The Umbrians have lied to me.
They have been telling me all this time that their traditional bread is an acquired taste. That, my friends, in a gross falsehood. I have been here close to 20 years, and it is still one of the biggest disappointments of my overseas move to Italy, second perhaps only to the discovery that one does not transform into a sultry mediterranean seductress simply through a process of cellular osmosis by living in a country inhabited by sultry mediterranean seductresses. Apparently, you are either born Sophia Loren or you are not.
Traditionally, Umbrian bread (also known as pane comune) is made with three ingredients: flour, yeast, and water. And, not surprisingly, once baked it tasted like flour, mixed with a little yeast and water. To someone who has grown up with the neighborhood Italian bakery hawking freshly baked “Italian bread”– that wonderfully aromatic thick baguette-type loaf with a moist, chewy, flavorful crumb and a crisp, flaky, glazed crust—this saltless low loaf with its dense, dry crumb and hard, tough crust is blasphemy.
Why do Umbrians still remain faithful to their traditional bread, especially now that fabulous Tuscan bread (closer to what the world associates with “Italian bread”) and Neapolitan bread (with a slightly chewier crumb and dark crust) is easily found? One explanation is historical: in the mid-1500s, Pope Paul III imposed a hefty tax on salt to increase revenue from his Papal States (which included present-day Umbria). Rather than pay up, the inhabitants simply began making their bread without salt, and the tradition still continues. That said, Umbrians routinely used leeches to bleed their ailing brethren, but over the centuries came to the conclusion that perhaps that wasn’t the best idea. So history and tradition can’t be the sole reason.
What it really comes down to is this: bland Umbrian bread is the perfect foil for traditional Umbrian cooking. In fact, when eaten how nature—and centuries of culinary tradition– intended, this otherwise sad excuse for a loaf becomes, well, delicious. Before I tell you the secret of its transformation, let me be clear that there is Umbrian bread and then there is Umbrian bread. Traditional Umbrian bread made by an artisan baker in a wood fired oven is, given certain preconditions, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread made by a bakery in a regular oven is, given the choice between that and death, edible. Traditional Umbrian bread of the variety made by big commercial bakeries and sold at the supermarket shrinkwrapped in plastic is inedible. Period.
La scarpetta is, simply put, when you use a piece of bread to wipe the remaining sauce off your plate and pop it in your mouth. It is one of those behaviors that is both considered impolite yet universally tolerated, as everyone recognizes it as one of the pure joys of human existence. Sort of like putting your feet up on the coffee table after Thanksgiving dinner. Umbrian bread is perfect for la scarpetta. As it has virtually no flavor of its own, the bread lets the strong flavors of traditional Umbrian sauces, many made with game, shine through. Rather than a foodstuff, consider it a mode of sauce transportion. An edible fork, if you will.
Umbrian cured meats—primarily prosciutto, but also salame, capocollo, salsiccie secche, guanciale, and coppa—are intensely flavorful and aromatic, and also tend to be heavily salted. The traditional recipe of 1-1-1 (one finger width bread slice to one finger width coldcuts to one finger width bread slice) would be overwhelming if a more savory type of bread were used. Again, with a good quality wood-oven baked loaf, a simple bread and Norcia prosciutto sandwich with a swig of farmer’s red to wash it down is one of life’s gastronomic epiphanies.
Okay, it’s broo-SKET-ta, folks. I don’t want to hear any of that broo-SCHE -ta going on. If I needed only one single reason to defend the continued existence of Umbrian bread, this would be it. With its dense crumb, Umbrian bread takes well to being sliced and toasted over wood coals (the best way to make bruschetta) without breaking apart and soaks up just the right amount of olive oil to strike the delicate balance between dry and dripping-down-your-forearm. The bread’s lack of flavor means you don’t miss one hint of fruity or grassy or spicy or fresh or mellowed extra-virgin olive oil, and you can pick things up with more or less salt sprinkled on top and, though the purist jury is out, a clove of garlic rubbed over the top. The role that traditional Umbrian bread plays in constructing the perfect slice of bruschetta is enough to redeem it, in my book.
Hmm…now that I think about it, I have acquired a bit of a taste for this region’s bread. Okay, okay. I guess the Umbrians haven’t lied after all.