Adventures in Flour: Wood Fired Oven Bread

Back in May, I spent a lovely 3 weeks out in Italy thoroughly enjoying myself with sea (a little cold I’ll admit but I can now inform you it was warmer than Wales in August), sun and not to put too fine a point on it, food.  It was the season for strawberries, cherries, broad beans, garlic greens, fresh peas, artichokes, asparagus and other lovely tasty goodies.
During our stay, and as it wasn’t too overbearingly hot at that time of year, I voiced the opinion that we needed to light the oven and get baking and so to our assistance came the lovely Cavuto sisters, Paola & Elodia, both of whom have wood ovens of their own in the back garden and for whom it’s nothing to just knock up 8 kilo loaves a week.
Bright and early, the ladies showed up bearing with them all the necessaries for bread production.  They get their own flour in enormous sacks from a local mill and are very picky about what to use.  It is, of course, white flour, as most bread in Italy is white, but tastier than the stuff generally available.  They brought with them a large bag of flour, a pasta pan full of rehydrated levain forming the ‘sponge’ stage of a sourdough, salt and some fresh yeast just to give the levain an extra lift.  The wooden board for breadmaking was brought out of the back room, given a good clean down and we were ready to go.
When I make bread at home, I’m usually making 1 kilo loaf maximum and frankly that can be mixed in a bowl to minimise the mess, although kneading does, of course, need to be done on the surface.  I also rarely have enough kitchen surface to make a great big mountain of flour, a huge well in the centre and then mix together.  However, if you’re making 3 big loaves like Paola showed us to do, then frankly you need space.  And if you’re going to spend the best part of an hour lighting a great big fire in your oven, you’d be daft to only make 1 loaf.  Three is the minimum that they consider worthwhile.
Into the well in the centre of our flour volcano went the levain starter and she began mixing it in by hand, from the centre, adding water as necessary.  For each kilo of flour she added a tablespoon of salt but water was simply added by the feel of the dough as was a glug or two of olive oil.  I still measure things a little obsessively when making bread so I watched with awe.  Once mixed, the dough was kneaded until elastic (again by feel where I tend to time myself still) and again it was all done by hand, with dexterity and speed and energy.  You’ll see from the photos and video clip that neither of these ladies possesses the loose upper arm we call ‘the bingo wing’.  This is why.  It is quite a workout.
The dough set aside in a warm place (didn’t need to worry too much about this as it was a warm day – oh so different to breadmaking back in the UK), we went outside to light the fire in the oven.  The ladies looked critically over the wood store and picked out logs they considered appropriate.  You want a lot of kindling and then thin logs, probably only about 4-5cm in diameter.  Locally, vine or olive prunings are considered the best kindling.  Paola & Elodia favour the olive prunings as they tend to be sprayed less than vines.  In their own non label way, they are both quite organic in their approach.  Unfortunately we had vine prunings but they passed muster and we lit the fire, feeding it with thin logs as it got going and aiming to get the temperature up to 300C.
Back in the kitchen, it was time to divide the dough out into proving baskets and to set a little aside for pizza.  The risen dough was knocked back, this time using semola flour to dust the surface.  It’s coarser in grain than the 00 flour we had used for the bread and this helps develop the crust.  We divided off enough for a couple of trays of pizza and then cut the remainder into 4 loaves which were shaped between tea towels and left to prove.  Meanwhile the pizza was spread out onto the oiled trays and given its toppings: bottled tomato passata that the ladies had made themselves from their own tomatoes the summer before, finely chopped courgette picked that morning from Paola’s garden and dressed with olive oil, salt and pepper and simply oil and salt.  All 3 were then topped with ripped up mozzarella and it was time to bring them outside and check on the oven temperature.
When it had been pronounced good to go, the ashes were all scooped out of the oven and the base of it cleaned over with a wet cloth.  Whilst this was happening, I quizzed Elodia on the nature of pizza dough.  Do you just use bread dough or is there something special you do to make pizza?  She confirmed that if you just want to do a pizza bake, then you make a moister dough and use half and half of the 00 flour and the semola.  However why, if you are baking bread, would you miss the chance to bake off some of it as a pizza just for the fun of it?  Why indeed.
Oven ready, the pizza went in and it cooked in minutes.  Meanwhile a relay team went back to the kitchen to ferry out the proven loaves and line them up outside the oven.  Pizzas emerged smelling and looking wonderful.  It was all we could do not to fall on them right away and devour them.  The loaves were transferred to the peel and deftly shunted into the oven by my father (I really haven’t quite got the knack of this entirely although I did manage one of them – I claim it’s height or my lack thereof).  We were given our instructions by the Cavuto ladies, the oven was at about 240-250C but the nature of wood ovens means that its temperature would drop gradually during the cooking.  We were to leave the bread cooking for half an hour and under no circumstances open the door to look at it during that time.  After half an hour we could check through the little viewing window and from 45 minutes onwards, open the window and check if they were ready.  An hour later, we proudly lifted them from the oven and put them aside to cool.  The verdict?  Best bread of the entire holiday.
Back home in Marple it has proved a bit of an inspiration to get baking again.  For a couple of bakes, I decided to use the yeast from the cupboard that we’d bought to make hot cross buns at Easter and that frankly needs using before it stops being active.  Then in the past fortnight, I decided to make my own levain following the instructions in the River Cottage bread book which is my bread bible.  A couple of days ago it made it into its first bake.  I won’t lie, the process of using a domestic oven is nowhere near as rewarding as the wood oven and the bread undoubtedly bakes better in the wood oven but a combination of ramping the temperature up as high as it will go and judicious lowering of it later seems to yield decent results.  And what it doesn’t have in wood-fired-ness, it makes up for in its mix of flours: spelt, rye, wholemeal and white.

Harvesting our olives at Contrada Lazzaretto & the Frantoio

About a week after joining the Farinas and Palladinis for their olive harvest, it was finally time to pick the olives on the trees in our back garden, mix them in with those of Carlo & Rita (she of amazing sott’olio pickles).  A friend, Americo Colantuono, lent us the mats and a couple of combs and came over to get us started.  Although we didn’t have motorised combs, it was relatively quick work to pick the olives on the furthest tree with an experienced pro giving us a hand.  We moved on to the remaining trees ourselves and while doing so discovered the importance of pruning.
These trees had been neglected for quite a few years and pruned perhaps a couple of years ago.  Before that, they’d been left for quite a few years as we weren’t harvesting them and none of our neighbours was interested in doing so either.  As a result, although they’d been spurred on to more fruiting by the bit of pruning they’d had, they weren’t exactly trained.  Anyone who has picked fruit will know what I mean; by pruning you make sure there are a few branches that are bursting with fruit so the job of picking is straightforward and efficient.  If you don’t prune an apple tree, given that the fruit are relatively big, it’s not so bad trying to hop around the tree and pick them individually.  For something like cherries, or indeed olives, it makes a much bigger difference as you pick one or two olives per branch and the novelty of picking olives in the autumn sunshine, starts to pall.  Using the combs becomes barely worthwhile because you’re pulling down as much in twigs and leaves as you are olives so it makes more sense to pick them by hand which is pretty slow work.  This brought out different approaches in the family group; my father became just a tad obsessive (perhaps not a huge surprise to those of you that know him), staying up the ladder and picking individual olives way past sunset when it was so dark you could barely distinguish olive from leaf.  I got bored of hand picking and started some early pruning to cut out the excessive branches from the middle and open it up.
Properly pruned olives with the centre open and the fruit at the edges
Rocco Palladini had explained to us about pruning when we joined them for the day – his family’s trees are pruned into a wine glass shape with space in the centre for the light to get into the tree and keep it alive and vibrant and with a few branches that descend waterfall style from the edges which can be combed easily and yield bounteous amounts of olives.  The added bonus of opening up the middle as well is that there is somewhere to rest your ladder for those of you without the motorised combs.  However, by slightly after nightfall, the harvest was done, several washing basins filled with olives and the bigger twigs were picked out so that they could be driven to Carlo & Rita’s to be included with their olives and sorted then pressed.
Sorting turned out to be done in a very simple manner, the olives were consolidated into a trailer, lifted out and put onto a grid sloping down an incline.

By the nature of their different weights, the olives fall down where the leaves can either fall through the grid or be brushed out and to the side and blow away.  Again this is a family activity, all hands to the pump and carried out with company and chatter.  Sorted (all but a few remaining leaves that is) and finally put into sacks, it’s time to go to the Frantoio.

The Frantoio itself is down a little side street in Tollo.  Most of the year, you would never know it was there and would just think it was an agricultural building of sorts.  When it’s open though, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a way of producing oil that has changed very very little since the time of the Romans, I suspect.  The olives are offloaded and weighed and then crushed into a paste by rotating stone millwheels.  These are powered by a motor now but in the past would have been horse or more likely donkey or oxen powered.  In fact in the cellars of our house there is still the olive press that the farmers who lived there used to use, which was driven either by an ox or donkey.  More recently they converted it to a wine press but that’s another story.
Returning to the Frantoio; the paste is spread between mats which are stacked up onto trolleys with a column in the middle to keep them in place.  Every 4 or so mats there is a metal disc that stabilises the whole stack.  Once full, the stacks are taken to the hydraulic press and pressure is put onto them from the bottom up and a mixture of olive oil and olive juice streams out and is collected in a pit below.
The oil, of course, floats to the top of this and in some cases this is lifted from the top of the liquid without putting it through any centrifugal separator and sold as the ‘flower of the oil’.  In this case, however, the oil and some of the liquid was sucked up and put through the centrifuge, emerging as a trickle of emerald green oil.  It seems quite magical when you watch it, to see these purple or black olives go in and this bright, fresh green oil emerge at the other end.
So how much did we get in oil from our trees?  Well since you ask, a rather majestic 13 litres.  Score.

Olive Harvesting with the Farinas and Palladinis

Back in October, I took 3 weeks out from my cheesemaking schedule and headed south for (slightly) warmer climes and a holiday in Italy.  Holidays for me do not mean getting away from food and producing food, far from it.  It’s just that in Italy there are other things to see, learn and do.
There’s the amazing Rita who makes easily the best sott’olio pickles I have ever tasted.  In the summer, she dispenses recipes for her aubergines under oil, roasted peppers and sweet and sour figs.  In the winter she makes a mixed vegetable pickle (cauliflower, carrot, fennel, celery and little pickling onions).  All of these add a lift to very simply cooked poached meats or bollito misto and make a winter meal that bit richer and more vibrant.  Every year we aim to learn another one of her culinary gems.
But Rita doesn’t just cook like a goddess.  She and her husband Carlo also have some land on which they grow vegetables and have a grove of olive trees.  Every year in November, it’s time to harvest the olives, take them to the Frantoio and collect their next year’s supply of oil.  Carlo is the man who helps us look after our garden too and thanks to him, our ancient and neglected olive trees have been pruned and brought back into some sort of productive order.  Last year it was actually worth our while picking them and Carlo and Rita offered to combine whatever we could get with their olives and give us a portion of the oil commensurate with the weight of olives we’d sent them.
We weren’t the only people olive picking, as you can imagine.  The frantoios locally which are closed the rest of the year, work 24 hours a day at this time.  You book in your allotted time slot, pick your olives and head off with them, returning with 20 litre jerry cans of oil.  A few days before we were due to pick our olives, another group of friends invited us to come along and see their olive picking.  Well olive picking isn’t a spectator sport, you get stuck in, and so we did sorting the leaves and branches from the trailer load of olives as Ennio, Elodia, Paola and Rocco and their cousin picked the olives from the trees.
Elodia harvesting with the motorised combs (see below)
To harvest the olives, you need nets to spread on the ground and big comb like things which you effectively comb the branches with bringing olives and tiny bits of branch and leaf with them onto the nets.  If you have a lot of trees and are serious about it, you have a couple of motorised combs which are on long sticks and which vibrate as you comb, bringing more olives to the ground.  This being Italy, a day’s hard work becomes a family affair.  The kids come out and help or just hang out in the autumn sunshine, taking off for a walk when they feel like it, coming back to help again when they fancy it, and of course there is lunch.
Lunch is served on the car bonnet
I had already heard about the infamous olive harvest lunches that the Farinas and Palladinis have.  My sister Jane and her partner Jon had joined them a couple of years ago to help pick olives and left at the end of the day unable to eat for another 24 hours they’d been so well fed.  On our visit we were treated to a tomato and pepper based beef stew that Paola had prepared, home-made bread from her wood-fired oven, emerald green new season oil from a grove they had harvested earlier, tomatoes, tuna, pecorino and (the bit the kids were particularly looking forward to) sausages cooked on a fire of olive prunings and dead branches.
Sausages
All of this bounty was washed down with prosecco and beer.  Then, as if that wasn’t enough, the cakes were unveiled.  Cakes are a big part of Italian Sunday lunching.  The local Pasticceria will be rammed on a Sunday morning with people picking up tray after tray of rum babas, fruit tarts, choux buns filled with crema, chocolate custard or coffee flavoured custard.  As everyone gets together after church for a family meal, it’s customary to bring cakes to the house of whoever is hosting where we might bring a bottle of wine and the hosts in anticipation won’t have made pudding, just a bowl of fruit to round off the meal before the cakes and espresso are served.  So out in the olive grove, we too ate cakes, drank shots of espresso and then returned to work, in the afternoon sun, surrounded by the fresh green smell of the olive leaves and fruit, hanging off a big trailer full of olives, sorting out the little bits of branch from the fruit.
The harvest ready for sorting
As the light started to go, the day’s work was finished for us while the Palladinis and Farinas took their haul of olives back home to do further sorting in preparation for the frantoio.  As we drove home, other families were finishing up with their olive picking too.  All of them out in family force, children and all, turning what is essentially farm labour into a fun day out for the kids.  They know how to live, those Italians.