The Torta al Testo Taste Test

I snort when I laugh really hard. I do. And there are only a couple of people in this world who can regularly make me laugh so hard I get to snorting. Jennifer McIlvaine, blogger, chef, and irreverent Philly girl, is one of those people. She’s a foodie with attitude, an ironic commentator on the quirks of living shoulder to shoulder with the Umbrians, and one of the most talented chefs I know. She is also the mother of lovely Olivia and Gabriele and wife of Federico, one of the region’s experts on food and wine. I love her food-centric blog (her recent post on canning is one of my favorites) and I was so happy to have her stop by this week with a post about one of my favorite Umbrian staples.

Four takes on this most traditional of Umbrian dishes (Copyright Jennifer McIlvaine)

Will the real Torta al Testo please step foward?

Umbrians are by definition, traditionalists. So I was floored the other day when, dining at one of my favorite local spots, I tried a piece of Torta al Testo (a traditional Umbrian flatbread) NOT made in the traditional way – its was spongy, and yeasty…different!

Torta al Testo is eaten throughout Umbria and its name comes from: Torta, meaning bread or pizza and Testo, the heavy disc on which the bread is cooked. In ancient times the testo was made from clay and placed over coals in the fireplace. Modern times have brought us the contemporary version made from iron and aluminum, and placed directly on the stovetop. Of course, Umbria being Umbria, full of small, walled medieval towns, it seems that everywhere you go, the torta is known by a different name: Torta al Testo in the central-north area, Crescia in Gubbio, Ciaccia on the border with Tuscany, and Pizza sotto il Fuoco in the South. So many names for such a simple bread in such a small region!

So, as I mentioned, I was very surprised to try a new version of this classic; as it was chewy and had a yeasty flavor, it inspired me to do a little experimentation…

I used 4 “rising agents” to test the different recipes:
#1: I used a very old recipe, just flour, baking soda, salt and water.
#2: I used a classic recipe with Lievito Pizzaiolo – which is kind of like a cross between baking powder and instant yeast
#3: I used brewer’s yeast
#4: I used a natural (sourdough) bread starter that I made from grape yeast.
In the 2nd-4th recipes, I also added a little milk, olive oil, and parmigiano to the mix, known here as condita, or flavoured.

(In doing my research, I did also find recipes that contained eggs, but these are widely considered heresy – no good Umbrian would add such rich ingredients – if you are going to go down that route, why don’t you just add some butter as well? Will never happen.)

My willing guinea pigs where comprised of 1 expert from Assisi, 2 from Todi, 1 from Foligno, 2 from Cannara, 1 from Puglia and 1 American, as well as my 19 month-old daughter – a certified bread afficianado.

My hypothesis was that torta #1 would most likely be chosen at the true torta visually, but I was hoping that torta #4 would be chosen for taste. Astonishingly, EVERYONE picked the torta made with the natural bread starter (#4) as the true torta al testo based on visuals – it was highest and most leavened. This surprised me, because, the tortas that I have eaten have always been relatively flat and compact without a lot of air bubbles.
However, when it came to taste, almost everyone chose #1, the most simple, made with just baking soda (also the most dense). Those who did not choose #1, chose #4, sticking with the natural starter. Tortas #3 & #4 were considered good but standard. Naturally, all of this experimentation sparked a lively debate on what the REAL traditional recipe is, some swearing up and down that a rising agent is unnecessary – just use flour, water and salt. I conducted a sub-experiment without the rising agent and the result was a little pasty. This recipe could be used if cooked in the antique way – in the fireplace, under the ash, but must be eaten immediately.
And the winner is… well, my results remain inconclusive, but I think we all agreed that simplicity is best. So my quest to create the perfect Torta al Testo continues… The goal is to get a good rise and a rich flavor from the most basic of ingredients.

The Torta al Testo dates back to Etruscan times as a simple quick flat bread that did not need a long rising time – should we just keep it that way? Maybe some of us will break with tradition, but only within our own private medieval walls…

The Recipes

Torta #1
500g flour
1 heaping teaspoon baking soda
1 level teaspoon salt
about 350mL warm water

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl until a ball of dough is formed. If the dough is sticky add a little bit more flour. Knead the dough with your hands for about 5 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball. Let the dough rest in a warm place covered with a towel for about 40 minutes. Roll dough into a disc. Place directly onto preheated testo or griddle pan (without oil!). Prick with a fork and let cook over a medium-low heat until brown on one side. Flip and continue to cook on the other side. Let rest for a few minutes off the heat. Cut into wedges and fill each with either prosciutto, cheese or greens and sausage. Buon Apetito!

Torta #2
500g flour
1 packet (15g) Lievito Pizzaiolo
220mL warm water (or one Nutella glass)
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Make a well with the flour and add the lievito and water mix well. Then add the rest of the ingredients, leaving the salt for the end and mix well. Knead the dough for about 10 minutes then, let rest for 40-60 minutes. Continue as above.

Torta #3
500g flour
25g brewer’s yeast (fresh or dry)
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Dissolve the yeast in warm water with sugar. Add to flour, add rest of ingredients and continue as above, letting the dough rest 1-1 ½ hours.

Torta #4
500g flour
100g natural bread starter
220mL warm water
½ tsp sugar
3 tbs olive oil
2 tbs milk
3 tbs parmigiano
pinch of salt

Same as above, letting the dough rise for 6 hours.


Italy Roundtable: The Hardest Thing

We tried. We did. We tried to quit, but we just couldn’t do it. We missed our monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable date too much, so I’m back with Kate Bailward, Jessica Spiegel, Melanie Renzulli, Alexandra Korey, and Gloria to tackle this month’s theme: cha-cha-cha-changes. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Welcome back to our table…come pull up a chair and join in on the conversation.


The Hardest Thing

I used to be a bit more starry-eyed about human nature. I used to observe humanity and see only what unites us: our common basic needs, our social nature, our love of fried foods. I would hum John Lennon and feel at one with the universe.

Now, perhaps a bit more jaded or simply realistic, I tend to see what divides us. The world seems to be cracking down the middle lately in everything from politics to pop culture, and there are less and less fences to sit on. You are either left or right, trash or high culture, vegan or paleo.

One of the divisions in human nature that has come into focus for me lately is this: there are those who need stability and those who need change. I mean, I suppose like sexuality and love of Beyoncé, it’s a spectrum, but — just like sexuality and love of Beyoncé — the vast majority of us are pretty far on one side or the other. And I have discovered, after years of thinking that I was a starter for Team Stability, that I am actually the official mascot for Team Change.

My son recently started using a guitar pick, after two years of lessons playing with his fingers. He fretted and fussed and got frustrated, and then one day picked out the first iconic notes of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” as if he had been doing it for years. And he said to me, with the frank wisdom that is found only in 10 year olds, “It wasn’t that it was hard. I was just scared it was going to be hard. The changing isn’t hard, it’s the thinking before the changing.”

And therein lies the truth, at least for me. The hardest thing isn’t the changing, contrary to what I thought for most of my life. The changing, I have discovered, is my lifeblood. It makes me feel vibrant and courageous and purposeful and, ultimately, triumphant. The hardest thing is the standing still and thinking before the changing.

Which brings me to a Whole Bunch of Great News! Or, at least, great news for a newly-outed Change Poster Child. In our world of the Italy Roundtable, many of us have gone through big changes since we last sat down to chat – babies have been born, international moves have been made, careers have been formed – and I have some news of my own to toss into the ring.


Brigolante Goes to Town

We are adding three new apartments on to Brigolante! We have recently taken on three pretty studio and one bedroom guest apartments in a historic palazzo right on the central Piazza del Comune in Assisi. Unfortunately, the Roundtable decided to launch before we are ready with our new website, but in the coming season we will be able to offer guests a choice between Brigolante Country here in the hills outside of Assisi and Brigolante Centro right in the heart of Assisi just steps from all the sights.

After a few years of languishing and feeling a little directionless, when the opportunity came to add new offerings and shake things up a bit, I jumped at it. I hadn’t realized just how much I needed a new challenge to stimulate me and get me excited about my business (my first “baby”, born before the real babies came along) again. I’ll be announcing our news with a big website launch, but I wanted to share it with my readers in the meantime.

These apartments have terraces with a view over the piazza, quiet inner courtyards with pizza ovens and ringing churchbells, and lots of space and light. The best part is that with more guests, there’s more of an opportunity to organize activities and events…so get ready for wine tastings and pizza parties and all sorts of fun stuff in the coming months!


Rebecca Leaves Town

Another exciting change recently was my involvement in producing a fabulous new travel series for PBS with Dream of Italy, an Italy travel newsletter that I have contributed to a few times over the years. When the editor at Dream of Italy and producer of the PBS series, Kathy McCabe, contacted me about collaborating with the production logistics, I really had to think about it. The project involved traveling for five weeks, which was a logistical challenge both for my family and professional life, and I just wasn’t sure if it was feasible.

But, like the wise boy said, it’s the thinking before the changing. In just a few days, a number of things fell into place in a way that was both serendipitous and timely and I was able to participate in this amazing adventure which took us from Piemonte to Puglia, passing through Tuscany, Umbria (of course Umbria!), Rome, and Naples and the Amalfi Coast along the way.

Dream of Italy – 2015 Teaser from Trivium Films on Vimeo.

It was hard work, but also perhaps one of the most rewarding experiences I have ever had. Not only did I meet some amazing people (and see old friends), but I was able to rediscover the passion and warmth that had made me fall in love with this country over 20 years ago which I had begun to lose sight of recently. The series is coming out this spring, so check your local PBS listings to watch!

Other changes? Yes, lots of them. With the fervor of the newly converted, I am giving a stiff beating to my rug of life to see what flies off into the ether and what sticks around and reveals itself to be woven into my essence. It’s taken me a long time to pull that rug up off the floor and take it into the sunshine, but once I did it I realized that it was, surprisingly, the easiest thing.

Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!