In Italy bread is one of the most democratic parts of a mealtime. It’s a vehicle for proteins and sauces, a utensil for scarpetta, and the substance of a meal. Whether a dinner is lean or bountiful, a family rich or poor, bread is so often the centrepiece. And in a country whose cuisine is built around La Cucina Povera, the story is as much about ways of using up scraps of stale bread as it is enjoying that first fresh slice.
Of course, not all bread is made equal. You’ve got heritage grain sourdough and mass-produced fette biscottate, herb-crusted grissini and chewy flatbreads. Like so much of Italian cooking, bread is also deeply regional. There’s saltless Tuscan bread, bland to the uninitiated, yet perfect with stews and soups, and beloved by those who have grown up with its familiar versatility. Then there’s the soft, oily crunch of a still-warm Ligurian focaccia, crystals of salt formed in the dimples as its baked. Fennel seed schüttelbrot from South Tyrol, biscuit-like fresa and frisella from Reggio Calabria, and thin piadina from Emilia Romagna.
In all of these cases, bread is both the accoutrement and the main event. Piadina for example would be nothing if not stuffed with mortadella and squacquerone – a triumvirate of magic that is synonymous with Bologna La Grassa – and yet the filling would be nothing without the bread.
How to eat and enjoy freshly baked bread is only the beginning of the story, however. With food waste at the tip of everyone’s tongues, the conversation around yesterday’s bread is more important than ever, and is second nature to many Italians. In the UK, almost 900,000 tonnes of bread are thrown away each year. That’s 24 million slices every single day. In 2017, Eater estimated that up to a third of all bread made in the USA goes to waste, with 12% of this never even making it out of the supermarket.
On the matter of wasting bread, Italian chefs and cooks can surely lead the way in teaching other nations about one of their unspoken pillars: stale bread, pane raffermo, is something to be treasured and celebrated. Spaghetti mollica e acciughe, bruschetta, polpette di pane, panzanella (or it’s Puglian cousin aquasala), pappa al pomodoro and ribollita are just a few of the dishes that come to mind when we think of using stale bread. We could soak up wisdom from countless home cooks about the ways they work yesterday’s bread into today’s recipes, but instead we’ve decided to go with four of Italy’s most acclaimed chefs, to show that no one is above really delicious bread. For however elegant or prestigious a restaurant may be, it’s always judged by the quality of its bread.
As Italy’s most celebrated chef, Massimo Bottura needs no introduction. Off the back of his fame from Osteria Francescana, Bottura founded Refettorio Ambrosiano in 2015, a soup kitchen in Milan dedicated to repurposing surplus ingredients into delicious meals for homeless people. Michelin-starred chefs from across the world came to share their ideas for using these often-wasted ingredients such as potato peels, overripe tomatoes, and of course, day-old bread. These recipes were all created to tackle food waste and inspire home cooks to reinvent humble ingredients in their own kitchens, maximizing their potential and minimizing waste. For as Bottura comments, “these are neglected ingredients that have always played a central role in the Italian kitchen. Crumbs or bones or cheese rinds.”
“My grandmother would gather the crumbs from the table and save them all week to make the dough for passatelli on Sundays,” he recalls, referring to a often-forgotten spaghetti recipe made from breadcrumbs, eggs and grated Parmesan cheese. “It was my favourite meal of the week.” Another of Bottura’s childhood memories is what he calls zuppa di latte, or ‘milk soup,’ where he would grate yesterday’s bread into warm milk with a splash of coffee and lashings of sugar. These food memories, both involving stale bread, went on to inspire Bottura’s whole philosophy for turning ordinary ingredients into extraordinary dishes. As he says himself, “I am an Italian chef. The most valuable lessons are to make the most of everything and to never throw anything edible away.”
Paolo Terzi Photography
From his kitchen in Castelvetrano, Sicily, chef Ciccio Sultano is another firm devotee to the merits of old bread. Spaghetti mollica e acciughe, or spaghetti with anchovies and crispy breadcrumbs, and polpette di pane, ingenious fake meatballs bound together with breadcrumbs, eggs and milk, are two dishes synonymous with traditional Sicilian cooking.
On the subject of bread, Sultano becomes poetic: “talking about bread to a Sicilian (and specifically to someone who has oil, salt and wheat as their fundamentals) is like talking about fish with an angler, about grazing with a shepherd or about silence with a monk,” he says dramatically. “Bread is everything, and most of the time, it is enough by itself.”
“Anyone who comes to Sicily can see the respect we pay to bread. Among other things, we are the heirs of those who set in Sicily the mystery of the seed that dies and is reborn, the myth of Demeter and Persephone. Our sentiment towards it is so vital and visceral that we have created out of it the substitute of a rich seasoning such as cheese: the muddica atturrata, which represents the acoustic part of the dish. How do we make it? Seasoned bread and sautéed over pasta, bread-wheat over pasta-wheat. At my restaurant we bake only organic bread made with ancient grains. It lasts a long time when stored correctly in the fridge. Life is a little bitter if the bread is not good and does not last.”
When the bread you bake is as time consuming as the sourdough at St Hubertus at Rosa Alpina in the Dolomites, you wouldn’t want to waste even a crumb. Chef Norbert Niederkofler and his young, dynamic team spent months perfecting a sourdough recipe, twice fermented in the mountain air to get that irresistible rise and acidity. “We’ve tried all possibilities and we think our bread tastes best when it’s fermented once somewhere quite warm, then a second time overnight at a colder temperature, before being baked in the morning and eaten in the evening.”
The three Michelin starred restaurant is built on the principles of locality and food waste, and this goes from everything to fish scales to stale bread. “We use the bread that wasn’t touched to make Wiener schnitzel,” explains Ursula Mahlknecht, who runs the hotel with her husband Hugo. “Any extra goes into breadcrumbs to use in different dishes, and anything left over from peoples’ plates goes to feed animals on a nearby farm.”
Finally, we come to Fabio Picchi, Florence’s king of Cucina Povera, who unsurprisingly has a thing or two to say on the subject of bread. It’s a staple in many Tuscan dishes, panzanella and pappa al pomodoro being two favourites. Picchi tells us the story of his first memory of ribollita – a poor and traditional vegetable soup enriched with stale bread – as if it were an epic tale. Picchi describes how it all starts with the large wheel of bread his father would bring home. “Upon its arrival, my mother would subtract a third to put it at the back of the cupboard, wrapped carefully in a piece of cotton.” On the seventh day, or even the tenth, thin slices of the stale bread would go into a clay pot to make the ribollita. “As you know, for a good ribollita, you cannot do without the sautéed carrots, celery and onions in extra virgin olive oil brought up to the bronze colour; you cannot do without a few grams of fat and lean ham and their rinds; you cannot do without a few cloves of minced garlic, a bunch of thyme, cavolo nero, white beans, and a couple of glasses of extra oil creamed raw with all the mixture.”
“All this would be useless if those slices were fresh bread rather than stale, and if they were not made from ancient heritage grains, stone ground from organic fields. A true ribollita lays its foundations in the seasoning of a good stale bread. Good bread made with good flour does not age, but matures. Time enhances its aroma and flavour, far from easy crunchiness and mystifying sweetness, it gives you an imaginable very depth of flavour.”