Part of me remains tied to a city some 13,000 miles away from where I chose to live my life -- and that part happens to be my stomach. Memories battered by time and distance come flooding back at the table.
That connection is essential. Even with the best intentions, gaps in communication grow, until the time difference and all those miles seem impossible to overcome. Though living abroad is choice I gladly make, I can feel detached, distant, a bit lost, like a bee without a hive.
Anyone who loves food knows it not only keeps you alive, it keeps you social, creating memories and strengthening ties through shared gastronomic bliss.
The one food I miss most from home is bread, not only as the building block of the Italian diet but as a shared point of reference. Yes, (deceptively) simple, (never) plain, (always) thick-crusted, (truly) essential bread. Endless Italian proverbs and sayings revolve around it. My favorite: Non e' pane per i tuoi denti (It's not bread for your teeth) meaning you're telling someone they can't handle something. But my beloved Neruda says it best in his Ode to Bread. (Grazie Pablo: Where would I be without you to explain what matters most?)
Even while Michelangelo was painting the Sistine Chapel, we know he mostly ate rustic bread, some fragrant sheep's cheeses and (quite) a few bottles of hearty red Roman wine from the areas surrounding the city -- that's when he wasn't risking the the Pope's ire by running off to Florence.
If you've been to Rome and had our rustic pagnotta (loaf) you understand why. Of all the extraordinary food we have in the United States, bread is still rather bland, though getting better. Let's face it: Even when paying $3-4 for a (supposedly artisanal) loaf, the crust is unsatisfactory and the flavor rather mild or yeasty. Perhaps that's to be expected from a culture where sandwiches reign supreme, and pre-sliced bread a paragon of excellence: the greatest thing since sliced bread. Then again, when a loaf is so soft that any attempt at slicing it yourself results in an accordion-like abomination, maybe that makes sense.
For anyone born in Italy or France -- where bread is an accompaniment to every meal and not just a platform for cold cuts -- bland white bread is quite a disappointment. I am cursed with that lineage.
That's why 10 years ago, in a stubborn search for what I craved, I decided: If I can't buy it, I'll make it.
I was determined to bake something that would cover the distance between here and there with its aroma alone ... a different kind of air travel. I'd read Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, which captures the connection between our sense of smell and our memories, and studied enough science to know that most of the flavors we taste comes through the nose (remember having that cold and not tasting anything?) So I was ready to open the floodgates of flavor and memory, yet the how-to was unclear.
Two main hurdles stood between me and the bread I craved. First I had to acquire the technical expertise, and then I had to learn the patience. Guess which took longer? Right in the middle of the process, you have to step away and allow the yeast to slowly break down the carbohydrates and feast on the sugars that releases. The byproduct of the yeast feast is carbon dioxide, which the gluten in the flour catches, making the loaf rise like an air balloon. It's so primal, so simple... and so time consuming.
You can speed the process up by increasing the temperature in the room to help the yeast work faster, or increase the amount of yeast, so that more carbon dioxide is expelled and and the loaf rises more quickly -- but the result won't be the same.
To taste and smell right, I found that my rustic loaves need to rise for about 24 hours (about three rises). They are made from only five ingredients: organic flour, yeast, water, salt, and time. And you can't skimp on any one of those ingredients. Now when I let the yeast loose on the flour, I give it the time it needs to transform the dough from a sticky unmanageable mass into a crackling loaf.
These breads are finally the connection I was missing: From home, to me, to all the friends and neighbors who broke bread with me -- a benefit I hadn't considered at the beginning of what I thought would be a solo quest. Turns out this bread is best with a bottle of Zinfandel, a slice of Point Reyes blue cheese, and other wanderers like me.
This bread came from my roots, but it developed where I live. Maybe it's a little different from the original, but then so am I.
A presto, and eat well.