Italian Food The Bread

Bread is like health – when it’s there we don’t notice it, when it’s not there it becomes a hardship.

There has never been a population from the most civilized to the most primitive which has not had its own bread, leavened or unleavened, of wheat, rye or other cereals, as bread rolls, loaves or simply focaccia.

The primary material

Over the centuries the origins and the date of the first wheat have been a source of discussion for numerous historians, geographers amd those interested in agriculture. However, nothing definite has come out of all of this.

Strabone, an historian and geographer born in 60 B.C., placed its origins in India. Diodoro Siculo, a Greek historian of the 1st century B.C. and born in Agirio in Sicily, claimed this area as the legitimate birthplace of the cereal.

Beroso, supreme priest of Babylon in the 3rd century B.C. and author of a History of Babylon, maintains that wheat, along with barley and sesame, grew naturally along the Euphrates River.

Many centuries later, in 1800, Alphonse Louis Pierre Pyramus de Candolle, a botanist from Genevra, in his work “Geographie Botanique Raisonnee” also claimed that wheat was of Asian origins, but from the valley of Jordan, where still today, wild ears of wheat continue to wave in the wind which blows over the western hills of the great river.

According to a more modern theory soft-grained cereals (Triticum monocucuum) were probably of western Asian origins, while hard-grained cereals (Triticum dicocuum) originated in the mountains of the western Africa.

The actual date of the first wheat is also a mystery. It, however, looked very little like the wheat of today, the results of many cross-fertilizations.

But it is certain that grains of cereals were found in caverns of Neolithic age (6,000 to 5,000 years B.C.), in amphorae of the pyramid of Dashur (3,000 B.C.) and from the same period cereals have been found in instruments for grinding in Assyria and Babylon. It is also known that the Chionese cultivated cereals from 2,700 B.C.

From grain to flour
At the beginning the harvested grain was crushed between two stones using them like a pestle and mortar or ground by rubbing them together.

Representations of ancient Egypt show that this hard work was done by the slaves who worked on their knees on the stone to grind the grain was always done by the women, even when in the East, hand mills began to be used.

Later the primitive grinders were replaced by other more powerful ones, then after, in ancient Greece and Rome they were driven by slaves or animals such as donkeys or horses.

Bread is money
The first bakers were Egyptians who used this valuable food not only for eating but also for making it the basis of their life. Owning a lot of bread meant being wealthy.

With a little imagination the many ovens all over Egypt could have been considered their mints, as bread represented the currency of the kingdom. Salaries were based on a variable number of loaves.

An average farm worker earned three loaves per day, as well as two pitchers of beer, another invention of the Egyptians. Also the priests were paid in bread and beer.

The high Priest of the temple, who had the right to wear on his shoulders a tiger skin, a sign of his position, received 900 fine-grained loaves, 36,000 loaves cooked on the coals and 360 pitchers of beer each year.

The Pharaoh was the god of wheat, who every harvest had to pour on the grains to be distributed to the salaried officials and those used for maintaining the royal house. He was the owner of numerous irrigation canals which lined the fields.

The great river

The grain harvest depended on the movements of the Nile.

During the month of June its waters were swollen by the rains. In July they grew consistently and finally in August overflowed flooding the bordering lands.

In September small lakes formed and then dried up in November as the water drained off slowly until January.

The Egyptian calendar was based on the rhythms of the Nile. The 12 months of the year were divided into 3 seasons of 120 each – they were appropriately called the flooding, the seed-sowing, the harvesting.

The invention of leavening
The legend goes that a young peasant girl forgot to put the bread into the oven and so the dough remained in the kitchen for a couple of days, fermenting and swelling. The girl didn’t have the courage to throw it away and finally put it into the oven anyway. Only after did she realize that this bread after baking had become light inside and crusty outside.

The news spread and finally reached the eras of the Pharaoh who wished to try this strange bread and on finding it absolutely delicious, had eyes on the inventor of the first leavened bread, of course a beautiful girl, he fell in love with her and married her.

Of course, the reality is more down-to-earth- the day surely arrived when someone decided that it was useless to leave all the bread dough to go sour and it was enough to keep just a small piece of the soured dough adding it to the fresh dough and letting it in turn ferment. From them, the soured dough for leavening was jealously guarded in every Egyptian house.

The mistery unveiled
We have had to wait for the advent of the modern chemistry to unveil the mystery of leavening. The air is rich in many bacteria waiting to be fed.

Yeast spores are deposited on traces of sugar contained in the mixture of flour and water, breaking down the sugar onto alcohol and carbonic acid. The bubbles of carbonic acid in the dough make it swell up and go soft.

During the baking the carbonic acid and alcohol evaporate. The alcohol disappears completely while the carbonic acid leaves traces of its presence in the bread’s pores.

The Greek age

The Greeks were originally shepherds and warriors and even after having abandoned their nomadic life they still remained attached to their customs for a long time.

Wealth was not measured in cultivated fields but in the number of animals owned. Wheat didn’t grow easily and must have been imported from the East. Barley was easier and was eaten roasted or even crushed.

It’s only in the 5th century B.C. do we find bread worthy of the name. There were 50, and according to some 72 different types, all made with different types of flour – from rye and oatmeal, while wheat flour was the last used. The Greeks were the first to bake bread, let’s say on an industrial level. The ovens were amalgamated under corporations and they began to work during the night.

The first public ovens were set up where housewives could take their already prepared dough to be baked. The proximity to Egypt and the continual trading between the two nations allowed the Greeks to be familiar with the leavening process from the earliest times.

The first bread-making goes back to 240 B.C. and was recorded by Crisippo of Thiana.

At the beginning the early Romans were content with eating the grains roasted or boiled or even powdered, using the puls, eaten with oil or vegetables – chicory, lettuce and nettles. In a pan, called an artopta, they cooked focaccia made from spelt, cheese and honey.

They called it placenta and in using this vocabulary they thus distinguished the bread products made from flour, oil and salt.

From the beginning the Romans didn’t place much importance on the ingredients and form of the bread, but over time and thanks to continual contacts with other peoples, it was improved.

Roman bread underwent many changes. In the period of Augustus, the shapes and ingredients became many and yeast, which remained unknown until the wars with Macedonia, began to be used more skillfully.

The shapes of the bread were very varied and often very well-studied. The most usual were in the shapes of squares, rolls and sticks and almost always marked in heels making it easy to divide. For feasts or even out for pure vanity, the shapes could be changed – into the shape of a lyre if a very important poet was invited, into interwoven rings if it was a wedding feast, into dice if the host had gathered together fellow gamblers, or into a key, a plait, a flower, a dagger and so on.

The Romans were good bread-eaters – for breakfast they dinked it in red wine, at lunch they preferred it accompanying vegetables or olives, at dinner with eggs or honey.

Soldiers were given a portion of bread of a kilogram per day and were prohibited to sell or trade it.

The earliest bakers were often freed slaves, often enterprising and capable men. Aware of their power they ended up forming corporations which became increasingly important. In the era of Augustus there were 300 of them in Rome and they owned real estate, some of which they had been granted by the state in recognition of their worth. They owned the bakeries and the capital to manage them – slaves, animals and mills. They also exploited the earnings from properties in the various provinces.

The mills
The water-mill was invented by Vitruvio under Ceasar and author of De Architectura and an expert in agriculture and hydraulics. They were not widespread and began to be used from the early centuries of the popular period. In 398 it seems there was only one of them, on the Gianicolo and a law of the time stated that the water had to be used first by the mill before any other use.

Eventually they became spread all over Europe and if most of mills worked off the fresh waters or rivers, torrents and streams, there were some which also used salt water. They were built right on the beaches and operated by the tides. At high tide the water entered through a gate to a large pool and when this was full the doors closed automatically due to the water pressure of the low tide.

The wind-mill followed the water-mill, perhaps the only technical invention to come out of medieval times.

To build water-mills the inhabitants of the plains would have had to create canals and artificial rises in water levels and the mills would have had to have been constructed below the level of the water table so the water could have fallen with enough force to drive them. Instead, with a wind-mill built at right height, the windy country of northern Europe would have provided all the energy needed.

To construct the first wind-mill in 1393 in Spira, Germany, a Dutchman was called upon, building one with a moveable head and sails set to catch even a minimal breath of wind. In Holland where waterways flow very slowly, the importance of this invention was immediately appreciated. Thus, Holland became the main European center for the building of wind-mills.

The wind-mill, along with the tulip, is still considered today the symbol of this country.

The dream of white flour
In 1800 the largest mills operated on steam, thanks to the invention of James Watt and Oliver Evans.

However, the millers complained about their millstones – not hard enough, they had to be continually renewed. They tried a harder stone but over time also this was worn away by the grain. Thus, the white flour that we know so well today continued to be a dream. A certain engineer, Muller, a builder of mills and a highly respected man, came up with the idea of crushing the grain instead of grinding it. To do this it would be necessary to fix iron cylinders to the steam mills driving it a hundreds of revolutions per minute and turning in the opposite direction.

Finding Swiss businessmen ready to finance it, the engineer, vaunting work already carried out in Poland and in Russia, began to make plans to construct his invention. A fantastic invention. The mill had five floors, each fitted with cylinders. From top to bottom there were different types of grinding, from the coarsest on the fifth floor to the finest on the first. Unfortunately the invention was enormous and therefore slower than the normal mills. It produced less flour and its costs were higher than the older mills. Ruined by accusations of incompetence, Muller disappeared. However, his invention did not disappear. It was studied again and improved by Jacob Sulzberger, an engineer who had never been involved with the mills but who was able to do what his predecessor had only projected. He completely rebuilt the cylinder system, placing two pairs on the same armature, one set over the other and causing each group to move separately. The iron cylinders were all located on the first floor while the lightest machinery was on the upper floors. The mill worked well from the first moment and was also sold abroad, especially in Hungary, a major wheat producer and which, in a short time, became the world leader in the mill industry.

With the advent of the cylinder-driven mill the old dream for white flour was realized. It was at the World Exposition in Vienna in 1873 that the Americans were introduced to this type of flour for the first time. In 1879, Washburn, governor of Minnesota, invited Hungarian engineers to his state beginning the large scale American wheat industry.

Breads and cereals

  Coppia Ferrarese IGP
  Farro della Garfagnana IGP

Enrico Massetti was born in Milan, Italy.
Now he lives in Washington, DC, USA.
Still, he regularly visits his hometown
and enjoys going around all the places in his home country
especially those he can reach by public transportation.

Enrico loves writing guide books on travel in Italy
to help his friends that go to Italy to visit
and enjoy his old home country.
He also publishes books on the Argentine tango dance.

You can reach Enrico at