Sicilian Breadcamp in The Financial Times newspaper

In October 2018, I organized a very special workshop with 7 female bakers from around the world. They joined us at the Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School for an experimental week using their own professional baking techniques with our local Sicilian flour. We visited a flour mill, a local cheesemaker, sipped Sicilian wines in the courtyard, and slathered fancy French butter on our homemade sourdough breads just after they came out of the school’s wood-burning oven.

I am very excited to invite bread lovers of all levels to join us for the second workshop that will run from September 30 through October 5th, 2019. Additional information and workshop pricing available online. Although this is not a sourdough workshop, students will learn all of the different breads from around the island and focus two full days on sourdough baking with the lovely and extremely talented Monika Wałęka. We’re waiting for you in Sicily!

photo by Monika Wałęka for  The Financial Times , December 28, 2018

photo by Monika Wałęka for The Financial Times, December 28, 2018

It isn’t difficult to understand the relationship between land and the taste of the land when you are on a farm with a cooking school in the uplands of interior Sicily.

Thunderheads hung in the sky, fields were striped with chocolate earthen clods after the wheat harvest. Fabrizia Lanza, who inherited the Anna Tasca Lanza cooking school on the family’s estate from her mother, lamented that it had rained all September. Much of the grape harvest was delayed, the tomato crop that usually lasted until November was already over. We walked through her garden, among mulberry, persimmon and pomegranate trees, banks of rosemary, silvery sages, scented geraniums, “very good on chocolate cake”. Rotted pears crushed underfoot.

Lanza had gathered several artisanal bakers (and me, who has never baked a loaf in her life) for a week of “bread camp” to learn about Sicilian ancient grains. There is a trend in Sicily and all over the world, of rediscovering forgotten strains of wheat to recapture the flavour of bread lost to industrialised farming and supermarket demands for shelf life. There are more than 50 “ancient” Sicilian grains, developed over centuries to adapt to varied microclimates of the Italian island, and increasingly farmers are finding a market for them among pasta makers, pizza restaurants and bakers. Lanza said when she first tasted bread made from one, it was a revelation.

“I had no idea that flour had a flavour,” she said. “Regular flour was for me just white powdered talc.”

By chance rather than design, the bakers were an all-female group. Passionate about einkorn, spelt and emmer, they had Instagram accounts with tens of thousands of followers. Three had written books on sourdough. Monika Walecka mills her own flour, sells 100 per cent grain loaves in a farmers’ market in Warsaw and has a circular tattoo of wheat kernels around her elbow. Natasa Djuric was about to start work with the 50 Best Restaurants’ former top woman chef, Ana Ros, at her restaurant in Slovenia. After breakfast (home-made yoghurt, blood-orange jam, apple cake) they all set to work with the different flours: tumminia, a marginal wheat grown in the second sowing, “tasty, cinnamonny, but stubborn,” warned Lanza; perciasacchi, so called because its barbed grain pierced sacks; and Senatore Capelli, named after the senator who presided over agrarian reform in Italy in the early 20th century.

Laura Lazzaroni, who has written a book on ancient grains and advises bakeries in Milan, said her favourite was the reddish russello: “mellower, more hazelnutty”. Older varieties of wheat tend to be tricky to work with. There was a lot of debate about when to add salt, hydration levels and the relative extensibility of the dough, the gluten matrix, protein content, proofing time. Some doughs “ripped”, others collapsed into gloop; the good ones were pronounced “strong”.

“Of course it’s emotional,” said Walecka, adding a palmful more flour to correct a slack dough. “It’s alive, it’s like a bucking bronco, it’s different every time.” Stretch and fold, the bakers gently pushed and prodded with elegant fingertips, testing, feeling. Making bread is above all a tactile operation. Some of the flavour surely must be individual to the hands that make it.

Between lunches (pasta with tomatoes, aubergines and salted ricotta, a bitter greens frittata) and dinners (velvet fava bean soup with a poached egg, ricotta gnocchi, lentils from the island of Ustica) and visits to a local flour mill and a shepherd who makes ricotta, the conversations went back and forth between the grain and the bread. I grappled with the complexities. What is the difference between a hard wheat and a soft wheat? Durum wheat (triticum durum) — which is what most of the older Sicilian grains are — is hard between your teeth; the vitreous grain breaks into gritty shards. Softer wheat varieties (triticum aestivum) are more friable (breaks up easily) and crumbly when you bite into them. So, what is the difference, I asked, between flour that is stone milled and flour crushed between steel rollers? Between whole grain and semi-whole grain, bran and germ, varying protein contents, relative gluten levels and the confusing and arbitrary labels for flour in different countries: “strong bread flour” in Britain is known as “tenero di forza” in Italy and “65” in France?

I figured out enough to understand that modern wheats have been developed to grow in a chemical environment and are prepared with mechanised processing techniques. Almost all the bread we eat — from the apparently rustic baguette or ciabatta to a supermarket white slice in a plastic sleeve — is a 20th-century result of super-performing flours “improved” with additives and commercial yeasts that will pouf air into almost anything.

In addition, white flour has been sifted so that almost all of the nutritious part of the grain, the bran and germ, has been removed. There’s a reason that older grain varieties went out of fashion — they had low yields and were fickle to bake with; and there’s no doubt that industrialisation of the food supply has enabled us to feed billions more cheaply and hygienically. But nutrition and flavour have been sacrificed along the way. Did you know, for example — I did not — that freshly milled flour usually only has a shelf-life of a few months?

Ancient grains can be expensive — spelt and einkorn can cost more than five times as much as regular flour and stone milling is technically difficult. Sarah Owens, who was a ceramicist and a horticulturalist before she became a baker, lives in the Rockaways in New York. She admitted that she sells her loaves for $10 each, but she’s not getting rich off it.

“Is this a real economy of ancient grains or is it an artistic endeavour?” asked our host Lanza. Any artisanal food, handmade using quality ingredients will always be a niche product, but the demand for better-quality flour and bread is becoming more widespread. The trickle-down effect is clear in the ubiquity of sourdough loaves, and agronomists are developing new wheats to satisfy the demands of farmers, millers, bakers and consumers alike, with high-yielding strains that are easy to process, tasty to eat and easier to digest. But the question remains whether customers, used to sweetish pappy bread, will want to go back to the tang and chew of denser loaves made with ancient and whole grains.

Lanza told me that when people come to her farm and cook and eat what grows in the garden, it is a revelation. “It opens taste buds. An almond is not a piece of wood but a flavour. People put something in their mouth and say, ‘I had no idea’.” When I tasted their breads made with Sicilian ancient grains I marvelled at the varied nuttiness and toasty spice of the flavours, crumb as glossy as custard and crusts as crunchy and good as crackling. “Yum,” I echoed. “I had no idea.”
— Wendell Steavenson, THE FINANCIAL TIMES