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Salt, Flour, Water, Yeast
Lisa writes- Italy’s most-eaten breakfast food is a crime. I’m not referring to delicious brioche oozing with apricot jam or even Sicilian coffee -ice- cream buns but fette biscottate, millions of which are consumed every morning throughout the Peninsula. Rock hard rusks which have no discernible function beyond promoting ulcers and bowel movements (admittedly the latter is always a popular topic amongst what Il Gazettino refers to as “i over Eighty”), fette biscottate are a baffling foodstuff, whose popularity is particularly odd in Venice, which has a long and highly sophisticated tradition of baking.
Polenta is the ancient staple of the Veneto and is still prized in Venetian cooking, but the wealth of Venice itself meant that bread was more common, and more refined, in the city than on the mainland. Bakers are celebrated in the mosaics of the Basilica, and the capital carvings of the Palazzo Ducale since bread production was considered very much a matter of state. In Salizada Santi Apostoli in Cannaregio, a marble plaque from 1727 can still be seen which Doge Alvise III Mocenigo detailed how and where bread could be produced and sold, but government involvement in the trade dates from at least 1104, when the Arsenale already boasted 32 state-owned ovens. These specialised in the ancestor of the dread fette, ship’s bisciuit or hard-tack, virtually indestructible and best eaten grated into a broth known as frisopo. Reasonable enough on a six month voyage, indefensible anywhere else. Across the city, bread was classified into pan bianco and pan traverso, which latter was coarser and cheaper, and bakers were forbidden to cook both in the same oven. During the Republic, bakers were subject to daily government inspections and bread which was adulterated or inferior was publicly thrown down the steps of the Rialto to publicise its shameful inferiority, a custom Venice could perhaps do with readopting.
The presence of bakers in the city is attested by ten calle named “da Forno”, indicating the presence of public ovens as well as several streets and bridges commemorating pestriner from the mills which ground grain by hand or with the help of donkeys or elderly horses. The Panateria at Rialto was once home to 24 bread shops and even into the 1990s, there were still more than 90 independent bakeries in Venice. Now there are fewer than 20. Several, like Rizzo and Colussi, have been in business for over a century, but depopulation, the growth of international chain convenience stores and the conviction that the infernal fette are healthful means that in the words of Rizzo’s current proprietor, bakers are facing a “David and Goliath” situation.
When Rizzo’s porters set off at 6am each day to walk 24km through the calle to make up to 200 deliveries, they are wheeling barrowfuls of history. Venice has over seventy traditional breads, including ciopa (coupled), a small loaf made from two lined balls of dough and the richer montesu, produced with butter and milk. Sadly most tourist restaurants provide a grudging pair of tasteless industrial fluff balls, but there is still good bread to be had, including at the Majer group, which has branches across the city and which offers pane arabo, sourdough and stuffed focaccia. The Giudecca shop is a great spot for breakfast, with a fabulous view across to San Marco, though if you really want to make like a real Venetian you should probably crunch your way miserably through a rusk at home.
Two Good Ways With Hard Bread
Italian cookery abounds with recipes for stale bread, as befits a traditionally frugal cuisine, but we’re not fans of spongy, gummy Tuscan ribollita. Whatever the River Cafe says, it’s medieval pottage. Still, it’s a shame to throw away those odds and ends of loaves, so why not make croutons instead of buying them from the supermarket? Tear up your bread into bite-sized chunks, spread over a baking tray, sprinkle liberally with olive oil and salt and then add flavour (fresh rosemary twigs, dried oregano, chilli flakes, paprika, anything you like), then bake at the top of a 180 degree oven for 10 to 15 minutes until golden and crispy. Once cooled they keep for ages in a plastic bag and can be used in salads, soups or even emergency bits with drinks.
For something fancier, pangrattato with almonds is simple and somehow impressive. It’s good sprinkled over grilled or barbecued chicken or used as a crust to bake fillets of fish. If you want to prepare this in advance to store in a jar, leave out the parsley and add when needed.
Saute about 100g breadcrumbs in 5 tbsps olive oil, adding 4 chopped cloves of garlic, a teaspoon of chilli flakes, 2 tbsps chopped almonds (or walnuts, or pecans), for about 5 minutes on a lowish heat. Chop a small bunch of parsley with the grated zest of a lemon and stir through the crumbs.
Ricotta, Raisin and Pine Nut Sunday Cake
I say this is a Sunday cake purely because for me it is not one that you would have for a birthday or a particular occasion but it is just right to make on a Sunday and be able to slice into throughout the week.
Traditionally the Venetian Torta di Ricotta would have another pastry layer on the top, but in this instance I chose not to because I wanted the ricotta texture to be the predominant one.
300 gr of plain flour
225 gr. granulated sugar
150 gr unsalted butter at room temperature
300 gr fresh ricotta
50 gr raisins (previously soaked in warm water and then drained)
1 tsp cinnamon
25 gr of pine nuts
Pinch of salt
Place the flour, 100 gr of sugar, the butter, pinch of salt and 2 yolks in a bowl (you may need to add some water). Mix thoroughly until the dough is nice, soft and easy to work. Cover with cling film and place in the fridge for 30 minutes.
In another bowl mix the ricotta cheese with the remaining sugar, 3 egg yolks and a teaspoon of cinnamon and a pinch of salt. Add the grated rind of 2 lemons, the raisins and pine nuts.
Then slowly add three egg whites (previously firmly beaten to form peaks).
Now take the dough from the fridge. Roll it out into a thin circle the same size as the tart case you are using and lay it at the bottom (pre-lined with baking paper) and bring up the sides of the pastry. You will have a bit left over which if you want you can use to decorate on top.
Pour the ricotta mixture into the dish.
Cook in a pre-heated oven at 220o degrees/ gas mark 6 for about 30-35 minutes or until pastry is golden and firm to the touch. This is best served the next day.