Artisan Breadmaking Workshop at Festa di San Giovanni

June 23, 2012 – Radicondoli

I arrive at the Poggio park at 10:00 AM for a six-hour workshop in the making of artisan bread with heirloom grains. Our instructor, WWOOF-Italia President Claudio Pozzi, started the fire in the new village forno a legna (wood-fired oven) at 5:00 AM.  He is waiting for the temperature in the oven to drop down to 220 degreees centigrade before placing the first batch of the day into the oven. Yesterday the loaves burned because the new and unfamiliar oven was too hot, so today Claudio has taken pains to achieve a beautiful golden crust.

At 10:25, Claudio throws a handful of flour onto the oven floor and counts to ten; the flour in the back of the oven turns black before he counts to seven.
“E un po prestino,” he says (it’s a tad soon). So we wait. He swabs out the oven floor with a wet cinder broom, round instead of flat, wrapped in burlap. It is a looks like a wizard’s broom, but blackened with soot. Note to self: I need one of these if I ever build my own wood-fired oven.
At 10:40 Claudio is swabbing out the bottom of the oven for the fourth time, after a fourth flour toss-and-count test produces brown, not black flour, in ten seconds. The first batch of bread is shovelled in on a large round flat metal paddle that looks like it’s been in use for at least fifty years. Claudio made these loaves this morning, before the arrival of our class, for the dinner tonight at the Festa di San Giovanni.

The Festa di San Giovanni, Saint John’s Feast, is all about the harvesting of grains and protecting the summer crops from evil spirits who were presumed to have easy access to the earthly realm on the summer solstice, when the separation between the worlds was considered to be nearly nonexistent. Otherwise known as Midsummer’s Eve, fairies, sprites and goblins were said to roam the countryside inciting mischief and mayhem with farmer’s crops. So farmers would light bonfires in their fields to keep the troublemakers away, and in the olden days, I have been told that you could see bonfires across the hills and valleys of the  vast Val di Cecina, lighting up the night sky. Nowadays the Radicondolese celebrate with fire-jugglers and one symbolic bonfire that is lit in the piazza an hour before midnight on June 24.
Yesterday I tasted the bread for the first time; it is moist and tangy and toothsome, like the bread baked near my grandparents’ village in Puglia at a famous forno a legna called Pane e Salute in Orsara di Puglia, a bakery that has been in continuous operation for over five hundred years. They make enormous round loaves that are nearly black on the outside, and a lovely golden color on the inside; little did I know when I tasted that bread in 2005 that one day I would learn to make something very nearly the same, here in my own adopted village in Tuscany!.

In this workshop, we are using a starter dough that dates back 130 years. I realize upon hearing this that my Italian grandmother  was born 130 years ago almost to the day of this class, and I sense her presence near. More of that Midsummer’s Eve magic, I suppose.

Claudio distributes bowls with a measured portion of the starter dough, then has us measure our own flour and water and mix it together with our hands. It’s more fun than I’ve had cooking since I made mud pies as a little girl.  We let the dough rest a few minutes, then mix in more flour and lay it on a length of cotton to rise. We each mark our own loaf with our initials. While we wait for the dough to rise,  we learn about heirloom grains and their health benefits. While refined white flour increases appetite, contributes to obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, the growth of tumors, increased LDL (bad cholesterol) and decreased HDL (good cholesterol), whole grain flour satiates appetite, decreases abdominal fat, prevents diabetes, and supports the immune system with high antioxidants. In addition, whole grain flour has much more flavor and the bread keeps for several days.

Finally, it is time to shovel the bread into the oven. And in only 35 minutes, the bread comes out a gorgeous golden brown! This year, the evil spirits have surely been frightened off by our determination and enthusiasm, and Radicondoli’s farmers will have a successful and abundant growing season.

For the Artisan Bread Recipe, click here.


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