Can We Talk About Bread?

Pan fin che düra, ma vin a misüra.

       Bread as much as you can bear, but wine in measure.

When a non-Italian thinks of Italian cuisine, he or she typically thinks in terms of wine and pasta, and of course pizza. But I think the real protagonist of the Italian table is bread. The variety that is available, region by region, might be greater than that of wine although not as great as pasta, whose selection expands not only according to grain type, but also shape, filling, manufacture (fresh or dried), preparation (in soup or sauce), and of course the seemingly limitless variety of sughi (sauces) and condimenti (condiments). As for pizza, it is really the toppings that distinguish and define it, although all great intenditori (connoisseurs) of pizza know that good pizza is really all about the crust.

Still, bread, plain bread that is put on the table at every meal, retains supreme importance. All of the great affettati e salumi (sliced and cured meats), salsicce e formaggi (sausage and cheese), even insalate (salads) are rendered inedible if no bread is available. One needs to think only of common English words, such as ‘company’ and ‘companion’ to recognize the central importance of bread as both a daily material necessity and as a rich and wide ranging metaphor, deriving from the Latin com (with) panis (bread). Its importance is central and fundamental to Christianity in both word and ritual.

It also makes a common appearance in popular culture. “Good, fresh . . . now we can eat”, says Paulie, one of the gangsters in Martin Scorsese’s film, Goodfellas, gently squeezing the loaf that has just arrived. “No bread? But what are we going to eat?”, says Maria to her son Totò, who just arrived home without the one item that makes all meals possible, in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra. The grain from which bread was made was the ur-comestible. It was what made the Agricultural Revolution a revolution. It lies at the very heart of Western civilization, before wine, before cheese, before everything.

So it is no surprise that bread lies at the center of the Italian table, whether it is the pane di segale (rye bread) in the numerous forms that are found across the northern regions, from Val d’Aosta through Lombardia to Trentino-Alto Adige, the whiter and wheatier offerings from Piemonte, Emilia Romagna and Veneto, the focacce of both Liguria and Puglia, although the form is found in other regions as well, the hard wheat and semolina varieties that are a specialty of Basilicata, Sicily and other southern regions, as well as all of the artisanal loaves, traditional and di moda (fashionable), that are made from organic grain, or which contain turmeric and chia seeds for the special health benefits they promise to provide, and the panini (rolls), grissini (sticks) and fette (slices) that all have their special role to play in the Italian régime alimentaire.

You usually do not put it on your main plate, let alone have a separate plate for it, but merely put it on the table next to your setting after retrieving it from the basket on the table, breaking off bite sized pieces as you need them, for your salad, for your cheese, for your secondo (second course typically of meat or fish) or contorno (side dish typically of vegetables), but never with your pasta, unless you find yourself with a family that follows such a practice, for in Italy as elsewhere, rules are made to be broken. One such reason might be to take up remaining sauce or dressing left on the plate, in which case you use a small piece of bread to ‘fa la scarpetta’ or ‘do the little shoe’; that is, to mop up what is left. Don’t do this in the Vatican, where it is officially prohibited, or in other formal settings, where it might seem a bit too homey to be polite.

The quote that opens this piece comes from the Valtellina, a region that is known for its wine production, despite its historically rigid mountain climate (although this is rapidly transforming due to anthropogenic climate change), but where the local bread is spoken of with an affection that wine never receives, where pizza is better left alone, and where pasta appears really only in one dish, although a famous and characteristic one, pizzoccheri. The valley’s traditional bread is a kind of pane di segale, which comes baked in the form of ciambelle (rings) that were in the past eaten when soft and fresh or left to dry and then softened in warm milk or broth for prima colazione (breakfast), pranzo (lunch) or cena (dinner). You have never had breakfast until you have had a bowl of dry pane di segale, broken into pieces, and covered in hot milk and coffee.

So, yes: Pan fin che düra, ma vin a misüra. The saying serves as a nice corrective to the more commercial characterization of the Valtellina as a terra di vigna (land of vineyards), whether in reference to its admittedly impressive and important production of wine, both historical and contemporary, or to the more recent tourism associated with it. In talking to the residents of the valley and in sharing a meal with them, especially with older inhabitants and those who still follow traditional ways of eating, you will, little by little, come to the understanding that it is bread and not wine that people care the most about, and not just any bread, but these ciamballe of pane di segale that are so substantial and delicious, and so loaded with familiarity and meaning.

Yes, they will complain that pane di segale is not what it used to be, that the rye that is used now has less aroma and flavor, that bakers now mix in too much white flour to make the rings softer and more delectable to modern palates. They will deride the segalini, the smaller rings that are about the size and shape of a donut, as elitist nonsense that disrespects the communal and familial context of the traditional size. The bread has become too soft, too bland, too small and too dainty, just as has life itself, in modern times. When life was hard, it was bread, not wine, that sustained you.