The Battle of the Breads: Wands vs. Slippers

Having successfully produced a few batches of baguettes, the quintessential French bread, I decided it was time to take on its Italian counterpart: ciabatta.

The history of these two loaves is fascinating and underscores the friendly culinary competitiveness between the two nations.

The baguette has been around since the French revolution. Bread was a mainstay of the peasant’s diet in those days and we all know the folklore that Marie Antoinette suggested that in its absence cake would do just fine. Of course, it’s never been proven that she uttered any such words, but it did reflect the sentiment about her lack of empathy for the common citizenry.

Originally baguette loaves measured up to 8 feet in length. It was not until 1920, when Paris passed a law prohibiting bakers from commencing their trade until after 4 a.m. that the loaves shrunk to the size they are today. Bakers needed to speed up their baking time and smaller loaves was the answer.

This version of ciabatta uses olive oil and oregano and has a spongy feel and a provides a bit of zest to the palate.

No doubt that was when the moniker “baguette” was applied, since it means “little baton” or “wand.”

The Empire Strikes Back

Even though Italians can trace their bread-making heritage to the Roman empire, ciabatta only appeared in the 1980s. Bakers in Italy became alarmed that the baguette was becoming the preferred bread for sandwiches, so a Venician baker by the name of Arnaldo Cavallari took the matter into his own hands, literally.

He needed only about a week to concoct the ciabatta recipe. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The first thing you notice about whipping up a batch of ciabatta (which means “little slipper” in Italian) is how comparatively wet the dough is compared to most breads. It is difficult, though not impossible, to make by hand.

From its introduction, the bread has continued to undergo an evolution. In Italy, the variations run rampant through regions, some using milk, others olive oil, some flavored with oregano.

In the United States, you can often find sourdough as the leavening agent and of course this gives the bread an added tanginess.

I went with the olive oil and oregano version for my bread, since it was compatible with my Zojirushi bread maker.

One of my earlier attempts at baking French baguettes from scratch.

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