WORLDFOOD – The Bread of Cerchiara

28 May 2002

Elisa Vito’s bakery at Cerchiara in Calabria is small, very small. 50 square meters, no more. Yet, in such a confined space, there’s room for a tiny counter and two wood ovens, plus an area set aside for working the dough and letting the loaves rise.

This bakery is in the high part of Cerchiara, 800 meters above sea level, a village of 2,000 souls right at the heart of Pollino Park. To get there you have to cross a wild valley of Cyclopean boulders, Far-West-style brushweed, abandoned stone cottages, ravines, dozens of bends in the road which, at last, comes to an end precisely in Cerchiara. It’s a world apart, with numerous families full of kids, large, and old women who still do the laundry in the public fountains. The pace of life couldn’t be slower.

The bread of Cerchiara is enormous, weighing from two to three and a half kilograms per loaf. The shape of the loaves is round with raised edges (raselle) achieved by folding the dough into itself as was done with traditional home-made bread. But what is its defining character, besides its enormous size? Simple, the fact that it maintains its fragrance for up to fifteen days after it’s been taken out of the oven. This is due to the use of starter yeast and the long period of time it takes to rise. The dough consists of 60 per cent wheat flour (a variety called cherosene) and 40 per cent bran flour. Under the crust, the bread is a light gray color and imparts an decisively acidic taste due to the use of natural yeast. But it is a bread that doesn’t ‘swell’, with pronounced button holes, a thick yellow-ochre crust and intense, biscuity aromas.

‘How long have you been making bread this way?’ I ask Signora Vito.

‘Here in Cerchiara they’ve always made it this way. We prepare the fire directly inside the oven; then, to see if the temperature is right, we put a little bit of bread dough inside and, if it inflates like a balloon, then we know it’s time to take out the embers and start the baking. We’ve never used a thermometer; we prefer the ways of our grandparents.’

Before baking, the enormous loaves of dough rest for hours in large wood chests wrapped in cotton cloths. In the meantime, the fire is fed with long chestnut and beech twigs. After an hour and a half, the temperature reaches 300°C (572°F), and it’s time to put the white loaves inside the two mouths of the ovens.‘

‘What never fails to amaze us,’ Signora Vito tells us candidly, ‘that the bread baked in one oven has a different taste from the bread baked in the oven next to it, even if the fires are started at the same time and fed with the same wood.’

When they begin to remove the embers, the temperature inside the bakery rises to as much as 40°C (104°F). The minutes preceding the baking are frenetic; there’s not a second to waste. Each single loaf is carefully loaded onto a wooden paddle, where Signora Vito pats it into shape and pops it into the oven. The only step that isn’t frenetic is when they engrave the sign of the cross on the bread with the paddle at the end of the baking time. ‘The bread wouldn’t be so good, if we didn’t do this,’ the apprentice at the Vito bakery tells us, ‘because it is a gift of the Lord, and when we bake the bread we always remember that.’

The bread bakes for close on an hour and a half, after which the loaves are taken out of the oven and put in the classic plastic bakery baskets. First, though, the bottom of each loaf is cleaned with a cloth. This is a very special moment and, as always, Signora Vito and her apprentice gesticulate partly out of sacred devotion and partly out of joy because their work turned out well. Then something unexpected happens: the bread literally starts to ‘sing’ in its huge baskets. The fact is that the heat causes the crust to split and emit a distinctive cicada-like humming sound. But what impresses us most is the aroma. ‘There’s nothing better and more beautiful than bread,’ exclaims Elisa Vito. We can’t help but believe her, watching her eyes that sparkle as she speaks.

Giancarlo Gariglio, a journalist, is a member of the Sloweb editorial staff

Translated by Annie Adair

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