The inability to eat a piece of bread was a serious matter.
Pane di casa, or bread made by hand, the staple food for the average Calabrese family was an iconic symbol. I’m surprised that not one of the second generation’s profession in Australia has aligned with Baker’s Delight- although my mother would say ‘That’s not bread!”
In the village of Natile, Calabria, Italy, the making of bread was at the centre of the way life was organised. Many grew and harvested wheat, by hand. The wheat was stored in hand crafted wooden boxes and rationed over the year. Sacks of wheat were carried on heads to the local mill where it was ground into flour, made ready for the bread making.
In 1942, when my mother was 12 years of age, a large storm caused the creeks to flood and the two local flour mills were destroyed. Up until then her bread-making experience was as a companion to her Nanna (Calabrese Grandmother). As a result of the storm a group of women were tasked with the two hour round trip on foot to the Plati flour mill, carrying 10 kg each and returning in the evening with the flour.
I’m told that families who owned land needed about 20 acres to grow enough wheat to feed a family of five, some for the chickens and enough seed for the next crop. According to mother’s memory the wheat growing process was a big production that involved everyone, because there were no machines. There were two men in the village, cow owners who ploughed, prepared and planted the crop. The women and children followed with makeshift hoes, raking soil over the missed seeds, and levelling the earth. They prayed for the rain to enable germination and tended the crop until it was ready for harvest in June.
The fields of wheat were grown on hilly, rocky and uneven terrains, unlike the flat open plains of the Australian farming landscape. When it was time for threshing, a flat hard surface was fashioned with hand made tools, laying clay soil and water that was worked into a smooth, wide, circular surface that resembled concrete, where the sheaves of wheat were laid. To dislodge the wheat, the cows would trample it with their hooves, stopping to graze occasionally. The winnowing involved a windy day and a shovel that sorted the chaff from the heavy seeds. They were gathered in a sieve and all the little stones removed by hand. It was then ready for storage and flour making.
In the village there were a small number of people who owned communal ovens. To use the oven meant that one had to provide the wood, the flour, prepare the yeast, leave a portion of raw dough for the next baker and make a payment of a loaf of bread to the oven keeper. The raw dough would continue to ferment to be used as the natural raising agent, like sour dough. This had to be used within three days.
The oven keeper’s prepared the oven and provided the warm water. For longevity some bread was also made into biscotti (hard bread), softened with water or goats milk. The baked bread was stored in large hanging baskets on a pullie system that was secured overhead kept well away from vermin, well ventilated and in easy reach.
Because everyone in the village made bread, people would lend each other a loaf when it was freshly baked, and so there was always plenty.
“Bread was the main food, because with a piece of bread you could make a meal. All that was needed was a few olives, a piece of cheese or salami and the bread would fill you up. The flour was also used to make pasta.” Giuseppa Callipari
In Australia this tradition of making bread continued, however growing wheat was no longer necessary as it was accessible and affordable and fresh yeast could be purchased from the deli. Imagine two kilograms of flour cost the equivalent of four cents, which equates to 20 cents for enough flour to make 20 loaves, that would feed a family for two to three weeks.
“When we settled in Redcliffs we did not have an oven at first. We would visit Aunty Maria and use her oven, we used to walk there too because we did not have a car. Then my Mother Pasqualina had an oven built by your Uncle Frank’s Father Cumparo Bruno, that was our first oven in Australia.” Giuseppa said.
Baking bread was a day’s work. Sifting the 10 kg of flour into a large wooden trough called a mayida, preparing the yeast with warm water, heating the water in a large metal caldron that sat on an open fire was reserved for the cleaning of the wood oven.
There was a great deal of work in preparing the dough alone, starting with the warm watery yeast concoction. Fresh yeast was dissolved into a bucket of warm water with salt and left to sit for a short time, stirred by hand and then poured into the fashioned well of the sifted flour. More warm water, with swift hands kneading it into a sticky, floury dough to ensure it was all mixed in. If the dough was too wet and sticky we would add more flour to bring it back to a manageable consistency.
Everyone joined in arms deep, punching with our fists. Then the best part was when we would add more water, when the dough became like soft, smooth clay and the water resembled milk. We would grab at it, squelching, grabbing and punching, squelching, grabbing and punching and so on. Finally all the children were shooed out of the way so the more experienced woman (a rite of passage) would take over in a frenzy of kneading, the dough turning, lifting and folding it into itself, over and over, until it was ready to rest. The mayida was covered with a sheet, then blankets and put to bed to rise for another hour. It was then shaped into loaves, also put to bed for a further hour on a bench to the side. By this stage some of the dough was pan fried for lunch, and the oven prepared for the baking process.
My Mother has had her own oven for many years now. She also purchased an industrial mixer bypassing the arduous machinations of kneading. It has become her profession and I have given this a name. She is an artisan of bread making of the Calabrese style. The children now gather to eat it.
I asked her what this means to her:
“It means a good thing that you bring in your life and it is a privilege, something very special. In the days gone by we used to enjoy coming together to make the bread, it’s like a celebration, a festival. It was a time when we would see each other and work together to make something together. Now it feels more like hard work, but I still enjoy it, I enjoy being creative, to see that what I make is beautiful and appreciated by others.”
I asked her about why she makes the cross on the dough before she cuts and shapes it into loaves and she said:
“I am thanking God for the power and strength to make this way of life, that has guided me to this point. There are the stories from the bible about God blessing the bread, the people were hungry and relying on God and the bread was plentiful and then stories about the swallows falling from the sky and how God showed the people the skills of survival and the ability to look after themselves. I make the sign of the cross as a sign of life. Bread is life.”