BOOKS | CAROL FIELD
Now that the new edition of my book The Italian Baker has been published, I have been reliving the adventure of working with bakers all over Italy. It started in San Francisco in 1981 when Il Fornaio, then a bakery featuring Italian breads and sweets, opened at the corner of Steiner and Union Streets. I couldn’t believe my good fortune: Italy had come to my neighborhood.
I was there almost every day, learning from bakers from Rome, Florence, Ferrara and elsewhere. They were wrestling with the problem of adapting American ingredients to their Italian recipes and I listened and was intrigued. I wrote an article for Attenzione, a magazine for lovers of Italy that, alas, no longer exists. It got such a strong response that it began to seem a logical next step to write a book.
When my family lived in Italy in the ’70s, our rental house in Liguria was no more than 30 miles from good friends who lived in Tuscany, but it could have been 200 for all the differences in the food and bread. In Liguria, we ate focaccia as our daily bread; in Tuscany, it was saltless loaves. In Liguria we ate pesto on pasta; in Tuscany pasta turned up rarely so we ate hearty soups instead. Easter in Liguria was celebrated with torta pasqualina, 33 phyllo-thin layers of dough enclosing a chard and egg filling. In Tuscany Easter week brought pan di ramerino, rosemary and raisin buns that reminded me of hot cross buns with an apricot glaze.
On the 12 or 13 trips to Italy it took to write The Italian Baker, I realized that I had plunged into an unknown world. With good introductions, there I was, an American woman turning up in Italian bakeries at 10 or 11 at night wanting to learn how bakers made the iconic breads of their cities and regions and countryside. Night after night, city after city, trip after trip, I was determined to get it down.
There were no books on the subject. Bread making is an art handed down from father to son, so I ended up relying on the equivalent of oral history, with the additional challenge of learning a whole new vocabulary. I watched, wrote copious notes, asked question after question, saw massive amounts of flour whirl in a machine with water and yeast and salt. I wrote down numbers. I laid breads on a table, set a tape measure in front of them, took their pictures, asked about ovens and temperatures and wondered how their big deck ovens would translate at home.
Back home on Washington Street, I tried to recreate the miracles of these breads and sweets, taking a formula for 20 kilos of flour and working to reduce it to two or three loaves. Motes of flour swirled in the kitchen air. I could make a starter, which Italians call a biga, with flour and water and a small amount of yeast, and it bubbled energetically in the space of hours. I made hundreds of loaves, trying out variations in proportions and types of flour. A typical day found me making several kinds of bread, documenting each stage and each variation and finally sitting down around 6 p.m., glassy eyed.
Every visit to a different region of Italy taught me more. I learned that authentic bread sticks were easy to shape, that durum flour made fantastic bread in Puglia and Sicily and that the cracker-thin crusts of Roman pizza were very different than the Neapolitan version.
I came back to San Francisco having tasted breads made for Easter in various regions. In Friuli it was a Gubana, a brioche-like bread with raisins and nuts moistened with five different liqueurs. In Naples, I ate Casatiello — a spicy cheese bread flecked with chunks of salami and freshly ground pepper. In Umbria, I tried an intense cheese-flavored bread baked in terra cotta flowerpots.
And always there was the rhythm, from Washington Street to Italy and then back again, each trip full of discoveries to reproduce so that Americans could bake the iconic tastes of Italy. Friends knew to come by on baking days. Our next-door neighbors looked out the window and arrived in their pajamas.
Since all those trips and the first edition of The Italian Baker, which was published in 1985, more tastes of Italy have come to the neighborhood. Pizzeria Delfina makes pizza for ever-expanding crowds. SPQR makes outstanding “modern Italian” food and serves a gorgeous array of Italian wines. Mollie Stone’s sells cheeses imported from Italy and blood orange juice from Sicily.
In April 2010, the James Beard Society named my book one of 13 essential books on baking in America. But my publisher, HarperCollins, let the book go out of print a month or so later. So my agent got the rights back and Ten Speed Press in Berkeley bought them. The contract to print a new version was signed last fall. It was a big rush to get everything done — all new American weights in every recipe, color photographs, some revised and new recipes, including one for almost natural yeast, and new sources for ingredients and equipment.
It’s wonderful to relive an experience after so many years. Once again I can say: Italy has come to my neighborhood.
Read more: “Food of the poor is no longer for the poor“