A Loaf of Bread, a Jug of Wine
The location: Siena, Italy. The date and time: somewhere in our memories.
We sit in an outdoor café, empty but for a table for two near the garden. The warm autumn air is filled with the heady scent of rosemary and oleander. A gentle breeze caresses our faces. The sweet aromas of herbs and garlic waft from the kitchen. We sip Vernaccia, a crisp citrusy white wine from nearby San Gimignano.
We smile. We hold hands. We kiss. We breathe deeply, relaxing, sighing, and savoring each glorious moment.
The view of rolling hills dotted with olive and cypress trees and vineyards is dreamlike.
There are no cars in Siena; all is quiet except the occasional chirp of a bird or clatter of spoons in the kitchen.
You will not find a Mcdonald's in Siena. This is not the place for fast food. This is the place for rustic yet refined cuisine—superb wines, the best olive oil in the world, and simple, uncomplicated foods made with the freshest ingredients.
Our waiter brings a small plate of soft-crusted bread to our table. I reach for a slice, but he shakes his head and wags his finger as if to say, “No, not yet.”
He pours amber-colored olive oil into a deep saucer and then a few drops of aged balsamic vinegar.
Now begins the meal.
First, tear off a small piece of bread and dip it into the olive oil at the edge of the saucer. Olive oil is not bland, tasteless cooking oil. It is luxuriant and fruity and has a soft, almost buttery feel on the tongue. Eat slowly and savor.
Take another piece of bread, and this time pick up a bit of the balsamic vinegar which has pooled near the center of the saucer. It's not sour—balsamic vinegar is syrupy and sweet/tart like blackberries.
The oil and balsamic are a new treat for us, unlike anything we have experienced before. But the bread by itself is . . . nothing.
This is the "aha" moment. Now I understand.
How Balsamic Vinegar Is Made
Balsamic vinegar is not made from wine; rather, it is made from grape pressings that have never been permitted to ferment into wine. Sweet white Trebbiano grape pressings are boiled down to a dark syrup. The syrup is placed into oaken kegs, along with a vinegar "mother," to begin the aging process. Over the years it graduates to smaller and smaller kegs made of chestnut, cherrywood, ash, mulberry, and juniper until it is ready for sale. All of these woods progressively add character to the vinegar. As it ages, moisture evaporates out, further thickening the vinegar and concentrating the flavor.
When Subtracting Is a Plus
There is no denying that the taste of Tuscan bread is . . . tasteless. An authentic Tuscan loaf is missing one key ingredient that you will find in all other bread recipes—salt. No, this is not due to a careless mistake by a hasty baker. It is not an oversight. Tuscan bread is intentionally made without salt. And you are probably wondering "why?"
How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?
— Julia Child
To understand why Tuscan bread is made without salt, one need only look at what the addition of salt does to bread. A bit of salt:
- strengthens the gluten (this makes bread more “bread-like”)
- aids in browning
- acts as a preservative
So, without salt Tuscan bread is more cake-like and has a soft crust, it is not well-browned, and it stales more quickly than other breads. At first glance, all of those attributes seem like negatives. But if you consider the foods that are most popular in Tuscan cooking, it makes perfect sense:
- spaghetti with bread crumbs
- panzanella (bread salad)
- ribollita (bread soup)
Here is an easy-to-follow recipe so that you can bake your own Tuscan bread.
- Measuring spoons
- Assorted measuring cups
- Liquid measuring cup
- Small bowl for mixing/preparing bread sponge
- Large bowl for mixing bread dough
- Wooden spoon
- Plastic wrap for covering bowls
- Clean work surface for kneading dough
- Non-stick spray to grease bowl for rising dough
- Clean kitchen towel for covering rising dough (not terrycloth)
- Very sharp knife or razor blade for slashing the top of the dough
- Spray bottle for misting the loaf while it bakes (not mandatory but helpful)
Recipe for Tuscan Bread (Pane Toscano)
Yield: 1 large loaf of bread
For the sponge (make this 1 day in advance):
- 1/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 2/3 cup lukewarm (110°F) water
- 1 1/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
For the dough:
- 1 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1/3 cup warm water
- 1 cup room-temperature water
- 3 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- Flour for the work surface
- 1 to 2 tablespoons cornmeal for the baking sheet
What Is Bread Sponge?
Bread sponge is the use of some of the flour and liquid of a bread recipe to prepare a small amount of sticky dough that will be allowed to ferment for a 24-hour period (or longer). After the waiting period, this sticky mixture is added to the remaining ingredients to make the final dough. The use of a sponge provides more taste (think of sourdough bread) and improves the texture of the finished loaf.
- First, prepare the sponge in a small bowl. Stir 1/4 teaspoon yeast into 2/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the 1 1/3 cups flour and mix well. Cover your bowl with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature overnight.
- The next day, finish preparing the dough. Using the large bowl, stir the 1 1/4 teaspoons yeast into the 1/3 cup warm water. Let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes. Add the sponge and 1 cup of room-temperature water. Mix well. Beat in the flour until a stiff dough is formed. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a well-greased bowl, turning to coat on all sides, cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise until doubled in bulk, about 1 hour.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface without punching it down. Handle it gently. Carefully form it into a large, round loaf by pulling all the edges underneath, gathering them, and squeezing them together, leaving the top smooth. Sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom of the baking sheet, and place the loaf on it. Cover with a towel, and set aside to rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 450°F. Slash the top of the bread in a crosshatch pattern. Bake for 15 minutes, misting bread with water from a spray bottle three times during the 15 minutes. This isn't absolutely mandatory, but it will help to produce a nice crust.
- Reduce heat to 400°F and bake 25 to 30 minutes longer.
© 2015 Linda Lum