When I say ciabatta is only a fifty year-old bread, what I really mean is it’s only been fifty years that ciabatta has been eaten in its current form. That is, in small slipper-sized loaves (that’s what the word ciabatta actually means, slipper). Classically, bread in Italy didn’t come in such small iterations. It was almost always the big stuff.
The reason, because in most parts of Italy, particularly rural, peasant areas, bread was traditionally baked in community ovens. Not bakeries, mind you, just communal baking places where women would bring their pre-shaped loaves of dough to be baked. It’s a system you can still see in operation in some places. Yet community ovens are now used more out of nostalgia than necessity.
Modern media imagery has conditioned us to think of Italy in terms of abbondanza!. And it’s true that today, Italy does enjoy everything the fruits of modern agricultural practices have to offer. For the vast majority of its history, however, the opposite was true. Italy was a land of poor people and poor resources, where starvation was commonplace.
Most of our perceptions of European bakery traditions are influenced by images of the French and the daily (sometimes twice daily) baguette. This is a very modern idea. Fresh-baked bread was by no means a daily occurrence for the French or anybody else prior to about 90 years ago. In Italy as in most places bread was baked about once a week, which is why traditional breads are so large. They had to last many, many days.
If you’ve ever wondered why Italian cuisine has so many recipes for old or stale bread, this is the reason. It wasn’t until Italians made their way to the New World that they started eating fresh bread every day, piling cheese on their veal cutlets, and eating pasta for a main course. For turn-of-the-century Italian immigrants, it was America that was the true land of abbondanza!