at least two bread-based meals per day: breakfast and lunch. This is when the mythological boterham comes upstage.
When I first heard the word, I naively thought it was a recipe involving ham at some point, but it’s not. A boterham is nothing else than an open sandwich spread with butter, cheese, meat, peanut butter, jam or chocolate sprinkles. The latter was quite baffling to me: in Italy chocolate sprinkles are confined to a very humble role in cake decoration (and even decreasingly so, since the raise of the dreadful hype of glace-based cake design). Here, instead, chocolate sprinkles are considered a substantial ingredient for a meal.
This should teach us a life lesson about relativity, taste and the concept of inherent value.
They even have a yearly competition for the tastiest sandwich in the country: Lekkerste Broodje van Nederlands.
In Italy, bread accompanies every meal, especially the hot, saucy ones, with the exception of pizza!
We even have an idiomatic phrase to describe the practice of using a piece of bread to mop the residual sauce off your plate once you have finished it, to taste it till the last drop: fare la scarpetta (to do the little shoe). It’s a very common gesture that shows your appreciation of the dish you just had.
Do it in a friendly setting, and your Italian cook will be flattered, but keep it away from formal dinners and fancy restaurants if you don’t want to be frowned upon!
Incidentally, I’d like to specify that Italians like hot meals even for lunch. This is somewhat bewildering to the Dutch, who are used to only have a broodje (a sandwich) over their midday break.
A Dutch colleague of mine once flared an horrified look at my lunchbox and couldn’t help uttering his disapproval: ‘How can you have a warm meal for lunch?’ – I didn’t dare speaking my own astonishment when I first saw him pour chocolate sprinkles on his spongy, floppy slice of untoasted sandwich bread.
Multiculturalism has to do with accepting other peoples’ companatico sometimes.
Undoubtedly, bread has a lot to do with culture and identity, and at a very primitive level, the one where childhood smells and tiny pleasures dwell.
Since I left my hometown, in my twenties, I almost unconsciously developed a little ritual about bread. Every time I would visit my grandma in Naples, I would buy a fresh warm loaf of bread in her favourite neighbourhood bakery and take it with me on my trip back to whatever place I called home at the time.
I still do it to this day and when I open my luggage it releases the homely and delicious scent of that unique type of bread, as if the loaf had been holding its breath for hours and was now happy to whisper his mouth-watering message.
In a minute, it’s my grandma’s wherever I have arrived.
The thing is, as much as I like exploring other food cultures and, in this case, the wonderful world of Dutch bread, since I moved to Amsterdam I sometimes miss my Southern pane and I’m not even a regular bread-eater.
I think a certain Dorothy once said: there’s no bread like home. She said something like that, anyway.
That Neapolitan-style bread is apparently impossible to find in Amsterdam: big alveolate white crumb, elastic and firm texture, crunchy thick crust, slightly sour and rustic smell, raised with natural yeast and tanned at the heat of a wood-fired oven.
Natural yeast – also known as sourdough, mother yeast, or by many other names – is the DNA of bread; it encloses information about the place where it came to life, as well as memories of all the bread it has raised over time.
Legend has it that the custom of leavening bread started by accident, as most good things.
It was about 2500BC in the Fertile Crescent, considered a cradle of civilisation. Climatic and geographic conditions favourable for farming and agriculture made the cultivation of cereals possible on this unusually rich soil enclosed by deserts.
The downside of cultivating grains in the Valley of Nile was the vulnerability of warehouses to the frequent overflows of the river.
Allegedly, the magic happened in one of those granaries, when the flour stored got wet and started to swell, incorporating native lactic-acid bacteria and wild yeasts, thus starting fermentation.
Somebody had the serendipitous idea not to throw this “wasted” flour away, and mixed it with good flour instead, to knead dough that ended up cooking into much softer and tastier bread than usual. That is probably how the leavening power of fermented flour was discovered.
A 2000 years old whole loaf of sourdough bread was found in an oven in ancient Herculaneum and recently the British Museum has tried to recreate the recipe.
For centuries mankind has used this so called indirect raising method, as opposed to direct raising obtained with yeast. This latter caught on in commercial baking thanks to its much quicker process, which drastically cut down baking time from 8-12 to a couple of hours.
This specific yeast has been bred industrially since the 30s and raises dough thanks to the gas released by alcoholic fermentation.
Sourdough, instead, is made of a variety of microorganisms, belonging to both bacteria and fungi.
Each sourdough is unique and the actual mix of microorganisms it is made of depends on what bacteria and yeasts it picked up from the environment it developed in.
Fungi and bacteria feed on flour and water differently, combining alcoholic and lactic fermentation, whereas industrial monoculture yeast only ignites the alcoholic type of fermentation.
It might seem not so big a difference – and technically speaking it’s a microscopic one -, however the result is that in lacto-alcoholic fermentation cereal proteins are broken down, and our little microorganism friends digest slightly toxic byproducts, thus making our bread easier to digest, more tasty, rustic and durable (it can stay fresh and fragrant for a whole week).
On the practical side, industrial yeast definitely wins over mother yeast: it’s immediately available, easy to use, it gives you what you want quick and ostensibly.
Sourdough baking is definitely high-maintenance and demands real commitment. It requires dedication, organization, time and patience.
The difference between yeast and sourdough is comparable to that between a fling and a relationship.
In fact, it’s very likely that if you manage to keep your sourdough alive long enough, you have proved ready for marriage or at least for getting a pony.
My first attempt at sourdough or pasta madre baking began in 2007, and it was a disaster.
A colleague had given me some of her pasta madre and it died in just a coupe of weeks, turning into disgustingly acid goo.
This year I decided to give it a second try.
Once again I asked a friend, Bruno – who had been using sourdough for over five years – to give me some of his pasta madre. He had received it from somebody else who had told him that madre was very old and had been passing from hand to hand for at least a century.
That’s how you get pasta madre: you need a friendly peddler, eager to pass the message on and spread the knowledge that comes with yeasts and bacteria.
It’s a gift, it has always been.
In past times mother yeast would be shared amongst neighbour households for home baking.
Never trust someone who tries to sell you some mother dough, rather knock on my door and I’ll be happy to share mine!
As an alternative, you could start your own colony from scratch, hoping to harvest good microorganisms, but that challenge is a bit intimidating to me. I felt safer asking a friend.
So I took Bruno’s pasta madre all the way from Naples to Amsterdam.
I was very much aware of the commitment I was taking.
Pasta madre must be stored in the fridge and carefully kept active and alive, or it runs the risk of dying off in just a few days, I knew that.
To keep your dough healthy, you need to feed it with good quality flour and water at least once a week.
I was explaining the whole maintenance and baking process to my boyfriend, while unpacking from my trip in Italy, and I remember him flashing a sardonic smile at me and warn: “You made your bed, now lie in it! Don’t expect me to take care of that thing”.
He might have uttered something like “I have spoken”, or more likely a villain-like laughter before burying his head back in his lines of code; I am not sure about that.
It took him a couple of weeks to give it a try. I can’t remember whether this was before or after we gave our pasta madre a name.
It first happened very casually: he happened to be working from home, that day, and he nonchalantly accepted to feed Elvira. The next thing I knew, he was the official bread-baker in the family, claimed dibs on taking care of Elvira, and allegedly makes the best sourdough bread in the neighbourhood.
He says baking bread relaxes him. The side effect is he is nearly getting anxiety attacks as our holidays are approaching and we will need to leave Elvira to the good care of a friend.
I guess, when you start naming things, you start building bridges with them and establishing ways to connect with them. It’s like asking someone you met for their phone number.
I believe words are not dull objects, they are living sense-machines instead; that’s why I like etymology so much: it’s like investigating the DNA of meaning.
Proper names, and particularly names of persons, are particularly powerful types of words. I think they convey sense and emotion before information.
We chose the name Elvira because it sounded strong and full of character: el-VEE-rah.
It turned out the name could be either of Arabic-Hispanic or Germanic origin. Either way, it has very appropriate meanings: “the white”, “alert” or “ trustworthy”.
For almost six months now, Elvira the white has loyally filled our home with heart-warming, mouth-watering aromas and given me delicious bread and an unseemly proud home-baker.
[Message to Cristina, our soon-to-be Elvira-sitter: no pressure, you’ll do just fine!]
Update: Elvira started a family. Read its story here!