I can't believe I haven't written about this yet. It was just such an incredible experience that I had to let it marinate for a while so that the words came out right.... but then I forgot about writing it. So here we are, six months later.
Seuppa valpellenentze ready to go in the oven
Black bread, called 'pane nero' in Italian, and 'pan ner'
in Patois, the regional dialect, is an important staple in Valle
d'Aosta. It's a dense bread made with a mother dough and uses whole
wheat and rye flours, and a fairly low hydration. It's baked in a
wood fired oven, and left to dry out on racks so that it can be eaten
for months (or years) to come. If eaten fresh, it is often eaten topped
with lardo (cured and spiced pig fat, sliced paper thin) and honey.
Once it has dried out, it is used in soups such as seuppa valpellenentze, or dropped soaked in strong red wine to become a local favorite, zuppa dell'asino (donkey soup). Most villages, small or large, have a community bread
oven, and they are generally fired up during two periods of the year:
winter and summer. In my village of Charvensod, during most of November
local families can sign up to use the oven at certain times, and small
groups get together to put hundreds of loaves into the oven each day so
that people have enough black bread to last the year. There are also
festivals celebrating black bread, and they generally happen in
December/January and July/August. My sister Rita was visiting in August
of this year, and I dragged her (willingly) to one of these festivals,
to the "Fiha di pan ner" in the village of Introd, which is in the famous Gran Paradiso Park. These
local festivals are simply fabulous. They usually involve a lot of
local red wine, copious amounts of food fired in the wood oven, farmers
wearing pajamas and mullets, and a lone accordion player playing cheesy
music. I simply love them!
It turns out that we got there about 10 hours early
for the party....but just in time to help with making the bread. We
found the community bread oven in a little strip mall, right by the
village's ATM machine. We peeked around shyly, looking at the oven and
sneaking looks inside the room where older members of the community were
kneading bread, when a man invited us inside and insisted we share a
big cup of wine with him (it was 10 am!), along with generous slices of
bread fresh out of the oven and local Fontina cheese. They had just
finished one batch of bread in the oven, and the next batch was going
through its first rise. Thewine-welding man, Pietro, was making seuppa valpellenentze, ablack
bread, cabbage, and Fontina soup that is baked in the wood fired oven,
and proceeded to tell some off color jokes involving his sausages.
Morning glass of wine
For some reason I got a kick out of the implements they use to clean the oven
I don't quite know how it happened, but
suddenly we were wearing aprons and kneading bread around a large table
with some hilarious older ladies, Olimpia, Irene, and Agata. There
were two men there, and the one who kept making hilariously lewd comments would
cut off pieces of the dough that had gone through it's first raising,
and would throw it at one of the women, who would deftly knead
it and shape it into a loaf, which was then thrown in a pile of dough on a sheet
of fabric. The pile was rolled into a long snake, and then chunks were again
cut off, shaped, and placed on a long board. Olimpia, who must be
at least 90 years old, quickly scored the loaves with a floral pattern,
and the men shoveled the shaped loaves into the roaring hot oven that
fits 110 loaves at a time.
Franco explaining to me the finer points of kneading
The ladies were amused by my sister....
I hope to be like these ladies some day......
Olimpia deftly scores the loaves
The men shovel loaves into the oven
I turned this into dinner later on
They chatted in the Patois dialect, which I don't'
understand much of, and occasionally switched into Italian. Being that
they were all from older generations, they didn't speak a word of
English, so Rita was out of luck. So what they did was make funny faces
at her, which was pretty hilarious.
all day until we got all 110 loaves of bread that we helped make into
the massive community oven. We couldn't stay for the party that night
because we actually had to help friends bake bread in their smaller wood
fired oven at their house.
Here are some video clips I took while a group of kids were there helping out:
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