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The ancient history of Italian bread

The ancient history of Italian bread
Written by Veronica Lavenia

Italian bread: different bread from each region

In Italy, the rustic bread is made with semolina flour (durum wheat semolina), wholemeal flour or with ancient local grains. The true Italian artisan bread is baked in a wood oven.

This tradition is still followed by the best bakers, especially in southern Italy where bread has always been synonymous with food, family and nourishment.

The choice of bread for the Italians is not left to chance. Especially in smaller towns, the baker is a trusted professional who maintains the unique local flavors. Even in an increasingly frantic era, do not be surprised if this tradition continues today. In Italy, bread is a sacred food, the basis of the Mediterranean diet and never missing from the tables – a tradition evidenced by the wide variety of breads, over 300, all with a story to tell that spans centuries.

The most flavorsome of breads are those of Southern Italy, where durum wheat, cultivated in large quantities, is used to prepare not only bread but also pasta.

There are different processes of bread from the north to the south of the country, from region to region, even from town to town. Ingredients and method of mixing, leavening and baking change depending on the climatic conditions of the place and cultural traditions.

In some regions of northern Italy, such as Trentino Alto Adige, the traditional bread, strictly homemade, is made with barley and rye flour. In Lombardy, the typical bread is the michetta – a small round loaf with a crisp, golden crust. With the interior emptied it fits perfectly with the Risotto alla Milanese. Staying in the north of the country, the Riviera is famous for its soft focaccia. The Fugassa (as it is called, in Genoese) is usually made with boiled potatoes, which makes the dough softer. After rising, the dough is rolled out and then flavored with rosemary, oregano, onion or olives. In the Ligurian takeaways focaccia is also filled with quagliata – a soft cheese similar to stracchino (cottage cheese).

Tuscan bread 

It is famous all over the world. Its characteristics are the rustic look, its crumbly crust, the soft crumb and the exclusive use of sourdough and wheat flour type ‘0’, which contains the wheat germ. The natural leavening and baking at a not-too-high temperature are also distinctive features of this product, but what makes it unique is the fact of being saltless and, for this, in Tuscan it is called sciocco, ‘bland’ or ‘sill’.

Homemade bread of Genzano

Classified as a Protected Geographical Indication product, it is exclusively produced in the town of Genzano (near Rome), and is recognizable by the characteristic dark and crumb crust.


It is the typical crisp flatbread, born in Sardinia and made from a mixture of wheat flour, semolina and water, without yeast. This bread is also known by the name of ‘sheet music’, due to its resemblance to parchment paper. The Sardinian term instead derives from the method of preparation, which includes a phase of carasatura – a special cooking process to make it crisp.

The ancient history of Italian bread

© Ph. Veronica Lavenia

Pane cafone

Known as “Peasant bread”, it is the iconic Neapolitan bread. At the time of the Bourbons in Naples the upper classes spoke French, and the official language was called ‘peasant’ to highlight its commoner origin. Everything in Naples is related to everyday living and this expression of ‘peasant’ soon became connected to the bread sold at low prices to combat the sale of French bread that was purchased by the aristocratic classes. Pane Cafone for its simple goodness, soon became the symbol of Neapolitan cuisine, and the entire Campania region.

Bread from Matera

Protected Geographical Indication, it takes its name from the city of Matera (Basilicata Region), known worldwide as ‘the stone city’ (elected European Capital of Culture for 2019). Made with a traditional method that includes the exclusive use of durum wheat semolina, the bread of Matera, in order to be defined as such, must be composed of at least 20% of ancient local durum wheat flour, grown in the province of Matera.

Altamura bread

PDO – Protected Designation of Origin, it is one of the gastronomic treasures of southern Italy and Puglia (Apulia) region where it was born. The basic ingredient of this very special bread is durum wheat semolina from Alta Murgia, mixed with natural sourdough yeast, warm water and sea salt.

Bread with sesame is typical of Calabria and Sicily. The dough is made with durum wheat flour, water, salt, yeast and beer. After the first rise, the dough is cut and formed into pieces and the surface is sprinkled generously with sesame seeds prior to cooking.

Castelvetrano black bread

Sicilian pride, is made from Sicilian old and valuable durum wheat. Converted from old local varieties of wheat, the timinìa, with both whole grains are milled in natural stone grinders. After rising for a considerable time, this bread is baked in a wood oven, but not over direct heat. The crust is tough and coffee-colored (sprinkled with sesame seeds), the dough soft and yellow.

With so many varieties, it is impossible to mention them all. Yet throughout there is a single common denominator: a few, high quality ingredients, without any chemical additives.

Keeping intact these traditions is what makes Italian bread so special and appreciated the world over.


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About the author

Veronica Lavenia

PhD (former University academic). Italian based food writer, food consultant and magazine contributor. Authors of six books (five cookbooks), some of her works have appeared and appears in the most popular International food magazine, as “Gluten-free Heaven”; "Vegetarian Living"; "Veggie Magazine"; "Lifestyle FOOD"; "Australian Good Food & Travel Guide; "Chickpea";" TML" (The Mediterranean lifestyle), among others.