A few weeks ago I baked for the first time bread from Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I chose probably the least time consuming and easiest of the lot two start, the rustic bread, her own version of the Italian ciabatta (slipper in Italian, because of its shape). I intended to write about this bread at the time but my blog posting backlog (still growing) delayed at least in part this entry. What played an even further role was trying to understand what a ciabatta is and where it really comes from. The bread I baked, although delicious, had nothing to do with the ciabattas you get in Italy and this is not the first time I notice this. Recipes from other US, UK and German baking books I tried before gave varying results, some to die for other to kill (the book's author) for, but never anything like what I was used to. So why is this bread so popular (there's even a nice German blog called Chili und Ciabatta) if we're actually talking about completely different breads?
My curiosity tickled, I started searching for information on ciabatta. After all sort of contrasting information I stumbled on this page from a very informative baking web site called The Artisan. I also remembered I had bought Slow Food's L'Italia del pane (Italy's bread) which gave some good info too. There's quite a few points that remain unclear but here's what I found out:
-Ciabatta is probably a quite old Northern Italian bread. It might, according to Profumo di Pane by Erika Pignatti, have originated in Trentino. Other sources claim the bread is original of the area around Como (Lombardy). A traditional bread called ciabatta seems to exist in both places making the origin unclear.
-The modern, widespread version of ciabatta, called ciabatta Italiana, was developed only in 1982 when the Mulini Adriesi company registered the farina tipo 1 Italia, a gluten-rich flour, ideal for long rising and proofing and allowing a greater hydration. Not only the flour but also the method for making this bread is trademarked.To help the spreading of this bread and method the company even organises courses bakers can follow to learn the procedure.
-There are a few basic differences between the two breads. Most noticeable of all is the one regarding the crust: the ciabatta from Como has a very crispy crust, absent in the ciabatta Italiana.
-Throughout Italy ciabatta has been adapted to local tastes so even here there is not a "true" ciabatta. I guess the ciabatta I was looking for was only the one I was used to. So I'll stop scratching my head when I see breads that IMO have nothing in common with ciabatta sold under this name.
But now, curiosity (I hope) satiated, let's go back to the bread I baked: I followed the original recipe to the letter without too many problems. Too late did I found out this movie showing Silverton and Julia Child having a go at it. After seeing this I noticed my dough was a bit too wet. I'm seriously starting to believe this depends on the gluten-"poor" European flour, at least the one we amateurs can get our hands on. I used the same proportions the recipe suggested but clearly my flour didn't manage to take up the water as well as it should have. This made the dough more bitchy to work with but didn't really alter the end result.
The bread once cut had a very irregular hole structure, as expected and wished, and it really tasted great. I made two, each weighing a kilo and brought one to some friends, still warm. After an hour only the crumbs were left. Guess the jury liked it ;-). Still I wouldn't call this bread a ciabatta: it tastes much more like the so called pane pizza a somewhat more rustic version of pizza bianca common in southern-central Italy.