We love Italy. We love almost everything about Italy, except for the cigarette smoke and quite frankly the bread. It’s the lack of salt. The Italians in Tuscany and Umbria don’t use salt in their bread. The pane fatto al legno, when it’s fresh, is pretty good, but all the breads here have a distinct lack of flavor.
Legend has it that once upon a time in Tuscany the Pope got mad at the people and punished them by taking away their salt trade, hoping to bring the Tuscan people to their knees. But the Tuscans were made of tougher stuff and simply started baking without salt. When the Pope finally gave up on them and let them have their salt trade back, the Tuscans continued to make their bread without salt. We learned at our school that the lack of salt was actually more a matter of economics - salt was simply too expensive. Whichever story is true, the Tuscans now see no reason to change their ways.
Food-oriented festivals are common in Italy. In and around Arezzo there is some kind of food festival about once a week, year-round. Some are huge and some have only one or two booths. This past weekend there were three different festivals here– one devoted to honey, one devoted to truffles, and one devoted to the foods of France. When we heard about the festival of French foods, we thought this was like bringing coals to Newcastle, or ice to Eskimos. To some extent it was, as far as the wine, cheese and salami were concerned, but when it comes to the bread and pastries…the French are in a whole other league. We began having mouth-watering images of baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolat.
We showed up just a couple of hours after the festival opened. It was smaller than we had anticipated, but we could smell the bread baking as we entered the piazza and that was all we needed. Henry, Mister Baked Goods himself, quickly located the pastry tent and went to check it out. He bought a plain croissant for himself and a pain au chocolat for Gabriella. They were still warm from the oven and we consumed them savoring every bite. It took some willpower to refrain from going back for more. We could still taste them hours later. In the afternoon we returned for some baguettes which were warm, moist and full of flavor (i.e. salt), with a nice crunchy crust. We quickly devoured those as well.
Fortunately the festival goes for three more days. You’ll know where to find us.