We are in seeming upward struggle as we despair at Emperor’s New Clothes in the supermarket and enter the Kingdom of the Blind when food is on TV. England still has far to travel before the real can ever overtake the ersatz. Too much is cooking with words, assembling food with words and dining out on words.
Finely chopped cauliflower cannot be cous-cous any more than white beans and coarse sausage is an instant cassoulet.
Only with real food can one motor down the road to real eating. Blue Collar Gastronomy to the rescue – as both a driving school and recovery service for all who have been seduced by ‘sleb chefs on TV, weasel-veneered pack copy and foot outlets that over-promise and under-deliver. With Antonio Tomassini (left), we bring artisan Taralli to London from the Cerasino family bakery in Brindisi – read on.
With a glass of Champagne in his hand, he tasted his first Taralli – thought for about 1.5 seconds before delighting in telling me “Ah, just a piece o’ bread”. Back to Cheese Straws for said gent.
Baking is art in the South of Italy. These lands are where some of the best grain is grown and reaped, so bread must only follow. The famous bread culture of Pane di Altamura and Pane di Matera, has already been celebrated on these pages – and with enormous response. Now for some vertically integrated food production on an artisan scale unearthed in Brindisi.
Big food businesses talk of ‘vertical integration’ as if they invented it. All we mean is the farmer, baker or butcher work hand-in-hand from the field through to the kitchen. It’s a system that’s been with through the centuries and we lose it at our peril. Chickens reared on English soil and fed imported Brazilian GM soya or Ukrainian wheat cannot be considered vertically integrated.
On the edge of Brindisi we find a family home with a bakehouse built alongside. Over the garden wall are fields of wheat – the grano duro we call durum, or hard wheat – not the softer ‘Tipo OO’ grown in regions further north. We also see popularity for the US wheat variety Kamut being grown too – and barley (Orzo) is another popular grain. As recent as the first half of the 20th century, wheat was mostly eaten by the wealthy, with the poor having barley instead.
Not so anymore with and the Cerasina family grow, harvest and mill their own grain off 50 acres into flour for their bakery. Lu Furnu a Petra is a special operation by any reckoning. It goes back three generations and today father, mother, sons and daughter are all employed in the bake house.
After a morning soaking in Brindisi’s Quartiere Commenda market, Pietro Cerasino took me to meet the family. Already cars were arriving at the family home where the bakery is located. These people wanted bread and they knew where some of Brindisi’s best is made.
Loaves of bread made from various flour combinations, from white to the integrale. Then come Focaccia, Fresselle, Fresellina and Taralli. Biscuits and pasta are also on the menu, but not on the day I visited.
Bread in the South is made to last – meaning this is not a 2-3 times daily bread culture of France, but rather one where bread can be eaten several days after baking. Nothing is ever wasted for old bread becomes breadcrumbs, coarse and fine, or is added to salads and pasta dishes for texture and bulk. Old habits die hard and down in Italy’s Heel, Cucina Povere is a mainstay, even though today people are better off.
I am entranced by Taralli. There is a delightful meaning attached to Taralli – ‘finire a taralli e vini’. As best I understand, this means everything is finally concluded – we have discussed a subject, we have agreed to disagree and yet we stay happy because we end on taralli and wine.
Taralli come flavoured too – with fennel, black olive, grains of sea salt, etc. Like Fresselle, they were often made from left over bread dough and sold as a street snack and offered to customers stopping by a bar for an aperitivo.
Much like a bagel, Taralli are first cooked briefly in boiling water, then dried thoroughly before baking.
Fresselle and their smaller cousin, Fresellina are too double cooked. First the dough is formed into a tight coil and let to rise. After first baking, each piece is cut with a wire a cross the middle – this itself gives the inside texture its distinct look and taste.
Both these ‘hard tack’ breads probably date back to the Greeks who occupied Southern Italy and who make similar breads themselves still today. Christian Crusaders carried them on their long journey to Palestine, often softening them in sea water for a second or two before eating.
At No 19 we prepare our Fresellina with bounty brought back from Brindisi’s two open markets. Now is the time, so porcini on one – and slow roasted pomodorini with wild, dried oregano and oil on another.
This habit continues, as does soaking the bread with fresh tomato and/or olive oil. The tomato, albeit a newcomer when set off against the likely origins of Fresselle or Taralli, is never out of sight. So to Focaccia, sold warm set with whole rich, small ripe pomodorini tomatoes, which has grown men come close to tears as they recall their growing up in South Italy.
Focaccia is all over Italy and each region has its variants – like the sea salt and rosemary ones from Turin and south into Liguria. I well remember my first taste of Focaccia, found in an early morning panificio near the famous 1930′s Fiat factory in Lingotto.
We’d driven straight through from London, down through Burgundy, across the Alps at night by the Grand St Bernard Pass, into Aosta and stopping by default on the outskirts of Turin.
We were bleary-eyed and hungry. Seeing workers on their way to the early shift at Fiat each eating a large 10-12″ square of warm bread wrapped in newspaper, we followed the workers and our noses. In the side street baker’s shop (panificio) they were cutting these squares from a table top sized focaccia, itself piled 4-5 deep. I’d never seen such a sight and it stays with me.
I said the entire Cerasino family are bakers, headed by father and mother, Domenico and Maria – then comes Pietro, his sister Ciara and younger brother, ‘Mino‘ (as with so many Italian names, the diminutive of Cosimo, as ‘Enzo‘ would be Vincenzo and ‘Beppe‘ is Guiseppe, etc). The mood was busy and happy – all knew their stations and what comes at each stage of the day. Throughout my visit, customers just kept on coming to the open window for their breads.