In Italy, Austerity Is Served on Homemade Bread

Money is tight, so Italians are upending decades of food culture by frequenting bakeries less and baking more loaves at home.

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A bakery in downtown Rome on September 18, 2008. (Tony Gentile/Reuters)

In the land that invented La Cucina Povera -- literally, the poor man's kitchen -- it's no surprise to witness an increase in home baking. Figures recently released by Coldiretti, the association of Italian farmers, are staggering. Italians are buying record amounts of flour, eggs, and butter - the highest since World War II. A third of Italians are using these ingredients to make more pizza, and 19 percent are baking more bread at home.

A combination of Italy's financial crisis and a greater awareness of local food are pushing the trend, says Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian expat and author living in Rome. "I bought a loaf of wonderful bread recently, which lasted us two days, but it was more than 5 euros for the loaf, so it's not really cheap. You can make the same thing for about 80 cents, so there's definitely an economic component to it."

Austerity means that more Italians are making bread at home -- but ten percent of small bakeries in and around Rome have shut in the last two years alone.

The surge in bread making is a stark contrast to 2007, when Italian bread consumption was at its lowest.

That's because Italian bread wasn't very good, Marshall explains. "The 2007 low was partly due to the quality of bread being so poor. It was really bad, but it's gotten a lot better now, you can find all these great grains, like the Lariano, which is semi-grain bread. The price for good bakery bread has gone up too, though. "

Pierluigi Roscioli comes from a family of Roman bakers, and owns Forno Roscioli, a bakery in Campo de Fiori, a neighborhood well-known to tourists and wealthy residents.

"The quality of middle-of-the-road bread is very low in Italy, so a lot of people who appreciate good bread and like to eat healthy have started to make bread at home. There is also a large group of people who make their own bread for economic reasons. In the last five years, the trend has increased steadily," Roscioli said. For the unemployed, less money and more time makes bread-making a no brainer. "You save money and feel you're doing something good for your family."

But this cottage industry has had a serious impact on local bakeries. Ten percent of small bakeries in and around Rome have shut in the last two years, according to CNA, the Italian Association for Small and Medium Artisan Businesses.

Bernardino Bartocci, president of the CNA in Rome, says local bakeries can't compete with the buying power of hypermarkets, massive supermarkets that pile goods high and offer low prices -- now a staple of Italy's suburbs. The choice: adapt or die.

"They have to sell more than bread. Now, bakeries are producing traditional Italian cookies and cakes to increase their offering."

Bakers like Roscioli, with his central location, haven't seen a drop in retail business, but he has suffered a loss of 10 to 15 percent in the last two years because of his increased wholesaling. He supplies bread to supermarkets in the middle class suburbs of Rome. "People like the quality, but they prefer to save money on bread."

Roscioli and others are changing the everyday eating culture in Rome by offering prepared food, and more importantly, sandwiches. Once limited to alimentari, small corner stores where for years workers bought their lunches, fresh panini are now sold at bread bakeries as well. It's a trend that has only developed in the last five years, says Roscioli.

For Roscioli, turning a 40-cent roll into a 4-euro sandwich is an obvious solution. One loaf of bread can make several sandwiches, and that means fewer leftovers.

"We make two to three times our cost on a sandwich ... A loaf of bread creates more profit through sandwiches than on its own."

But as Roscioli and other bakers innovate, they bite into the profits of other traditional businesses, like the alimentari and pasticceria, or pastry shops. This domino effect is creating a survival of the fittest culture, one which Elizabeth Minchilli, a food journalist and 40-year resident of Italy, claims is anything but the death knell for Italian food. Instead, she sees it as progress.

"I'm on the side of the bakery. I would hate to see the pastry shops go out of business, but I don't think they should be artificially supported by any kind of protectionism."

Minchilli says one of the reasons Italy has been among the last countries to modernize its food culture is not so much because of public resistance to relinquish the old ways, but because of the stranglehold trade guilds have had over much of the industry.

"You could only get certain things in a bakery because of the political power of these guilds protecting their turf in a way that wasn't in sync with the economy. It covers a lot of the food business. That's finally being broken down. Now, bars which used to only be allowed to serve coffee are allowed to serve full meals and are also serving breakfast."

The increase in competition has brought about higher quality, something Marshall says is necessary to breathe life into the businesses -- some of which, like their loaves, had gone stale.

Most of Italy's bakeries now offer whole grains, whereas the old-fashioned alimentari typically don't serve whole-wheat panini because they're run by an older generation who refuse to update ingredients. Marshall says pastry shops could also do with a few new recipes.

"Some of these places have been serving the same thing since after the war, the same Sacher torte which is a huge thing here. I'm sentimental, but tastes have changed. "

But Italians still share a passion for their own, home-grown food. Dedication to local ingredients remains steadfast.

"I did a class recently learning how to make bread and I was the only foreigner there. Many people are going for refresher courses. It's a re-appreciation of their culture. People are taking food seriously again."