Bread in Italy circa 1894

I was searching Google Books for information on military bread ovens in the 19th century, a process my girlfriend refers to as “wooden cowing,” and came across this sketch regarding bread in Italy circa 1894. It was written by Olive May Eager, a minor American writer who lived in Italy and seems to have supported herself, at least in part, by selling short pieces on Italian culture to American magazines. The piece I include here was published in the May 1894 issue of the journal, The Roller Mill. She published in a  wide array of magazines including, for example, the children’s magazine, Saint Nicolas,and the Journal of Hygiene and Herald of Health,where she has an excellent essay on the chestnut cuisine of the Apennine.

It often happens that people writing about foreign places end up revealing as much or even more about themselves and their own culture than they do about the people they are ostensibly writing about. This piece unquestionably does offer insights into late 19th-century Italian bread culture and in particular it is very strong on the role of bakeries, communal ovens, and the practice amongst the poor of turning bread into soup by crumbling it into virtually anything liquid, including their morning coffee. But the article is also insightful regarding American culture. She opens by explaining that that in America the cook (the wife) is judged on her bread. This is a leitmotif in many American 19th century cookbooks and suggests the depth of the American home baking tradition. However, I also think that Olive May Eager’s reference to the importance of home baked bread in the American home as  a reflection on the baker points to an interesting cultural shift as many home bakers today are men rather than women and I think that we are judged differently on our bread than the women were, and perhaps even than women are. I discuss this a bit in my book, Bread, a global history, and am interested in any thoughts you might have on the new culture of the male home baker especially if you feel that it is different from that of the female home baker.

Olive May Eager reference American home baking as way of anchoring her narrative. Where is most revealing about American cultural attitudes is the emphasis she places on the unhygienic handling of loaves by the baker and by everyone else who handles the loaf between the baker and the table. The cultural underpinning for bagged and plastic wrapped loaves is clearly reflected in this text. Eager gets uncharacteristically judgmental in her description of the various ways that bread is mishandled. She describes a housemaid’s placing bread on a hallway chair as “dumping” and considers the maid resuming her sweeping as unhygienic. In the 20th century this concern for bread in the open air and for bread being touched by third parties led to the draconian health rules we have today — ones that at least one portion of our modern bread culture pushes against as an appreciation for hearth-baked loaves all brown and crackly linked up, or piled, on a shelf or farmers market table replaces the plastic wrapped grocery bread as a bread of choice.


By Olive May Eager.

ON COMING to live in Rome, I failed to assign the public baker his proper position in household economy, because my only life had been passed in the Old Dominion, where a housekeeper’s reputation depends upon the quality and variety of bread which she places before her guests, and where a cook is valued according to her skill in baking.

Naturally I was dismayed at the first sight of an Italian kitchen with no provision for baking, and with only two or three square gratings filled with charcoal for cooking purposes. Twelve years of experience have taught me that an astonishing number of dishes can be prepared about these round holes, and that fowls can be roasted beautifully on the spit that turns by clockwork and is found in all kitchens. Small ovens for pastries can also be bought, but only fine cooks know or care about using them, since most delicious pastries of every known variety lie temptingly in wait at the corner shop. As for the rest, one soon learns to run to the nearest baker with the beef and potatoes, or with a favorite cake which he will bake for two sous—far less than the cost of extra fuel at home, to say nothing of the labor saved. True, the boy who brings home the roast often disposes of the brownest potatoes, and the cake is occasionally burned black on the edges, but then, housekeeping has its drawbacks everywhere.

In isolated country houses, bread is both made and baked at home, and in the hamlets inhabited by peasants who own tiny grain plats—I cannot magnify them into fields—the woman of the house makes bread once a fortnight, and either carries it on a board to the village oven, or else to a private oven built by several families in partnership. With these exceptions the mass of the people, both in towns and cities, order bread from the public baker, who is, in consequence, an important factor in the general weal. The bread, whether in loaves or rolls, is baked in an old-fashioned brick oven which is heated by a blazing fire of twigs kindled within. When these twigs have settled into red-hot coals, they are shoveled out and put aside to be sold for use in braziers.

The oven is then carefully swept clean of ashes, and the bread is put in on long boards, the largest loaves being pushed further to the back, as they require greater heat. The smoke aperture and the door are then closed until the bread is done, by which time the heat has moderated sufficiently to permit easy handling of the fresh loaves. Except for special orders, the bread is made without any salt, and is generally well baked, there being small chance for either under or over baking. The depth of the ovens varies from two feet to two yards, the .smaller ones being reserved for cakes, pastries and buns, which are baked in the daytime.

Cakes are invariably of the sponge-cake family, but pastries are fit for a king, while there are buns to suit every taste. A plain ring-shaped bun is called clambella, and there are others flavored with almonds and aniseed and which are in much demand with those who prefer quantity to quality. The maritozzo is a Lenten specialty of Rome, and is made with olive oil. The name means literally “a piece of Mary,” and the mere mention of maritozzo will make an old Roman’s mouth water when he is far from home, for strange to say this toothsome bun is not to be found in other Italian cities.

Some large bakeries make a practice of turning out ”hot cross buns” every afternoon about 4 o’clock, and these are distributed by hundreds among small dealers, besides being sent in baskets to the public squares and street corners to catch the pennies of scores of school children, who return home about that hour. Many, however, are retailed hot from the oven for “one a penny, two a penny,” and good customers may venture to inspect the open and fast cooling ovens, or peep into the huge flour bins. The head baker is generally on exhibition, powdery and picturesque in rather scanty attire of white linen. After dark, one may bask in the red glow from the night oven and catch glimpses of shadowy white figures sadly lacking in drapery; but out of regard for to-morrow’s breakfast, it is best to penetrate no further into such mysteries, for popular voice will have it that those ghosts knead without hands, and are adepts in the treadmill business.

The qualities of bread are numerous, and the prices vary from 5 to 10 cents a kilogram—36 ounces—according to the quality desired. Much of the wheat used in Italy is imported, and there is a heavy duty upon it, as also upon sugar and other necessaries of life. The military bread is hardest and blackest of all, and one often sees it carried through the streets piled high in nets of rope and looking like so many rocks. It is made in the barracks by the soldiers themselves, but that they can make better bread I can testify from a fair trial of it some years ago. The Roman bakers went on a strike, and almost before their customers knew of the threatened d earth, the municipal authorities had overhauled the large garrison and put a hundred professional bakers to work. They did the city baking for a week, and at the end of that time the regular bakers found it to their interest to resume operations while the soldiers as quietly returned to military life.

Bread shops are as plentiful as the barber shops which Mark Twain says adorn every street corner in Italy, and are as liberally patronized by all classes. Although of course, as in other countries, the rich consume less in proportion, Italy may be called truly a nation of bread eaters, and the working classes have a peculiar fancy for sopping bread in a liquid. If not already stale, the bread is toasted and crumbled into coffee, soup, oil, wine—anything liquid.

The beggars go from place to place, stuffing their pockets with the hardest crusts, which they carry home to inzuppare in whatever they can afford—hot water seasoned with pepper and oil not being disdained. Servants will submit to limits in other food, but insist upon plenty of bread. Most of them care nothing for fruits or sweets, and are content with meat once a day, but it would seem exaggeration to state how many pounds of bread a female cook requires to crumble into her morning coffee, her noonday broth and her supper salad made sloppy with vinegar and olive oil.

One source of wonder is the indifference of Italians to the careless handling of their bread as it runs the gauntlet from forno to table. A well-appointed Roman kitchen is an attractive sight with its rows of shining copper and cooking vessels, and the kitchen tables have marble tops that are kept scrupulously clean, but bread boards and bread boxes are not considered essential articles of kitchen furnishing. At the forno the bread is thrown loosely into a covered hand-cart, which is pushed from place to place by a boy whose business it is to leave the proper quantity at each house in his round. At the street door he tucks the loaves affectionately under his arm, and running up the steps rings the bell. If the housemaid be sweeping the hall, she dumps the bread on the nearest chair and calmly continues to raise further dust on her mistress’ breakfast rolls. If, however, she fails to answer his ring promptly, the boy leaves the loaves to ornament the doorstep, and hurries off to finish his morning duties. One often sees a youth carrying a basket under the arm so that his wet or dirty coat sleeve rests on the upper rolls, and a woman’s favorite way of slicing bread for the family meal is to hold the loaf firmly against the chest and cut toward her. It is not uncommon to see children carrying some bread for the next meal, and dropping it anywhere in order to inquire into the whys and wherefores of a street fight, or to indulge in a wayside game of castelline, the Italian boy’s substitute for marbles.—Kale Field’s Washington.

This next mention of bolting cloth follows. I include it only as a curiosity. It seems that precision cloth was imported.

Imports of bolting cloth for the month ending March 31, 1894, were valued at $20,363, against $20,966 for March, 1893; and for the nine months ending March 31, 1894, at $147,810, against $214,899 for the corresponding period of 1892-3.

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