Cereal preference or dependence relatively neatly divided the ancient Mediterranean world in half. In the east, the Greeks cultivated and consumed barley, while wheat was the principal grain of the Latin West.
Italians did not reject barley. They grew it and ate it in various preparations as they still do, usually in soups. But it was never a major or vital part of their diet. Rye was grown to a certain extent in the Alps but it, too, was and is still today a minor food resource. Millet and oats never acquired much of a following in Italy but buckwheat (grano saraceno) is popular in northern Italy and particularly Lombardy’s Valtellina.
Wheat in the form of bread and puls (boiled meal flavored in innumerable ways) was the mainstay of the diet for centuries. With the decline in hard physical labor in recent years, bread has lost some of its essentiality but puls has become a standard entry on restaurant menus not only in Italy but also in countries worldwide. However, it changed its form in the 17th century after the arrival of corn (maize) from the New World. Corn replaced wheat and the result was polenta.
Various types of wheat evolved at an early date. Some are specifically adapted to use in bread because of their substantial content of gluten, which gives dough elasticity. Hard wheat (durum) is more compact and the dough retains its shape during cooking. It is the ideal grain for the production of pastas. Farro or spelt wheat is a rare survivor of ancient agriculture. Cultivated primarily in Tuscany’s Garfagnana zone, it was only recently rediscovered. Today, production barely keeps up with demand.
Italians have developed a wide range of breads over the centuries and many ancient types are still produced–-in most cases on a local or regional basis. Commercial bakers account for most of the bread consumed in Italy today as they have since professionals started turning out loaves in ancient Rome in the 2nd century BC. Baking is still practiced at home to a certain extent, as at Genzano, a village near Rome. The selection nationwide ranges from extremely large loaves, once intended to keep a household supplied for a full week, to small rolls. Most breads are leavened but many are not, like the Sardinian carta da musica (thin as sheets of music paper) or carasau.
Crackers are a relatively recent addition to the Italian roster of breads and related products. However, the concept is basically the same as that of the communion wafer. Grissini or breadsticks are a specialty of Turin, although they are now found virtually everywhere. Most are pencil-thin but in their homeland bakers still shape them by hand so that they are thick and irregular. Flat breads are extremely popular in central Italy and include Tuscany’s rosemary-flavored schiacciata, the Romagna’s piadina and Emilia’s crescentina and gnocco. Some are fried and some are baked. Sweetened breads are common but they belong to the dolce or confectionery category.