Some years ago, while I was on vacation in Versilia I went to the nearest bakery to buy some bread. When I asked for a pane senza sale (bread without salt), the baker looked at me smiling and said: “Do you know how we call this here? Sciocco“. To whom I replied: “I do know, we use the same term in Florence both for bread and for know-all people”. Note that this occurred 60 miles from Florence.
Pane sciocco means foolish bread, and yes, in Florence we do use this term for bread without salt. An ancient proverb says that a person without common sense non ha sale in zucca (literally, does not have salt in pumpkin, where pumpkin indicates the head).
The tradition to make the bread without salt is very ancient in Tuscany, Umbria and Marche. There are some exceptions, but how we say l’eccezione conferma la regola (the exception confirms the rule).
Concerning Tuscany for example, in the provinces of Lucca (indeed Versilia is there) and Massa Carrara people eat bread with salt (with the notable exceptions of two municipalities: Montecarlo and Altopascio that don’t use salt at all). Also, in some zones of the Lucca province people eat bread from Altopascio (which is without salt). And so on.
For the sake of completeness I should also add that nowadays you can find which type of bread you want at the supermarket, but the truth is that in Tuscany the bread without salt is chosen by the majority of people.
As you know, apart from the Roman Empire, Italy was always a country divided in many statelets. The good part of the story is the richness in art, food and culture in general that this situation produced over the centuries. So, every mile you go you find a new cheese, a new wine, and…a new bread. ;-)
Bread-making is also known as l’Arte Bianca (the White Art). Many tourists and expats (but also italians from other regions) are shocked when they taste this bread.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale
(Thou shalt have proof how savoureth of salt
The bread of others, and how hard a road
The going down and up another’s stairs).
But why in Florence the bread is made without salt? There are some hypothesis but no final proof.
In ancient times, the salt was produced in proximity to the sea. Some argue that Pisa (that is near the sea) wanted to force Florence to surrender by blocking every provision of salt. But Florence then defeated Pisa in the famous battle of Cascina in 1364. Michelangelo was asked to paint this battle on a wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio (then named Salone dei Cinquecento) in Palazzo Vecchio, while Leonardo had to paint the battle of Anghiari on the opposite wall. Sadly both the projects were aborted.
But there is more. By 1406 Pisa was completely defeated by Florence, and guess what, the bread in Pisa is without salt as well. Then the florentines had access to the sea, but they continued to bake without salt.
Some other historians made the hypothesis that Tuscany started to bake the bread without salt because of the very high taxes imposed on salt by the various municipalities and popes.
Whatever the truth, since people are reluctant to change their habits we still eat a no-salt bread and we are happy with that. It is also true that tuscan foods are generally very tasty, so that pane e companatico (bread and what accompanies bread) is a perfect union.
Also, the tuscan bread started the procedures for obtaining the certification denominazione di origine protetta (DOP) from the Italian Ministry of Agriculture and the European Union. We don’t miss salt in bread.
So, if you are an expat (or even an italian) eating bread without salt, know that you are seriously becoming a real florentine! :-)