Missing Something

If you’ve ever made bread and left the salt out by mistake, you know what a critical omission salt really is, even in something as relatively bland as bread. You go from simple and mild to positively flavorless. Thus a lot of people are surprised when they first cut into a big crusty loaf of Tuscan bread, since the real thing is made without any salt at all. In fact even the Tuscans call their bread pane sciapo a word that literally means “bland” but can also be interpreted as “insipid”.

Exactly why this is has left people (including many Tuscans) scratching their heads for centuries. One theory is that since foods in Tuscany lean towards the salty (salami, Tuscan sheep’s milk Pecorino), saltless bread works as a kind of counter-balance. Though when was the last time you had to put down a ham and cheese sandwich because the salinity of the bread made the whole combo just too overpowering? If the bread wasn’t so damn salty I really would have enjoyed myself! The level of salt in bread usually hovers somewhere around 1% of its total weight, so unless Tuscans have taste buds with the sensitivity of spectrographs, I think we need another explanation.

A popular legend has to do with taxation and the Vatican, which ruled much of central Italy from the Middle ages through the Renaisance and beyond. As the story goes, salt was made so expensive due to Vatican salt taxes, the poor peasantry couldn’t afford even a little to put in their bread. But then Tuscany was never part of the Papal States, except maybe for a brief period when the Great Countess Matilda (I love that name) donated Tuscany to the Pope in 1077 A.D. (the Holy Roman Empire grabbed it back in 1116). For most if its history Tuscany was a collection of semi-independent “communes”, that warred unceasingly with each other until the whole region fell under the control of Florence and the Medicis. Any anyway, salt taxes were far more extreme in other parts of Europe, and people still found a way to get at least a little of it into their bread.

I only pretend to be a real food historian. Yet it seems to me that most puzzles like this usually come down to some sort of practical explanation. Much of Tuscany is mountainous, and unlike other parts of Italy it has real winters. That poses a problem for bread bakers, since cold drastically slows yeast activity. Also, as discussed last month in many belabored posts on sourdough, wild yeasts are the products of micro-climates. Varieties that thrive in one part of the world don’t necessarily thrive in another. It could be that Tuscan yeasts are a touch on the weak side, and tend not to perform well at high altitudes. Salt would only further hinder their progress, even in very small amounts.

Or could it be that the Tuscans just like their bread that way? Fortified with a healthy amount of sourdough pre-ferment and baked in a smoky wood oven, even saltless bread isn’t entirely without character. And anyway, the Tuscans are famed for their fettunto (grilled bread drizzled with olive oil and salt, and rubbed with garlic), bread soups and salads, all of which add plenty of flavor and salinity to their sciapo.

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