There’s an old Italian song I’ve always loved to sing in a whisper every time I think about friends gathering to chat around a table. Soft and playful, with a slight vein of melancholy, Quattro amici al bar starts with the description of four friends sitting around a bar table, dealing with everyday themes, hopes and ideals, among a coffee and a glass of coke.
It happens so often: our lunch are long not only for the food, but especially for the chats that accompany every dish in exclamations, advice, secrets, quote on everyday problems and friendly chats. Same at the bar, where a sip of coffee can be quick as a lightning if drunk standing up at the counter in a rush morning, or long and meditative as a good glass of liqueur if you’re sitting around a table with your friends over that very cup of coffee.
I love to imagine the four of us sitting at a table after dinner, when all the dishes have already been brought to the kitchen and there’s just the tablecloth left, a few glasses, the last crumbles of a fruit cake and few coffee cups with a shade of dark at the bottom. That’s the moment when truth is spoken, when you shape up with words projects and depict with vivid tones reality.
This is what we aim to do, sitting at a virtual table once a month. We want to talk about Italy, a country that now lives in light and shades, a country we love even though sometimes we tend to forget the true reason why. Our high-flying goal is to show you what real Italy is and used to be, to give you new and exciting reasons to love it or make your lifetime trip to discover hidden gems and family run farms still producing real cheese, real wine, real food.
We want to make you aware of traditions, superstitions, real people living in the real Italy, the reason why you find fine olive oil, and not butter, on your table next to a basket of fragrant bread. We hope to stay as far as possible from stereotypes and commonplace, it could be sometimes tricky with Italy, but we’ll do our best to deliver you a fresh page on Italian life.
Who’s in the project? Let’s start from far far away, Emiko – Emikodavies.com – from Melbourne, Australia. She’s technically not Italian – or at least this is what her birth certificate states – but do not challenge her to talk about real Italian traditions and recipes, because you’ll find yourself in a awe in front of her deep and fond knowledge of Italy. Her blog is a beautiful serenade to true to heart Italian food. Moving closer there’s Valeria – Life Love Food – a Venetian girl now living in London, a love for wholesome food, a passion for cheese and a brilliant eye for clear and inspired photography. Jasmine – Labna.it – still shares with me the same country, Italy. She lives in Milan and writes about Italian Jewish cuisine and vegetarian dishes, with a different perspective on Italian traditions and an international approach to food, photography and life. Then, there’s me, I chose to bet on Italy and food and build my new life around it, and that’s enough said about me.
We tried to find a good theme to open our first Italian table talk round up, and our eyes fell just in the centre of that virtual table we were sharing, onto a basked of bread. It’s difficult to describe Italian food and traditions without mentioning bread, you could easily tell where you’re eating in Italy from the kind of bread you’ll have along with your dishes.
Our Tuscan bread is somehow loved or hated. It’s a kind of country loaf with a thin crust and a dense and soft breadcrumb and, above all, it is made without salt. It is just flour, water and natural leaven. No salt, no olive oil, no butter, no milk. In Italy it is quite accepted the fact that the bread can be made without milk or olive oil, though the salt is added almost everywhere, but in Tuscany. We define our bread sciocco, a dialect word which means without salt, while in the rest of Italy the same word is intended as fool, silly person.
As a child, you discover your bread has something special the first time you leave your region for a family holidays or in a school trip, when you bite into a slice of bread and feel something unusual there: salt. Nutella is so much better on your bread, com’on! On the other side, when friends from all over Italy visit you for the very first time, you proudly present them a slice of your beloved bread with a thick layer of home-made blackberry jam, and all they notice is the absence of salt, not the silky dark texture of your mum’s preserve. It’s not fair, I’ll tell you.
Though, we’re pretty proud of our bread, historically made without salt, mentioned even by the Father of our sweet language, Dante Alighieri, in the Divina Commedia, back in the early XIV century. It’s our flagship product, the perfect match to our extremely salty raw ham or salami, that find a delicious balance in the dense breadcrumb of our pane sciocco. This is one of the acknowledged reasons that explain the lack of salt in our bread. Other say it’s because salt was expensive back in the old times, and Tuscan people were fairly stingy on it.
Bread for us is the staple product of our culinary habits. My grandma usually says she can give up on everything, but not on bread: she eats bread with meat or fish, with vegetables, to clean the sauce off the pasta dish, with fruit (fruit!) and alone. Bread is definitely more important to her than the companatico, any kind of food that goes with bread, pane, and this roots back in the past time, when in the countryside they always had flour to make bread. Bread needed to be used till the last crumb, but Emiko will tell you more about this.
If you mention me bread, though, the first word that comes to my mind is merenda, the afternoon snack you usually have around 4ish pm when you start to feel rather peckish, dinnertime is still far and lunch is just a faint memory. The question was invariably the same: what do you want with bread?
I’ve always had bread in the afternoon: it could be bread rubbed with garlic and a generous dash of freshly pressed olive oil in late Autumn, when the slightly toasted slices were all I needed to warm my hands and made me finish my homework in a rush to enjoy them sitting at the table with my grandma, watching cartoons on tv, with the olive oil dripping everywhere (even on my drawings and books, if you ask me).
When Grandma wanted to treat me with something sweet, it was bread and butter, with a sprinkling of sugar or a thick layer of sticky golden honey on top. This works perfectly even for the morning breakfast. Butter and honey on our unsalted bread is still one of my favourite way to start the day, washed down by a cup of black tea.
In late summer came the time of tiny ripe tomatoes, rubbed generously onto the white bread, sprinkled with salt and dried oregano and a drizzle of good olive oil to finish. It was fresh and fruity, I cannot recall a better snack, especially when the tomatoes came directly from my grandmother’s garden, still warm from the summer sun.
These were my usual merende, but my grandma still tells me of the times when children were served pane e vino, slices of white bread sprinkled with sugar and reddened by a dash of red wine. Almost unthinkable now, parents could be persecuted by law, but it was a special treat that still lingers in grown-ups’ childhood memories nowadays!
The last image I have is about the way bread was cut. Forget cutting board and table, they used to lay a dishcloth or a napkin on their shoulder, rest the huge bread loaf on their chest and slice it masterfully sliding the knife toward themselves. I can see my granddad slicing the bread for me, a thick slice, then cutting the crust into small bites called pecorine, little sheeps, each one of them wrapped into raw Tuscan ham. Call it merenda, call it antipasto in the evening, I define it the most sweet love sign from a grandfather, making the bread child-friendly and fun!
The bread in these pictures
The bread you see in my picture is a home-made Tuscan loaf made with sour-dough starter, my first attempt with our regional recipe, love at first bite. I followed step by step this recipe, Pane toscano, from Il Pasto nudo.
Now head to Emiko’s blog for an insight on stale bread and its many, many uses in regional Italian cooking, to Jasmine’s blog for an Italian-Jewish bread pudding recipe made with stale bread and to Valeria’s blog for the never ending comparison between bread and polenta in Veneto.
Let’s get social
Not to lose a single post by the Italian Table talk girls, these are our Social Accounts:
- Emiko, her blog is Emikodavies.com, @emikodavies on Twitter, and her Pinterest
- Valeria, her blog is Life Love Food, @valerianecchio on Twitter, her FB Page and her Pinterest
- Jasmine, her blog is Labna.it, @labna on Twitter, her FB page and her Pinterest
- Juls, my twitter @Julskitchen, FB page and Pinterest
The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?). Let us hear your voice!