While the advent of the European Union brought many advantages to citizens of its member countries, there are those who fear that strict standards for uniformity in foods, and the ease of importation among member countries, will destroy a part of Europe’s culinary legacy. In Italy, in order to protect our traditional foods and wines, we seek one of two special honors for our products; the DOP, a protected Designation of Origin, and the IGP, which is the indication of a particular geographic provenance. To date, no Italian breads have been awarded a DOP, and only the distinctive bread of the village of Genzano in Lazio has obtained an IGP. The “Toscana Cereali”, an organization of Tuscan grain producers, is hoping to see that change.
Because our bread is central to our culture and its unique characteristics are essential to our cuisine, we are seriously threatened by the high yield wheat being imported from France and Germany, and by the industrialized yeast used in the mass production of bread. Our bread isn’t made that way. We depend on a mix of distinct grains, Bolero, Pandas, Colfiorito and Mec, all cultivated in the Val di Chiana and around Florence, to give our bread its fragrance, almost like toasted hazelnuts, and its delicate taste. The agriculturists seeking the DOP for our bread are actually waging a battle for biodiversity.
While these grains may not yield as much as some of the high-yield, low-quality imports, they produce the flavor and tenderness of the bread that we love. Without them, it would not exist. The DOP would also guarantee a continuation of our agricultural tradition, because all the ingredients would have to be harvested, milled, and mixed right here in Tuscany in order to live up to the standard of the DOP.
But the taste, you wonder: why is our bread made without salt? One popular theory has it that in the 12th Century, when the Pisans were a Maritime empire, with control over trade coming from the sea, they decided to wield their power over rival Florence. In order to raise revenues, the Pisan authorities decided to raise the cost of salt to the inland cities that they supplied with goods from across the water. Salt was among the products that they imported inland, and it was easy to hike the prices. When the price of salt rose, the Florentines objected by baking their bread without it. Just one of the theories? Yes, and there are many.
Despite the many theories as to why the price of salt rose to exorbitant levels in the 12th Century, the simplest economic explanation for the bread of Tuscany is that no matter why the price of salt was high, thrifty Tuscan bakers decided to do without. They began to bake saltless bread centuries ago, and the tradition firmly persists.
Historians of gastronomy offer yet another theory for the saltless bread. They say that because the people of Tuscany have always favored pungent and salty meats, spicy salamis, rich olive oils, complex Pecorino cheese, and pungent liver paste on toast, a saltless product was naturally called for. What could be a better foil for intense, complex flavors than our neutral (some say bland) tasting bread?