A few weeks ago, Hans and I were invited to a morning demonstration of bread making using natural yeast in the Sibillini mountains. Of course we said yes. In typical Italian style, a group of interested people show up someplace for a demonstration, then afterwards we all eat a huge lunch together. Do I need to explain why I like living here?
The demonstration took place at a wonderful organic farm in the Sibillni mountains: Azienda Agricola Michele. They grow their own organic wheat, using old methods, then take their flour to a very old mill in Umbria that uses only river water to power the stone grinding wheels.
The owner, whose name is not Michele, but is called Michele because his grandfather who started the farm was named Michele, says these mills are very rare today but this milling method retains all of the nutrients in the wheat so he thinks it’s worth the travel and hassle of bringing his wheat there.
Michele, a warm easy going man who is passionate about his farm, organic wheat and food production and of course bread making, travels around educating groups and delivering his bread, cookies and pasta to shops in Le Marche.
Michele spent quite a bit of time explaining why modern wheat varieties, grown with oodles of chemical pesticides and herbicides along with modern milling practices, bleaching, and so on produce wheat that is deprived of any nutrients other than calories, and that are also very difficult to digest, causing all sorts of problems like intolerance to wheat. My daughter is wheat intolerant, and I’ve read reams of studies on this subject and I concur with Michele.
Michele also explained that many flours sold as “whole wheat” are nothing more than super processed wheat with some of the bran and germ mixed back in before packaging. Sigh.
This azienda only makes a wheat classified as #2, a light whole grain which has all of the germ and most of the bran left in. No white flour here. They grow 2 types of flour, a soft wheat for bread, (I forgot the name, but it’s an old variety) and an old variety of hard wheat to make pasta called “Senatore Cappelli”
The pasta is actually made in an old fashioned pasta making place near Tivoli, outside of Rome. Once again, the travel and hassle is worth it to Michele because they do such a superior job turning the flour into pasta.
Yup. Not all pasta is equal…how it’s made, which flour, which water, what temperatures, etc etc. make one pasta different from another. It’s an art form. Having eaten Michele’s pasta now on several occasions, I’m glad this place in Tivoli exists!
The bread is made with a natural yeast starter. Those of you who know me know that every winter I bake all of our bread with natural yeast, so I found Michele’s description of how everyday he keeps his great grandmothers yeast starter going fascinating and educational. I’ll write about the details in another post soon because there is an awful lot to say about yeast.
The azienda also makes and sells cookies, traditional cookies made with flour, olive oil and vino cotto. No rising agents, no salt, no butter. He mixes the dough, then lets it sit overnight, then in the morning the dough is shaped by hand into little wreaths. We all had a go at this. It’s harder than it looks because each little chunk of dough needs to be warmed in your hands by kneading it until it becomes pliable enough to shape. Good thing there were a lot of us.
After cookie shaping, we visited the room where they knead and raise the bread.
This is the same room that houses a gigantic wood oven that Michele keeps a small fire in 24 hours as the bread needs a warm locale to rise very slowly.
The doors below the oven have racks where the bread rises.
After many discussions about commercial bread, wheat, the slow food movement, food politics and so on, we all returned back upstairs to eat:
In the tradition of true agriturismos, our food was either produced by our hosts or produced locally. Mountain cheese and salami, lentils, pasta (of course!) with tomato sauce from the garden, roast local chicken, salad and an assortment of the aziendas cookies, all served with local wine and bread.
Bread made with natural wheat flour and yeast tastes of wheat, has slight sour flavor (not at all like commercial sour doughs) and keeps at least a week, unlike modern Italian bakery bread that becomes hard and crumbly after less than a day. It’s easy to digest, is full of nutrients and best of all has that lovely greyish color, hard crust and springy texture of the breads I so fondly remember from my youth, when most of the bread in Italy was made from these unrefined flours and baked in wood ovens.