Making Bread the Ancient Way in Italy (Part II)
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Making Bread the Ancient Way in Italy (Part II)

Aug 10, 2023

By Vincenzina Grasso, La Nostra Voce

While growing up in South Calabria in the Province of Cosenza, we made bread the ancient way once a month, but the process was highly complicated. We had to haul the wheat and corn to the flour mill near a river two miles away from our home. I still remember struggling to carry a sack of wheat on my head on snowy days.

For the next step, our mamma made an appointment to use the community oven. Since we had to supply the wood to heat the oven for several days, we searched the nearby hills for wood. Preferably, we looked for olive tree branches or stumps, since they burned hot, slow and with very little smoke. Wood was always scarce, as most people scoured the countryside for the fuel for cooking and heating their homes. The day prior to our baking day, the oven lady gave us a lump of sourdough to be used as the yeast, and we prayed it would work well. Getting up before dawn the next day, mamma and nonna were ready to tackle the task. They placed 30 lbs. of flour in the “mayilla,” a very large, rectangular wooden tub. The recipe was simple: mix flour, warm water, the sourdough and salt. With their heads covered with scarves, working together side by side, they started the long process of kneading the dough until it was smooth and elastic.

This article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper that chronicles Italian American news, history, culture and traditions. Subscribe today.

Before covering the dough with a linen cloth and a couple of woolen blankets, the sign of the cross was made. It would take two or three hours for fermentation. During the winter months, a copper kettle filled with charcoal was used to help the dough rise. When the large loaves were made and covered snuggly, we said another prayer. After an hour, they were finally ready to bake. Meanwhile, the oven lady was busy starting the fire in a dome-shaped, red-brick oven. The oven was located inside a rustic building. While the loaves were rising under the blankets, I was always fascinated to watch the large, round loaves looking like pillows under the blankets.

After the oven was swept clean, the loaves were put on a wooden plank and carried on mamma’s and nonna’s heads across the street to bake. The timing had to be precise: when the red bricks in the oven turned white, it was time to place the loaves in to bake. Before the metal door was closed, a final blessing sign was made. During the hot and humid days of summer, the loaves got very moldy by the end of the month. My sister, Maria, and I always complained, but mamma told us to “brush the mold off, the bread is safe to eat.” Eventually, she arrived at a perfect solution: instead of making loaves, she made huge donut-like shapes.

When almost fully baked, she cut the “donut” with a serrated knife and returned it back to the oven until it was cooked crisply. We called them “frezas.” This process gave them a long shelf life and kept the mold away. Mamma was a good problem solver. She used a long bamboo branch to store all the frezas: they hung high in our kitchen ceiling. I made hundreds of frezas through the years. For nostalgic reasons, I still make them for my family, by rubbing a garlic clove, adding a little balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sliced tomatoes. Magnifica, and the reminder of olden days!

While the bread was baking, the aroma emanated throughout the neighborhood, as a few beggars waited by the door. They knew mamma always took care of them, by making a couple dozen rolls. When the oven lady finished the job, mamma paid her fee, gave her a large loaf of bread and a lump of sourdough for the next customer. From all those vivid lessons, I learned from mia mamma and mia nonna, and I’ve made thousands of loaves of bread.

Making bread in the nursing home, so that mamma was able to make her last Easter braided loaf for her beloved husband of 72 years. Making bread for the entire football teams that three of my sons played on and giving breadmaking lessons for my son Jim for an entire month. Now, every Sunday he makes bread for his family in which I am included. What a beautiful thing. In the end, I was blessed to have learned the ancient ways of our people.

Click here to read the first installment of this two-part story.

Vincenzina Grasso, La Nostra Voce


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By Vincenzina Grasso, La Nostra VoceThis article first appeared in La Nostra Voce, ISDA’s monthly newspaper that chronicles Italian American news, history, culture and traditions. Subscribe today.Click here to read the first installment of this two-part story.