Viviana Sirigu is listening to her loaves – like a doctor establishing a patient’s vital signs after a particularly tricky operation.
She gently pulls back the heavy, hand-made blanket and lifts one hot, round moddizzosu to her ear. She raps its delicious wood-fire-brown bottom with her knuckles, concentrating to catch the sound. Carefully, she places it back on the fresh-baked mounds of bread, all softly exhaling the satisfying smell of warm yeast and semolina. She smoothes down the blanket. Now the loaves must rest.
Viviana’s bakery in Orroli, south central Sardinia, isn’t a lifetime’s work, but it is the result of a lifetime’s longing to reproduce on a commercial scale the bread she’d helped her mother make from as young as she can remember.
This is the same bread – not just the same recipe or the same technique, but the very same bread, made from su frammentu, the ‘mother yeast’, that’s been kept warm, fed with spring water and flour and passed down through her family for more than 300 years. It’s an extraordinary story of culinary continuity.
Each afternoon when the dough for tomorrow’s loaves has been kneaded in the Kentos bakery, a handful will be kept back to provide the starter culture for the next day’s batch, just as it was by generations of women in Viviana’s family. In fact, this bread is family.
“We treat the yeast like a person,” she says. “If it is too hot in the summer, you need to find it a cool place. If it is too cold, you need to keep it warm. You treat it like a member of the family.”
The affection she has for the bread is demonstrated in every lovingly executed stage in the long baking process that starts with a very special wheat, organically grown on the family’s own farm and a co-operative of 38 others.
Called Senatore Cappelli, it’s a cultivar developed in the early 1900s from ancient North African grains whose naturally deep, drought-averse roots outcompete the weeds in search of water and nutrients, doing away with the need for artificial fertilizers and herbicides.
Cappelli is a handsome giant among wheats, with long, black-tipped ears and a stem that draws itself up to a full six feet in height. But its unusually tall stature makes it unstable and prone to lodging in wind and rain and therefore difficult to harvest, which was why, despite having been the bedrock of a breeding programme that gave rise to many modern durum wheats, it fell from favour in the late 20th Century.
In a good year, it yields just 2 tonnes of grain per acre – roughly half that of today’s varieties. What it lacks in weight, though, it makes up for in nutrition, packing a bigger punch of fibre, protein, magnesium, potassium and zinc than almost any other variety and it’s more easily digested, too, even by those with a gluten intolerance.
To preserve as many of those natural characteristics as possible, Viviana insists the whole grain is ground very slowly between millstones of volcanic rock, which keep the biologically powerful wheatgerm cool. It’s no doubt the same technique used by Sardinia’s lost nuragic civilization – responsible for the mysterious and magnificent Nuraghe Arrubiu just outside Orroli – who left a trail of 3,000-year-old stale breadcrumbs, which led archaeologists to some of the oldest surviving bakeries on earth.
Fast-forward three millennia and some of the 12 staff employed at Kentos are emptying the clay oven, which is fired with two types of aromatic wild wood that enriches the flavour of the moddizzosu. Sandwiched in the floor of the oven on which the loaves sit is a layer of salt to maintain just the right humidity as they cook. Elsewhere in this small, purpose-built, church-like space, well-suited to the devotional duty of making bread, others are turning out swollen, ricotta-cloth-wrapped dough balls from bowls. At four o’clock in the afternoon, just when most bakers are finishing their day, Kentos is coming to life.
“We work during the day rather than the night because the natural yeast means we have to work in the heat. I’m very, very passionate about it, but it’s really hard work,” says Viviana, who spent 25 years as a civil servant before redundancy prompted a complete career change.
As we talk, the dough for tomorrow’s loaves is being kneaded in a large electric mixer. It will be stretched and left to prove naturally for 15 hours overnight, allowing the 300-year-old yeast to multiply in its own good time. No accelerators are allowed here, but in a concession to modern consumerism, a proving room, which keeps the dough at a constant 26 degrees centigrade, has been installed together with a conventional baker’s oven, both of which help to increase the bakery’s throughput.
Demand for Kentos bread since the bakery opened eight years ago has grown – along with its reputation. It was chosen in 2015 as the product to represent Sardinia at the opening of the Milan Expo food show and every week loaves are sent across the island and as far as Rome where customers know they are sharing in the same bread that shepherds have eaten for centuries in the hills around Orroli. Setting off for a week-long tour of his flocks, a shepherd would often find a loaf packed at the bottom of his bertula (haversack) by his wife or mother, who knew it would keep perfectly from one Sunday to the next. One of the bread’s many surprising characteristics now, as then, is its ability to stay fresh for up to two weeks without preservatives and atmospheric packaging.
“The bread is really good tasted now,” says Viviana, tearing a still-warm moddizzosu that’s passed the ‘knocking test’ for perfection, “but it’s even better if you wait two days for the flavours to come out.”
Bread is as necessary to Sardinians as air itself and in the parched uplands of Orroli, a town with more than its fair share of centenarians, the purity of both are credited with adding years to your life. Maybe it’s the ingredients, the unhurried, respectful way they’re handled, or the bread’s symbolic presence in the life of the townsfolk, who will request the most delicately hand-sculptured coccoi pintau, a bread almost too decorative to eat, to mark significant events.
“For the fifth birthday of a child, people ask me to make different shapes to represent different professions – depending on what they choose is what they’ll grow up to be,” says Viviana. It’s a she likes, but it would be good if more children chose the shape of a loaf because bakers are badly needed in Sardinia.
Viviana’s staff enjoy a four-and-a-half-day week, good pay and a pleasant environment and yet still she struggles to recruit, which is partly why she’s investing in a classroom bakery for children right next door to ensure a 3,000-year-old skill doesn’t end here. She has faith.
“Bread is going to live forever,” she says. “It’s not a craze.”
And as the su frammentu is carefully set aside again for the next day’s batch, there’s a good chance that – in Sardinia at least – she’s right.
You can visit the Kentos Bakery in Orroli, Sardinia. To find out more, click here.
Moddizzosu has earned a place in the Slow Food Foundation’s Ark of Taste, which sets out to prevent artisan food products from becoming extinct through lack of demand or loss of craft skills or ingredients. To find out more about the history of moddizzosu and other products in the Ark of Taste, visit the Slow Food Foundation here.