This is Real Bread Maker Week in the UK and in special tribute to such an important event I’m writing about Garfagnana Potato Bread.
The Garfagnana is a spectacularly beautiful mountainous region in northwest Tuscany, due north of Lucca.
There are various theories about the origins of potato bread. I’ve been told that during the Second World War, bread flour was scarce in the Garfagnana. It doesn’t do well on the rocky mountain terraces and has to be brought up the Serchio Valley from the Lucca plain. Since the valley was part of the Gothic Line during the war, not much could pass through the crossfire between the Germans and Americans. Potatoes, however, thrive, and people started adding mashed potato to bread dough to eke out the flour.
I favour a different hypothesis. In the past women fired up the wood-burning oven and made bread only once a week. Sometime after 1800 when the potato, introduced earlier from South America, became common in European cuisine, someone must have discovered adding mashed potato produced a moister loaf which lasts for a week without turning into those rigid white bricks of southern Tuscany. It has so far infiltrated the traditional cuisine that Slow Food has honoured it with Presidium status, and what was a staple of peasants now appears as a glamorous star on the tables of foodies.
The doyen of Garfagnana Potato Bread is Paolo Magazzini of Petrognola.
Paolo’s mother was the village baker before him. When she was no longer fit for the arduous task, Paolo couldn’t bear to see the tradition die and took over her role. He built a new wood-fired oven that can hold 50 1-kilo loaves, instead of the 20 loaves his mother’s oven could bake at one time.
During the week he bakes to order and his customers come to his wife’s shop in the village to collect their loaves. On Friday night he bakes as many as 150 loaves and on Saturday morning drives down the valley to Lucca, dropping off bread at shops and restaurants on the way.
I take my clients to Paolo’s bakery to bake potato bread with him. He’s a natural teacher as well as a Real Bread Maker. The next blog will describe what we learn.
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