Back to bread
From fresh pasta and pizza to cakes and bread, young Italians are turning to traditional recipes to ease the stress of lockdown. Such is the extent of the baking taking place, that yeast has become an extremely rare product on the shelves of small and big stores across Italy.
A pleasant smell drifts from the kitchen and into the living room. It’s a warm night at the beginning of April, and Lorenzo is waiting for his homemade bread to finish baking.
When he finally takes it from the oven, it is golden and crunchy to the touch. Breaking it open, it is white and pillowy at its centre.
Lorenzo is a twenty-nine-year-old engineer living in Milan with his girlfriend Arianna, a doctor at one of the city’s biggest hospitals. He has always enjoyed cooking but now, during lockdown, he has found himself baking fresh bread every other day.
At the beginning of March, the whole of Italy entered a lockdown to halt the spread of the Coronavirus outbreak. The sudden restriction of movement affected virtually everyone on the Italian peninsula.
In Milan, a hectic city that usually relies on takeaways and restaurants, this sudden restriction of movement has drawn younger people to the kitchen.
Research from Coldiretti, an association representing the Italian agricultural sector, estimated that flour purchases increased by 90% and those of brewers’ yeast by 122%. By the 5th of April, the purchase of flour had tripled, rising by 213%.
A study conducted by Nextplora, a Milan-based insight management agency, shows that the number of people cooking bread and pizza increased from 38% in the third week of March to 45% by the next week.
With more people staying at home and cooking, yeast and flour supplies have become difficult to find on the shelves of the main grocery shops. According to Gruppo Lievito - ASSITOL, an organisation representing the yeast producers in Italy - the demand on the market quadrupled.
Yeast is a natural ingredient, deriving from sugar fermentation. And it takes time to cultivate.
“Our factories are working non-stop, despite the difficult period and the logistics,” says Piero Pasturenzi, President of Gruppo Lievito - ASSITOL. “There’s nothing artificial in it and it takes some time.”
Lorenzo Biraghi’s bread yeast
Yeast is a microorganism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, also referred to as ‘brewer’s yeast.’ It derives from the fermentation of sugars and it is a leavening agent for bread products and beers.
According to ASSITOL, every year in Italy bakers and pastry chefs use 36 tonnes of yeast. On the grocery shop shelves it is possible to find brewer’s yeast in its fresh pat or dried and granulated versions.
Natural yeast can also be produced at home, with flour, water and a starter, be it sugar or honey.
Lorenzo has begun creating his own natural bread starter at home. He couldn’t find any yeast in the grocery shops, but he also wanted to try something new in his cooking routine.
He is now taking great care of his yeast, and has jokingly called it Madrenzo, a mix of lievito madre - natural yeast, literally ‘mother yeast’ in Italian - and his nickname, Renzo.
It takes quite some time to cultivate a ‘lievito madre’ dough.
“At first, you use some flour, water and a sweet starter,” Lorenzo said. “You create a little dough and put it in a jar. Every time you do this operation, you can take the dough discard and cook with it something that doesn’t need to rise so much.”
Lorenzo’s first attempt with pastries were some piadine - a typical Italian flat bread - that his girlfriend Arianna ate after a long hospital shift.
“Every two days you have to nurture and refresh the yeast with flour and water. You put it in a bowl and leave it sink in water,” Lorenzo said. “After a while, when the bacteria are stronger, you can put it in the fridge and refresh it just once a week”.
Bread is a staple of Mediterranean and Italian cuisine. According to research presented by the AIBI - Italian Association of Bakery Ingredients, Italians tend to buy it on a daily basis from artisanal bakeries.
Consumers prefer not-refined flour, whole wheat, and bread cooked in a sustainable way: this kind of bread makes the 35% of the whole income of the Italian bakery market.
“Italian consumers ask for high quality bread and they are willing to spend more for it,” says Palmino Poli, AIBI President.
Buying fair trade and local products has always been a priority for Matilde, a twenty-eight-year-old nursery school teacher who lives near Como, in Northern Italy. She has always purchased her products as part of a consumer group, where people order local, organic food that gets distributed among the members on a weekly basis.
“During the lockdown I can’t buy bread there [the group] anymore,” said Matilde. The group is located close by, but in a different municipality from where Matilde lives. Lockdown rules impose to not cross the municipality boundaries.
“I started to make my own bread and natural yeast to avoid buying it at the supermarkets,” Matilde said.
She adds: “I think I won’t keep cultivating natural yeast after the lockdown, because I won’t have enough time to take care properly of the bread, that takes a while to rise.”
The natural bacteria in the yeast is responsible of making baking products rise.
“Madrenzo is alive. That’s why I like it,” joked Lorenzo while preparing a focaccia - a flat Italian bread similar to the pizza dough and enriched by salt and olive oil. So far Lorenzo has cooked piadine, pizza, and bread, and Arianna has enjoyed all of them. “I don’t know if I’ll cultivate Madrenzo after the lockdown, but for now, it is a good pastime,” he adds.
Elsewhere in Milan, Alessio is recovering from his quarantine. He is a twenty-nine-year-old GP, who tested positive for the Covid-19 in March.
Confined at home, he didn’t have much else to do other than getting better, reading and cooking.
“I used to make bread once in a while before the lockdown,” he said. “But having lots of time to spend at home, making bread became a creative activity.”
Alessio always loved cooking and in the past couple of years he learnt a few tricks about dough-making from a couple of baker friends. Now, during the lockdown, Alessio makes bread every week. “Making my own bread is a pastime, but also a way to avoid buying packaged products”.
For Lorenzo, too, making his own baked goods is not just about the pleasure of cooking, but it also is a way to avoid overcrowding shops and grocery stores. “Even if people are staggered, some shops are still quite busy,” said Lorenzo. “Milan is a big city. By trying to use all the products I have at home, even those I have never used before, I shorten my shopping time.”
This baking comeback has made its way onto social media, which has become inundated with posts talking about food.
According to Blogmeter - a media intelligence and social media consultation agency - food-related content connected to the hashtag #iorestoacasa (the Italian translation of #stayathome) has generated a considerable amount of traction on social media, more so than sport, moments with family, listening to music or watching movies.
For Alessio, making food means sharing time with friends. He lives in a very sociable block of flats in Milan, with ten families sharing the complex. In their pre-lockdown life, they used to meet for many activities: open air movie nights, or dinners together in the courtyard. Over the last year Alessio started cooking focaccia or bread to bring at dinners with his friends.
Now as face to face interaction is impossible, the neighbours found a way to stay together from afar. Every Saturday, around 6pm, they meet for a distant aperitivo - the typical Italian happy hour, where people meet with a drink and some finger food - everyone on their own balcony. Is here where Alessio can enjoy his homemade focaccia.
It’s a lovely evening in Milan. While Alessio enjoys his aperitivo, elsewhere in the city another home baker has just switched off the oven. Lorenzo’s bread is ready and is now cooling down on the kitchen table.
On their small balcony, Lorenzo is waiting for Arianna to get back from her shift at the hospital. After a few attempts with bread making, this one promises to be soft and crunchy - just the right amount.
Lucrezia Lozza is a freelance journalist and documentary maker, passionate about social and environmental issues. She is the co-founder of production company DogmaFilms, and writes for the geopolitical newsletter Good Morning Italia. @lucrezialz