One of the most iconic Italian breads is not the traditional loaf you might think it is.
The rustic ciabatta loaf, known internationally as a quintessential Italian bread, looks like it could have crowded beside bowls of hearty stews and fresh farm-picked vegetables on trattoria tables since the Renaissance. But its artisanal appearance belies its surprisingly recent invention. As it became the favorite sandwich bread and a symbol of Mediterranean cuisine in the minds of consumers around the world, the story of its birth got quietly forgotten. But a visit to a small northern Italian city reveals the real and somewhat cunning history of this famous loaf.
A Bread That Fooled the World
“A lot of people think that ciabatta bread has been around for centuries,” says chef Francisco Migoya and author of The Modernist Bread. “It’s got this rustic, organic look and hits on those ancient artisan chords, but nothing could be further from the truth.” In fact, ciabatta is one of the few breads that have a known date and location of invention and a traceable history. “Breads get made and it’s not usually in the news,” says Migoya, “this is one of the few to go viral, so to speak.”
In the northeastern city of Adria, a painted sign on a dilapidated factory still proclaims its status as the birthplace of ciabatta, so named after the Italian word for slipper because of its oblong appearance. The paint is peeling, but the sign declares in giant letters: “Qui è nata la ciabatta italia” (“Here, ciabatta italia was born”). On the locked factory gates, a faded banner reads “Ciabatta Village.” It was in this mill that Arnaldo Cavallari, a rally car driver with a sideline in baking, perfected the recipe for ciabatta bread only 40 years ago–in 1982.
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Mill-owner and flour producer Cavallari was an obsessive experimentalist. “I would see the lights of his office on in the early hours of the morning as I headed to the bakery,” recalls Giovanni Cazzola, a baker with a shop in Adria a few hundred meters from Cavallari’s mill. “He’d be there playing with flour and water and inventing new recipes.”
In the early ’80s, Cavallari watched uneasily as the skinny French baguette began to monopolize Italy’s bread market. He wanted to create something that would seize back control of the sandwich industry and become a symbol of great Italian baking. After weeks of testing dough mixes and proofing times, he came up with ciabatta polesana, originally named after the Polesine area where he lived, and then changed to ciabatta italia in 1990 and ciabatta natura in the mid-2000s.
A Bread-Making Pioneer
With his experiments, Cavallari was also searching for a recipe that would break the trend of chemically enhanced and overly processed bread. He created a flour that was not heavily processed and contained plenty of proteins and fibers. In the fields where he sourced the wheat, he ensured treatments and pesticides were kept to the absolute minimum. Mustapha Lahrach is a pizza chef in Adria who uses Cavallari’s original flour recipe for his pizza bases. “The final mix included five flours in differing percentages,” he explains. “It was a truly excellent flour.”
Cavallari worked out that this very clean flour may also go some way to solving the growing issues of gluten intolerance and allergies. “He figured that many people might not actually have a problem with gluten but with some of the other chemical substances added to flour,” baker Cazzola says. “He was really forward-thinking.” In fact, the original flour sacks, a couple of which Lahrach has managed to preserve, clearly state “no chemical additives.”
Produced in his mill, Molini Adriesi, Cavallari called his final flour mix Farina Uno Natura. Although his mill is now closed, a few other select mills produce a similar mix that can officially be used to produce the authentic ciabatta. “It doesn’t have the same powerful scent Cavallari’s original flour, though,” says Lahrach, who owns a document with the official percentages that he keeps a well-guarded secret. “It’s my dream to find a mill where I can recreate the real flour mix.”
The Real Ciabatta Recipe
To produce Cavallari’s ciabatta, bakers begin the day before by making a biga, a thick starter made from baker’s yeast. This ferments overnight (from 16 to over 20 hours depending on the season), and early the next morning the baker adds flour, water, sugar, and finally salt to form the high hydration dough. “Cavallari’s recipe used 75% water, but with very good flour you can even go higher,” says Cazzola.
Using Cavallari’s natural flour has its challenges. “It changes each season and the baker has to know how to make slight adjustments to the amount of water or proving time depending on the flour’s character,” explains Cazzola. “When the first bags of flour arrive each season, the first nights I stay up making samples and working out what I need to alter.”
Pizza chef Lahrach uses an original recipe for a ciabatta pizza base that Cavallari invented, which he has written on a worn sheet of pale blue paper. He, too, knows the trials of using the natural flour. “It’s almost impossible to simply follow Cavallari’s recipe and get a perfect result,” he says. “I’ve needed 30 years to get a good product because you have to take into account not just the differences in the flour but also the weather and the temperature.”
Lahrach’s brother Arzdin Lahrach also uses the recipe at his pizzeria in the city and has a 14-year-old starter for his biga. “The ciabatta base has a nice rise, a wonderful smell, and gives a lovely soft texture to the pizza crust,” he says. “Plus, the long fermenting time means it has a really low percentage of gluten so even those with intolerances can eat it.” Along with one other pizzeria in the city, the brothers presume they are the only pizza-makers in Italy to use this dough recipe.
The Rise Before the Fall
Following its invention, ciabatta bread quickly made worldwide fame thanks to Cavallari’s shrewd marketing skills. “Cavallari would travel all over the globe presenting his recipe to bakeries and setting up outlets,” says Marco Vianello, a friend of Cavallari and now president of the Accademia del Pane, an association working to preserve the history of ciabatta. Ciabatta came on the market in America in the late ’80s and was on the shelves of department store Marks and Spencer in the U.K. by at least 1994, as archive records attest.
But while this entrepreneurship succeeded in introducing ciabatta to countries as far as Australia and Brazil, back home in Adria, Cavallari’s empire was collapsing. “He was away so often that things in the factory began to break down,” says Vianello. Gradually, without Cavallari really being aware, the mill fell into financial ruin. “We can say that ciabatta’s success was also its destruction.”
A Push for Revival
Until recently, aside from the worn proclamations on Cavallari’s abandoned mill, signs that Adria is the home of ciabatta bread were hard to find. On the exterior of some bakeries and restaurants in the city, there are small ceramic tiles that read: “Here, you find the natural ciabatta bread as guaranteed by the industry.” Baker Cazzola’s shop bears one of these plaques, as well as a list of specifications that his ciabatta bread must follow. These include using Cavallari’s Farina Uno flour, having a dietician check for adequate protein, fibers, and mineral salt, and that the baker scrupulously follows the original recipe of Cavallari.
However, on the 40th anniversary of ciabatta’s invention, the city is beginning to reclaim its high-fiber heritage. “Adria should become known as the city of ciabatta,” says Vianello. He has opened a new bakery in Adria emblazoned with red lettering reading “Ciabatta Village” and “Casa della Ciabatta Natura” (House of Ciabatta Natura). Inside, the walls are crammed with photos and information about Cavallari and his famous bread forming a miniature museum.
Vianello bakes hundreds of ciabatta loaves a day here, as well as other local bread varieties. He hopes to open subsequent branches of this bakery in cities around Italy and even the world to ensure the real ciabatta, baked to Cavallari’s recipe, receives deserved recognition.