Bread baking in Italy

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During our recent trip to Italy, we had arranged to stay for a few days at the agritourismo establishment, Barbialla Nuova loacted south-east of Firenze.  One of the attractions for me was the presence of Ken Hercott, an expatriate Aussie who bakes sourdough bread in a wood-fired oven.  Ken offers the option of taking part in his day of baking.

If anybody is looking for a nice place to stay with the option of being in on the baking, I can recommend it.  There is a link in the list of Bakeries on this site.  You will have to be quick though because Ken and his family are planning to return to Oz later this year.

The day started at 0700 with the firing of the oven a task much eased by the fact that wood was all nicely cut to length and split.

Then we prepared the batches of dough - using locally sourced organically grown and milled wheat flours.  One using 'integrale' flour the other 'semi-integrale' flour.  The interesting thing for me was the high hydration used.

The starter had been prepared from a piece of dough from the previous batch.  This piece was kept in a sealed bottle in the fridge for a week.  Ken only bakes once a week and supplies to a select group of friends and neighbours.  The starter was fed the previous night to create the leaven at about 120% hydration.  The leaven was a relatively low percentage of the mix (between 5 and 10%).  The final hydration for the dough was at least 75% for the semi-integrale and at least 80-85% for the integrale.  This reflected the different water absorbing capacity of the two types of flour. 

The other slightly gob-smacking aspect was the size of the batches using 6 and 8 kilograms of flour.  Obviously not huge by any means but compared to my usual 500g of flour, quite a lot.

Ken uses sea-salt, rather than domestic refined salt, for its subtle taste and diverse minerals content.  It was stirred into the dough just before it was left to autolyse for an hour.  The view is that the coarse salt does not have a chance to affect the yeasts etc because it will not have dispersed other than in the immediate vicinity of each coarse grain.

After the autolyse, there was the great fun of kneading - five minutes of vigourous pushing and pulling followed by five minutes of getting your breath back.  The theory was that it was to let the dough rest but I don't quite believe that /;-{)}  This was repeated three times to give a total of 15minutes of actual kneading.

Then the dough was covered and set aside to bulk prove.  In the meantime, not a lot to do other than to check on the progress of the firing and sit around and drink teas and talk about bread making adventures - Ken has had quite a few - and look at some 'bread porn' on our laptops.

The photos show the two dough batches during bulk proof and after pre-shaping.  Unfortunately, I didn't get as many photos as I might have, being up to my elbows in dough or too engrossed to remember.

Handling the (for me anyway) very slack dough proved to be a challenge and those with a sharp eye will probably be able to pick the dough balls that had been the subject of my rather amateurish attention.  Still, Ken was very gracious and demonstrated numerous times, including in 'slow-mo'.  He did admit that it was something that required practice so I am hopeful that I will get it one day.

By lunch time, the oven was to temperature so the coals were pushed back and a couple of very satisfactory pizzas were produced from the smaller dough balls.  With the very high oven temperatures, the pizzas cooked in about five minutes.  Washed down with a beer, we were well satisfied.

After shaping, the loaves were lightly dipped in fine semolina and placed in linen lined baskets for proving (about 3 hours).  The ashes were raked out of the oven and the hearth was swabbed with a wet hessian bag to remove/settle the fine ash. 

A single baguette was baked first, followed by the sem-integrale and the integrale.  The baking time varied as the oven cooled ranging from 18 to 25 minutes.

The photos show the baguette being slashed before going into the oven and some of the product.  And believe me, slashing the slacker dough was not as easy as Ken made it look though I have to admit that there was a certain amount of nervousness involved with my early attempts.  Particularly with the threat of the dough 'flowing' off the peel and likely to stick if left too long after tipping out of the proving basket.  One of the dough balls went to make 'muffins' - english muffins - which were cooked on the stove top in a lidded frying pan.

The result was some very tasty and satisfying bread.  The integrale was amazing and I was really surprised at the texture and oven spring given the commentary about the effects of bran etc on the integrity of the gluten structure.  The muffins were also excellent as rolls to make picnic lunches for our next day's excursion.

All in all a worthwhile experience.  To work with an expert, to work with high hydration dough and to work with a wood-fired oven has given me confidence to experiment a bit more and hopefully I will be able to report my successes and failures in due course.

1 comment

...about the salt and the shaping. Makes sense about the large granules - we really work with a very flexible process and it's always good to see a new take on something we take for granted.

I'm a failure at producing beautiful patterns on top of a latte, and likewise could do a whole lot better at shaping. I read somewhere that even accomplished bakers quickly lose their finesse at shaping after only a short time away from doing it every day, so perhaps the ultimate shaping skills are beyond my reach. Doesn't bother me too much, as both latte patterns and shaping are primarily aesthetic, and not about the basic flavour.

Thanks for sharing your Italian experience.

Kym.