Italy, home of a thousand breads, must surely be paradise for bread-o-philes (like me).
Bread in some guise is a staple of every Italian meal and each region produces its own distinctly unique varieties. What’s more, the history of bread is a mirror of civilization’s development over about 10,000 years. And now we’re all the wiser, since Gaia Massai, a delightful ambassador for Italian food, wine and olive oil, shared the legends and lore of bread in a recent lecture at the Italian Cultural Centre in Toronto.
Gaia Massai is no bread hobbyist. She holds a PhD in Environmental Science and Conservation of Nature from the University of Florence andmanages the Fattoria di San Quintino, her family’s 200-hectare estate in Tuscany, while, with a foot in each country, she imports Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil into Canada via her company, Gaia’s Plate. And she delivers an engrossing lecture that’s as richly textured and tasty as the six breads she shared with us after her talk, all enhanced by samples of her olive oil.
She began with the history of bread, from around 20,000 years ago when its chief ingredient was barley, ground and sometimes boiled into a kind of porridge. Along came wheat – archaeologists have found wheat kernels stored in caves dating back 8,000 years – and bread aswe know it was about to emerge. First it was flat breads but the discovery of yeasts meant the arrival of leavened breads, and later, sourdough.
Bread was far more than something to stave off hunger. It entered into the mythology, religious beliefs and politics of early civilizations and it defined social classes too – in Egypt around 240 BCE there were 72 types of bread exclusively for the rich. It was a political weapon (remember ‘Bread and Circuses’ in Rome?) When crops failed and wheat became scarce, bread riots erupted and entire armies rebelled. It was a symbol of fertility in many societies and represented resurrection in religious beliefs. It marks the seasons and the calendar, especially in Christian homes, where Easter and Christmas are welcomed with special breads.
To say that Gaia Massai is a strong advocate for the health aspects of bread is an understatement. She notes that breads and pastas are the basic element of the Mediterranean Diet and she is quick to point out the advantages of artisanal bread over the mass-produced variety.
Of course, bread is not her only passion. She has presented lectures at the Italian Cultural Institute and elsewhere on Italian wines, Italian cheeses and Italian healing and culinary herbs.