After our wonderful hiking in Abruzzo, we had a delicious dinner at Plistia restaurant in Pescasseroli. As I asked a lot of questions, particularly about the bread, the host, Cicitto, offered to take me to the bakery where his brother-in-law (sibling of Cicitto’s chef wife, Laura) is the master baker. Aside from how just plain lovely this small town dynamic seems to someone like me, who grew up in Britain at a time where traditional food trade was being killed off by supermarkets, it was also just a wonderful opportunity. Cicitto was offering to get me some lievito madre (natural leaven starter), but the jaunt actually turned into a handy lesson.
Il Vecchio Forno (The Old Bakery, or The Old Oven), is located in the centre of Pescasseroli, in a row of old stone buildings. Its shop sign is barely legible, there’s no window showing the wares and a ribbon curtain covers the doorway, so it’d be easy to walk past – were it not for the intoxicating smell of freshly baked bread emerging. We entered down a side entrance, and wandered into the bake-house at the back.
My old teachers at the NBS in London have conditioned me well, as I felt self-conscious about my street clothes, but hygiene legislation clearly wasn’t exactly a priority as there were at least a couple of lit cigarettes in there. Boggling! Still, the loaves being turned out from the large deck oven looked great, as did some plump pizza bianca (an olive-oily flat-ish bread that looks more like what we’d call focaccia in the UK, though actually that’s Ligurian focaccia; in Rome, the name focaccia is used for a flatter, crisp and crunchy bread).
The maestro kindly gave us half an hour of his time, first introducing us to his mother. His lievito madre – mother yeast or leaven – that is. What surprised me about this was how much it just resembled a dough, unlike the more liquid, ie higher hydration, sourdough cultures I’d previously learned about and been using. The madre is about 50 per cent hydration, where recently I’ve been keeping my leaven at around 100 per cent.
We chatted about the issues I’d been having with my naturally leavened breads, and he did some diagnosis. I was fermenting the dough for too long he said, resulting in too sour a flavour – though arguably, a sour sourdough is more in line with certain northern European breads than Italian naturally leavened breads, where the flavours are generally milder, nutty but not sour.
His biggest piece of advice to me, as a home baker making bread once a week, was actually to not worry about using a lievito madre at all. So no sample of their venerable madre for me. Instead, he recommended using a biga.
A biga is an Italian pre-ferment, not unlike a British sponge or French poolish. Unlike those pre-ferments, however, it’s much lower hydration – again, like his madre, more lively dough than bubbling gloop. The maestro went on to give me a recipe for a biga. He recommended using a 00 (ie a fine grade) flour, then got a bit technical for me – saying to use a flour with a P/L grade of 0.55 and a W…. To be honest, with my bad Italian, and terrible handwriting, my note-taking abilities failed me. My notes either say a W of 240 or 400.
But just what are P/L and W? Well, some research tells me the former is an elasticity rating, the latter the forza della farina (“strength, force of the flour”). Italian Wikipedia calls it the fattore di panificabilità, which you could translate as the “breadability of the flour”.
Although this is in Italian, and fairly technical, it includes a good table. Which I’ve borrowed, as the blogger himself seems to have borrowed it from Professor Franco Antoniazzi of the University of Parma.
|90/130||0,4/0,5||9/10,5||Biscotti ad impasto diretto|
|170/200||0,45||10,5/11,5||Pane comune, Ciabatte, impasto diretto, pancarré, pizze, focacce, fette biscottate|
|220/240||0,45/0,5||12/12,5||Baguettes, pane comune con impasto diretto, maggiolini, ciabatte a impasto diretto e biga di 5/6 ore|
|300/310||0,55||13||Pane lavorato, pasticceria lievitata con biga di 15 ore e impasto diretto|
|340/400||0,55/0,6||13,5/15||Pane soffiato, pandoro, panettone, lievitati a lunga fermentazione, pasticceria lievitata con biga oltre le 15 ore, pane per Hamburgher|
Basically, it says that the higher the W, generally the higher the P/L, and the higher the protein. To translate that into familiar products, a flour with a lower W and P/L (used for biscuits/cookies etc) is akin to a plain or all-purpose flour, while a flour with a higher W and P/L (used for enriched breads with long fermentations like panettone) is akin to a strong white bread flour. So really not that technical after all. Ahem.
Not that domestically purchased packs of flour generally include this grading information, but it’s good to know. All part of my baking education.
So anyway, armed with this knowledge, straight from the maestro a cool old bakery in pleasant little Italian mountain town, I embarked on my first biga experiments… Coming soon!
Il Vecchio Forno, Piazza Vittorio Emanuele III 20, 67032 Pescasseroli, Abruzzo