When you miss home: saltless Tuscan bread in Dante’s Paradiso (La Divina Commedia, c. 1304-1321)

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As I (Nico, clearly) am about to leave Italy once again, and as migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East sadly gallop through Southern Europe to reach the better-off North, the Literary Kitchen today will offer you something from a most famous Italian writer who went through political exile: Dante Alighieri (1265-1321). Dante was, of course, a privileged exile: being already a famous individual at the time, when he was forced to go on exile in 1302 by the opposite political party (the Black Guelphs) coming to power, he was welcomed and hosted by several important Italian families and courts of the time, amongst whom the Malaspinas in Romagna, the Scalas in Verona and finally at Guido Novello da Polenta’s in Ravenna, where he died in 1321.

Dante’s masterpiece, La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy), is, to an extent, a reflection on the theme of exile. In this epic poem Dante imagines to be undertaking a journey through Hell, Purgatory (at the time, a rather new “invention”), and Heaven. The whole journey takes place in the days around Easter in 1300, and the poem is filled with prophecies of things that will happen to Florence and the Florentines, relations to specific souls from the three otherworldly kingdoms, and of course Dante himself. Throughout this journey, various souls interrogate him on the state of things on Earth (mainly Florence/Italy) and give him advice and foresee his future (although what Dante is told is effectively not much of a prediction, after all, as he already knows what is going to happen to him when he is writing, as he writes years after 1300): one of these “predictions” is naturally his exile from beloved Florence.

Dante receives confirmation of his exile precisely from the soul of his great-great-grandfather, Cacciaguida degli Elisei, in Paradiso XVII. Blood of his own blood, Cacciaguida cannot obviously lie to Dante and so he “foretells” his exile: ‘tal di Fiorenza partir ti convene’ (Pd XVII, l. 48, ‘such must thou depart from Florence.’). Cacciaguida particularly lingers on the suffering Dante will have to go through during his exile:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta

più caramente; e questo è quello strale

che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale

lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle

lo scendere e’l salir per l’altrui scale.

(ll. 55-60)

(‘Thou shalt leave each thing beloved most dearly: this is the first shaft shot from the bow of exile. Thou shalt prove how salt the savour is of other’s bread; how hard the passage, to descend and climb by other’s stairs.’)

Many are the things Cacciaguida lists as terrible in Dante’s future exile: he will leave every beloved thing, he will see Florence fall in the violent hands of the wicked Black Guelphs, but especially he will have to beg – and, incidentally, eat a type of bread which is not the one from his country. He shall try how salty other people’s bread is: ‘salt’ in Italian is of course the ingredient itself, but the adjective ‘salato’ (salty) is also used to indicate something expensive, or hard to come by. And so, most commentators and scholars of Dante have glossed this line pronounced by Cacciaguida as the exile’s bread being expensive, and also bitter, because one has to beg for it in order to obtain it. But that is just one side of it: Dante’s great-great-grandfather is also warning him that the bread he will find outside Florence, and Tuscany, is indeed different, as it does contain salt. Tuscan bread even today is hard to find outside the region of Tuscany, mainly because of its complete lack of salt, which gives it a quite unusual taste. This type of bread (‘pane sciocco’, in Italian silly bread, or saltless bread) is indeed ideal to be eaten with a sprinkle of olive oil on top, to accompany dishes with a strong flavour, or even just to be enjoyed by itself, once one gets adjusted to its distinct neutral flavour, porous texture and crusty top.

And so Cacciaguida is also warning Dante that not just politics, customs, and climate are different outside Florence, but even bread – indeed, the simplest food – is, and that will make his exile even more painful, despite his hosts’ generosity. No matter our situation, it is those small, silly things from our own home country we end up missing the most when we are abroad. I still remember how I was once stopped at the security in an Italian airport, and asked to open my carry-on. This was filled with Italian goodies, which made the security guy laugh heartily, and add jokingly: ‘You don’t need to show me your boarding card, Miss.’ He glanced at the departures board and exclaimed: ‘For sure you’re flying to Edinburgh, and not Madrid or Paris!’. I smiled of course, and when he continued with a question on British food, whether it was really bad as it was perceived all over Europe, he was a little surprised by my reply: ‘No it is not bad at all, but one cannot help missing food from home. Food you are used to. Food you were given as a child…’ It does not matter what it is: it can be a particular spice from India which you can’t find anywhere else, a type of Italian biscuits, a strong French cheese, or difficult-to-check-in German sausages and Greek olive oil. It can also be a bread without salt, which perhaps only real Tuscans can appreciate, and you my dear readers will find tasteless; but, if you cared to make it, here is how, and you will not regret experiencing a very simple flavour from medieval Italy, spiced with an exile’s nostalgia for home…

Recipe (makes one big loaf or two small ones)

Ingredients

500gr white flour

1 sachet dry yeast

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 teaspoon sugar

2 cups warm water

Directions

  1. Dissolve one sachet of dry yeast in a cup of warm water.
  2. Pour the mixture of yeast and water over the white flour (previously placed in a large bowl).
  3. Stir the mixture and start kneading.
  4. Dissolve a teaspoonful of sugar in a cup of warm water, and pour over the dough and knead for about 10 minutes.
  5. Leave dough in the bowl and cover with a plastic film and leave in warm place to rise for a couple of hours (but the more the better really!).
  6. Remove dough from the bowl and knead it onto a surface with your hands dusted in flour – the dough will have to be a bit sticky, so do not add to much extra flour to it.
  7. After kneading it for a couple of minutes, shape it into whatever form you prefer for your bread and place it onto a greased baking tray.
  8. It is ready to be baked in the oven at 200°C for 40 minutes!
  9. When the crust has become all golden, take it out of the oven and place it onto a grill to cool.

References

Dante Alighieri. La Divina Commedia: Paradiso. Ed. Umberto Bosco and Giovanni Reggio. Florence: Le Monnier, 2002. (English translation used: Harvard Classics available online).

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