Above the confluence of the Po Delta on the Adriatic is the town of Adria, halfway between Venice and Bologna. It is the home of retired miller Arnaldo Cavallari, a former rally car champion who is celebrated locally as the inventor of Il pane con buco – the bread with big holes.
Alongside the abandoned buildings of the family mill, attached to the sprawling grounds of the Cavallari mansion, is the experimental bakery where on the afternoon of September 21, 1982 three wine-sodden bakers celebrated a eureka moment.
Cavallari had invited Arnaldo Cremonese of Bovolone and Francisco Favaron of Verona, bakers he had met at the Verona Trade Fair, to help with his experiments to make a new bread with the soft wheat of the region.
Cavallari had told Professor Raymond Calvel, an expert on bread in the Sorbonne in Paris, that he wanted to produce flour that would make great bread with organoleptic characteristics.
Calvel told Cavallari to increase the amount of water. ‘You are a miller, you can make strong flour, try to put 70%.’
Baguette makers put 65% water in their dough and this was believed to be the limit. It produced a great bread – a soft crumb on the inside, a crispy crust on the outside. Cavallari believed he could improve the baguette and with his two drunken friends he had done just that.
‘Our mentality was to put a lot of water in the flour and a lot of wine in ourselves. Francisco looked at the bread and it was flat, shaped like a slipper. “Ciabatta,” he cried, slurring the word.’
Cavallari had identified the aromatic pre-ferment known in Italy as the biga as the key ingredient in good quality French and German breads. ‘The biga is like the starter motor, its primary function is to turn on the engine.’
Cavallari called his new bread Ciabatta Polesana, after the communal area. ‘When tasted, happiness exploded. I had gotten a double success, an innovative product that absorbed water to unexpected values from 70% to 75%.’
It was exactly the sensual experience Calvel had predicted.
Cavallari had perfected the holy trinity of breading making – the flour, the pre-ferment and the water. Flour was the key, but the biga and water unlocked the flavour.
Bakers who took part in the Ciabatta Italiana project promised to use Cavallari’s new flour, authenticating their slipper-shaped bread with a stamp of guarantee for the customer.
Cavallari went out into the world to promote his product, travelling to five continents. ‘We believe it is better to teach the baker to make bread with the right yeast and natural flours because this produces breads nutritionally valuable and genuine, in the best tradition of italian bakery.’
The ciabatta was a light and airy digestible flat loaf made without artificial improvers. It was a global success. Bakers, who had at first feared the process, began churning out the crunchy soft-centred bread with a nutty fragrance.
Soon they began to experiment themselves.
By 1996 American bakers were winning the Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie with their version of ciabatta.
Artisan bakers and domestic cooks grabbed recipes that replicated the magic formula, but that was all they could do.
Back in Italy Cavallari continued to experiment and he now believes his latest method and recipe for ciabatta developed over the last five years is the best. ‘The ciabatta recipe has always evolved. We will always evolve, this is experimental baking. I ask for feedback, to see what people think.’
The flour was crucial to the method, and the end result. ‘I wanted to make a better flour to make a better bread. I wanted the best, the best flour, to make the best bread. To make the best bread you must understand how to make the best flour.’
When Cavallari closed down his mill he gave the recipes of his flours to a Padova mill. They now produce a red bag containing flour milled with grain from Australia, Canada, Italy and the USA. This is a strong flour made from high quality grain, high in gluten. ‘If ciabatta is not made with this combination it is not ciabatta,’ says Cavallari squirming and twisting his upper lip.
Dr. Clorindo Manzato of the Adria Commune Office says this fact is not always recognised. ‘Many believe that this form of bread has roots in folk traditions sunk in rural Italian medieval history, but this is a colossal mistake. The real secret lies in the combination of the flour produced, which still nobody so far has managed to copy, and the same bread recipe.’
Cavallari’s various recipes for ciabatta all have a common denominator. ‘The difference between the baguette and the ciabatta is 5% water and better flour but the real difference is the biga, the method of making the ciabatta.’
In January 2013 the mayor of Adria, Massimo Barbujani, launched a campaign to put ciabatta on the map as a designated food product with that precise method.
‘Unfortunately many produce our ciabatta bread without respect to the value of purity and naturalness in the original recipe,’ Barbujani argues, acknowledging that it is going to be difficult to standardise the recipe.
Some would say impossible. Ciabatta, born in Adria, now lives in the world.
This is the modern version of the recipe, which is for a large batch, mixed by machine.
10 kg Italian type 1 flour/ciabatta flour 5 litre water 25g yeast
Mix these ingredients in the bowl of a spiral mixer at low speed for five minutes. Leave to ferment, covered, for between 16 and 22 hours (depending on the time of year and ambient temperature) and cover with cloth until the temperature reaches between 23°C and 25°C.
Start second stage.
100g sugar 2 litres water 250g salt Olive oil
Add sugar at low speed for five minutes, drizzling in the water at high speed for eight minutes, then the salt for two minutes.
Dough should be at a temperature between 25°C and 27°C.
With wet hands transfer dough to an oiled container and leave for 40 minutes.
Cut dough into 300g pieces, and leave to rise on floured surface for an hour. Heat baking tray, transfer dough with floured hands to tray and bake at 240°C for 30 minutes.
Adapted and abridged from The Bread with Holes: The Rise of Artisan Bread in Europe.
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