This morning/night at 3:30 am, after a sleepless night, save about an hour, I put on my white pants and shirt and set out for the bakery. I drove Nana and Papa Tom’s car because it was the middle of the night, just walking to the car was kind of terrifying because there are no lights whatsoever. But I made it to the car unscathed and drove up to the bakery. When I arrived neither Giacomo nor Lina were there, only Nicola and Domenico, the two men whom I had not met, and who I don’t think knew I was coming. So I just waltzed in and was like, “Buon giorno! Sono Kelly!” and tried to explain that I was coming to learn how to make bread, but I suppose they could figure that out based on my white attire. Nevertheless, they let me jump right in. They had been there since midnight so there was already a ton of bread baked and boy did it smell fabulous.
Let me just say too that no one spoke English, and they both spoke so quickly and with such a strong accent that I barely picked up on much. But I watched what they did, rolling the small pieces of dough into a smooth, rounded ball. Then I tried. And failed. Again and again, I could not roll it in the palm of my hand against the surface of the table like they so easily did. It was very frustrating, but I suppose it will come with practice. Eventually Lina and Giacomo showed up too and while everyone worked they joked and laughed (I barely followed what was said), and at one point Domenico and Lina were gossiping about people in town, but all I could pick out was that some girl was sempre ubriaca (always drunk). If learning the town gossip isn’t motivation for getting better at Italian, I don’t know what is.
Now I will give you a little tour of the life of the bread dough. I still think that is confusing. I don’t have many pictures of the actually hand rolling/shaping because obviously my hands were busy and covered in flour. But at some points there was less hands-on work to do so I was able to pull out my camera.
The bakery makes only four types of dough, which is called pasta because that’s not confusing at all. They make regular Tuscan bread with white flour and only a small amount of salt, wheat bread, salted bread, and bread with oil and salt. I worked with all of them and you can actually tell the difference between them based on how soft they feel. (The oiled one is the softest, and the salted is more duro, or hard). When Nicola was mixing a batch, he would stick his hand in and touch the dough to decide whether or not it had enough water. Eventually he deemed the consistency good enough, but said in the winter it would need to be softer (or was it harder?) because of the cold.
Then the big mixer bowl lifts and the dough is poured into this other contraption that will cut out smaller pieces of dough based on weight and spit them out onto a conveyor that will take them to the next machine which will lavorare (work, or knead) the dough. Kneading is one of my favorite parts of making bread, but I suppose that with this volume it would get old FAST.
In this case, the machine that works the dough can also roll it out into these uniform rolls. For the smaller and larger hunks of dough, they shape them by hand. Often with the help of this high-tech scale system.
And if you’re Nicola, you’ll shape your own creation with some leftover dough.
The dough is then placed on one long metal sheet lined with a sort of canvas. Each one is lifted onto the rack (which is likely to improve my upper body strength immensely). This is where the dough rests for a while before going into the oven.
Just before sliding the bread into the oven with a large lift machine, they slash the bread with a razor and I realize that these canvas-y lined sheets actually double as a conveyor belt which slides all of the dough into the oven evenly. It’s actually really cool how it works. At least, I think so.
I have no idea yet how they know when all of this dough is ready to go in and come out of the oven. There are no timers around here. But somehow they know, and they hook up the lift thing again, pull out the bread in a push of a button, and toss it all into a crate. Any rogue rolls are retrieved with one of those long wooden paddles.
While all of this is going on, they are still making and shaping more bread. It never ends. Here Nicola is scraping down dough into the measurer/cutter machine (most likely it’s technical name).
I arrived around 3:30 am, but Domenico and Nicola had been there since midnight, and they had already made some of the special breads and pizza, It looks like blueberries there, but those are actually grapes! Sweet, I know. (I got to help make more pizza later, which comforted me because for the first time all morning I felt competent.)
By 8 am I was sweeping the flour off the flour when they told me to go home. Lina packed me a bag full of bread. She even went over to the crate of long bread rolls we did by hand and pulled out a few that were clearly mine so I could take them home show my grandparents. She probably wanted to get rid of them, but still, I felt proud. It was a crazy and overwhelming time, it was hard work and it was early, but I could not stop smiling as I walked out to the car and drove home. I did it!
And that my friends, is how magic is made.