Lots of countries have pretty awful bread but it is a source of wonder that a country with such a glorious dedication to good food as Italy should produce bread quite so tasteless and boring as the average Italian loaf. There may be historical reasons – the high price of salt is usually cited – and I am never one to spurn tradition but it is a mystery why the Italians still refuse to put a bit of salt in those great dry loaves that one lugs back from the bakers. The fact is that the bread does not really make sense until it becomes stale.
When not too stale, the bread can be grilled and rubbed with salt and garlic and doused with a little olive oil. These toasts – or bruschetta – have become popular in the most unlikely places but, ironically, don’t really work with other, possibly better and more savoury types of bread. When the crusts of the bread are removed and the remainder is chopped into a coarse crumb and slowly stewed with tomatoes, a sort of miracle happens in the form of pappa al pomodoro, a soup so simple yet satisfying that I could definitely include it as one of my desert island dishes.
The other dish that exalts Italian bread is panzanella. Rather like bruschetta, I learnt about panzanella from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers at the River Café. These dishes may have been considered rather ordinary fare in a Tuscan trattoria: they brought them to London and embued them with glamour and style, abetted by the very best olive oil that money could buy and tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables of incomparable quality.
The first secret of a good panzanella is to get the bread dry enough that it will not become soggy but friable enough that it will give texture to the salad without being hard and chewy. Cutting the crumb quite small and then drying it gently in the oven will help and then not letting it sit too long – certainly not more than an hour – with the oil, vinegar and vegetables is essential.
The second trick is to use really good vegetables. I can’t say I like the expression “heirloom” tomatoes but “heritage” is even worse and the French “ancienne” does not help. However, growers are producing a number of very good tomatoes, supposedly rescued from seedsmen’s back catalogues, that have real depth of flavour. Some of them, especially the green ones, are practically impossible to peel but have texture and acidity. Others, along with roast peppers, give this salad sweetness.
In any case, really good tomatoes, sweet and fragrant, are essential to this salad. It was a very large bowl that I filled for the photograph: various predators polished it off quite quickly. Even I, who rarely cook and eat at the same time, managed two or three platefuls.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais
This should be made in some volume: it is the perfect beginning to a leisurely summer lunch. Serves six to eight.
A large two-day-old loaf of country-style white bread
4 peppers, red and yellow for preference
3 chillies, not too hot
4 cloves of garlic
1kg good tomatoes
4 tbs red wine vinegar
1 bunch spring onions
10 anchovy fillets
20 black olives
4 tbs very good olive oil
10-15 leaves of basil
● Remove the crusts from the bread and cut it into small cubes of less than a centimetre. Lay these out on a tray and toast lightly in a medium-hot oven for 10 minutes, not allowing them to colour. Sear the peppers and chillies on a naked flame until they blister and blacken. Seal them in plastic bags for 20 minutes so that their steam will loosen the skins completely. Remove them from their bags and rub off every bit of skin, cut them open, remove the seeds and then cut into strips.
● Peel the garlic cloves and pound to a paste with a teaspoon of coarse salt, either in a mortar and pestle or by crushing them with a large kitchen knife.
● Toss the bread with this paste in a big salad bowl. Remove the cores from the tomatoes and chop them into small cubes the same size as the bread. Add them to the bread in the bowl. Season them well with sea salt and coarsely ground black pepper and then sprinkle them with the red wine vinegar. Add the peppers and chillies and toss together.
● Trim the spring onions and slice them thinly before strewing them on top of the salad. Then add the anchovy fillets and the olives, pour in the olive oil and tear the basil leaves before scattering on top. Take to the table, toss and share.
Rowley’s drinking choice
It can be said that the acidity of the vegetables might clash with delicate wines. A lusty young French or Italian red will have no such struggle.
Letters in response to this article: