Last summer we had the great pleasure to spend a few days in Sicily which I have a crush for–because of the people even more than for the beautiful land and the great food. I had planned to write about my experience with local bread soon after the visit, but my blog suffered a year long hiatus and only now Bread and Companatico in its new, improved, version is up and going again. And here I am to tell you about this baking story.
Our location, San Vito Lo Capo, was chosen for its beach, perfect for families with kids. No “bready” plan involved. However, bread seems to follow me wherever I go and so faith wanted that next door to our little and cosy family owned hotel stood a little family owned bakery. Of course I immediately sneacked in to have a look, and my senses were soon filled with the view and scent of the fresh yellowish bread covered with sesame seeds, the hard biscuits, the soft sweet pastries, and the tall focaccias. I was immediately captured and then I asked the nice lady with the beautiful smile where everything was made–secretely hopeful– “here” was the answer. “They are making biscuits even now but they do the bread at night”. Awesome I thought “and may I visit?”, suddenly came out of my mouth (I tend to be shy in person, so it must have been the bread demon speaking for me). “Of course!! I will tell my husband that you are coming”, was the incredible answer to my even more incredible question.
Two mornings in a row I failed. I was too tired from the full days at the hot beach to wake up early in the morning. But the third night I finally found the right determination. And at 4 a.m. I walked in the bakery, intruded into the back room, and found this wonderfully ascetic Sicilian baker greeting me with a “You are late”. Apparently they started much earlier than I was told. “Yes, it is because it is summer, there is much more work with all the tourists in this period of the year.” Sure, it made sense. But I did miss the first mixing. No problem, because 3 hours later I would have seen the second mixing…
TWO GENERATIONS OF PLAIA BAKERS
Illuminato is the head baker. He immediately strikes me for his lean body type–but after spending a few hours with him in front of the hot oven I was not surprised any longer. He tells me he has done this job his whole life, following the footsteps of his older brother. In the summer the production increases and he has two helpers. One of them is actually the next in line to take over the bakery, Vincenzo, his oldest son. Vincenzo has the bold look of a Latin “rubacuori” (how would you translate it? heart-stealer??) but he soon reveals himself as a down to earth passionate baker and gets my full respect –among bakers, even home bakers like me, you get respect if you show you know enough about, and care enough for, your dough.
In the winter though Illuminato carries on–the production side of–his bakery alone: 7 days a week all year round. Because the people of the village want (and deserve) freshly baked bread every day of the year. Is he tired of the work? No way. He loves it. He only wishes there was even more work in the winter–like everyone seems to wish in popular summer locations.
In their bakery Illuminato and Vincenzo do things just like they were done 50 years ago or more. The only machines they use for the loaves are the stand mixers. I see also a very old fashioned dough roller and I ask what is that for. With an air of condescendence (towards the machine and its product) Vincenzo answers “it is for panini, some people want them” but they would never use it on actual loaves of bread, religiously handled by hand after mixing. “The less you work the dough, the better”, adds Illuminato.
THE GOLDEN DOUGH
A baker myself, I am captivated by the silky look of the yellowish dough. It is the same flour for all the variety of loaves and focaccias. A good semola rimacinata (finely ground hard wheat flour) from an Italian miller. Not only the same durum flour is used for all the breads (all but the panini, done with regular flour), but the breads are all made with the same dough. I am surprised of how soft the mixed and risen dough looks. I ask about the hydration–happy we can talk the same language. Sixty-two per cent is the answer. Not that high for that soft consistency, but semola rimacinata does not incorporate as much water as regular wheat. An then of course I have to ask about the leavening method. Pasta di riporto and fresh yeast is the answer. Their pasta di riporto is simply a piece of dough from the previous day, kept covered at room temperature all day and feeded once, at night. They use about a 30% of the total, plus they add a 4% fresh yeast. Quite a honest leavening method.
And how about the kneading? Delicate, Illuminato says, with only 10 minutes at low-medium speed.
THE GOLDEN BREADS
And the fermentation? Only one for the classic Pane Siciliano (Sicilian bread) and two for the Pane Pugliese (Apulian bread) and the Pane Arabo (Arabic bread). Arabic?? Illuminato is referring to Pani Cabucio (bread with the hole) which is a Sicilian version of pita bread.
What the Plaia bakers refer as the Apulian bread is the one leavened longer and with an open crumb. It is shaped only roughly and it does remind me of ciabatta bread. The more traditional Sicilian bread is instead shaped more, sometimes braided, and it has a more tight crumb with tiny holes. It is almost always covered with sesame seeds.
Isn’t it interesting that the different types of breads are named after their places of origin?
The Siciliano loaves are the first to be baked. The oven is at its max, 275 degrees Celsius, and then temperature is reduce “senno’ si bruciano e non si cuociono dentro–otherwise they will burn and stay uncook inside” osserva Illuminato. The first fermentation goes fast in this overheated dark room, about 1 1/2 hours. The Siciliano is then shaped and baked soon after.
The Pugliese loaves are left to rise longer, then cut and roughtly shaped, not to deflate the breads. They will be left in peace to rise a little longer while the Siciliano’s baking is completed.
The Cabucio was shaped at the same time of the Pugliese, in tight small rounds, and then after some rest it was delicately punched down by the skilled fingers of Illuminato. A little further rest and then the baking. I did not give this last bread much importance while a the bakery. Pure ignorance. The cut bread was the most interesting of them all. Rather than a pita bread it was looking like… I truly don’t know what it was looking like, but the crumb was so flaky that is seemed to me as a miracle.
All three breads had very distict crumbs. unfortunately I did not take a picture of Siciliano crumb, but it was rather tight, although well leavened. The crumb of the Pugliese was rather open instead. And the arabo was so open and flaky to rival with a croissant. And think that all these different crumbs were produced with the same exact dough. What a great example of the importance of a knowledgeable handling!!!
Finally, there were the focaccias. Made with the same semola dough of the breads but emulsified, once hand “rolled”, with water and olive oil. The most interesting one was the Sfincione Palermitano, a thick focaccia seasoned with onion, cheese, anchovies, tomato and oregano.
When I left the bakery (only to return a half hour later to see more baking and buy some bread) the sun was just rising. And I felt like my whole being was elevated as well. Bread is beautiful and is made by beautiful people. Like family Plaia. Thank you Illuminato for having shared some of this beauty with me (and sorry for the long wait to see this written down).
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