Great Fermentations: Bread and Beer

Variety is the Spice of Life

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Fermentation was quite an important means of preservation in antiquity. What words do you hear most in the depiction of food and spirituality in southern Europe? Bread and wine, yeah? Substitute beer in the north, where wine grapes didn’t grow so well.

Roman troops transported wine on their military campaigns, which gave them great benefit in that they didn’t have to drink the fetid outpourings of polluted streams as they camped in hostile territory. Attacking an army retching from drinking the water was a sure victory that came without much cost. The fermented beverage was a good part of Roman military success some say.

Things get worse in the Medieval period, when some northern countries actually prohibited citizens from drinking water. After all, not only did the water become part of a sewage system when it entered a village, by the time it encountered the tanning quarter of town it seethed with noxious chemicals used in processing hides as well. Beer made with clean(er), upstream water got popular. What nastiness that might still exist was taken care of by the alcohol.

And in the Italian modern age? Well, we’ve talked to a man who built stacked stone Pagghiare in Puglia who claims to never have let a single drop of water pass his lips. He was well into his 70s. Yes, the fear of water as a default beverage has passed on to this day.

Europeans, of course, often encountered pristine fresh water streams when they came to colonize America, so they had the liberty to make the consumption of beer and wine into a moral issue.

So you see, there’s quite a lot of history behind bread and the liquid bread we call beer. Making and drinking craft beer is trending rapidly in Italy, even in traditional wine country. Pubs pop up like mushrooms, many paying homage to northern European traditions.

Brew Pubs: They’re Popping Up all Over!

Piemonte is my favorite wine region. I was surprised to have friends insist we go to the new brew pub there,. Clever Italians had taken a huge family farm house and turned it into a stylish yet comfortable place to come for a beer, a casual meal, or a more formal repast. It was a fabulous find, as you might see in the video below:

birra baladin beer
Birra Balladin and fried chicken

The town of Forli in the Emilia Romagna region is known for the Rationalist architecture that flourished during the 20 years of Mussolini. But Forli also has a castle. It’s lit up at night, and just a short stroll away is the “Birrificio Mazapégul“, an emporium of Italian craft beer from all over Italy; and you can get appropriate plates of food as well.

And pubs are all over Italy. They can be exact replicas of those in Great Britain, as we found on another excursion in Piemonte. The traveler need not search far for beer, although expect it to be more costly than the house wine in restaurant.

The Many Breads of Italy

The 15th century German beer purity laws limited legal beer to the use of only malted (sprouted) barley, water, and hops. Yeast was unknown, yet was everywhere, God’s gift for all.

There is politics in the law as well, of course. Barley wasn’t often used to make bread, and since the two items were the very base for German meals, it made sense that wheat be reserved for bread rather than allow its use in Beer.

Italian bread
Pane a lievitazione naturale, naturally fermented bread at a restaurant in Italy.

Italy has its share of unique breads. Nearly every village of any size has at least one bakery. In days past there were also communal ovens, where folks could bring their breads for baking; a few are still in operation.

The variety of breads is truly amazing. When we go to the market, we specify the bread, often by the name of the village bakery, and whether we want Pane a lievitazione naturale, naturally fermented bread without added yeast that we might call sourdough (although without much sour flavor) and the French call Pain au Levain, or pane integrale. We might also ask for whole wheat bread.

Italy has a single DOC bread called Pane di Altamura DOP. It’s unusual for a breat to garner the DOP designation, because most breads can be replicated anywhere in the world. The unique qualities of pane di Altamura are found in the wheat grown around the town of Altamura in Puglia.

Although you can Google “pane di Altamura” and get recipes using ingredients from the US, you don’t get pane di Altamura, of course, you get pane Tipo di Altamura, a bread of the type called Altamura. That’s the whole idea behind DOP: The real thing uses yeast, grain, sea salt and water of the region—and that’s what makes its taste unique. In fact, the specifications are pretty specific about the wheat varieties that can be used: Apulo, Archangelo, Duilio, and Simeto, if you must know. — Pane di Altamura DOP – The Special Bread of Altamura

If you explore the region near Altamura, you’ll find many fine breads that are variations of pane di altamura, neither, in my opinion, better or worse, but different. And that’s the joy of discovering bread in a country not bound to food produced by industrial companies. It’s good, it’s different, and it would dissapear if the locals didn’t like it.

Chef Guido and I Talk About Beer and Bread in Italy

Chef Guido operates cooking classes from his home in the Sabine Hills north of Rome, where one of my favorite breads finds a place on nearly every table.

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Great Fermentations: Bread and Beer originally appeared on , updated: Nov 24, 2022 © .

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