Tales from an Italian kitchen
Mum remembers her auntie May buying milk loaves from Hough’s Bakers and Confectioners on Moss Road in Stretford. I remember Great Aunt May in her bib apron, slicing bread in the kitchen of her sister’s (my granny’s) pub in Oldham. The white tin loaf was usually so fresh that the insides hadn’t firmed up, so May would stand it on one end, cut the crust off the other, then butter the end of the loaf. Dad says she then tucked the loaf under her arm like a newspaper and sawed off a ready-buttered slice, while Mum says she kept it end-up on the board and sliced like that. We have similar discussions about how May fried chips, and her stew with half a cow’s heel. Humdrum conversations that are full of important bits: May, who was always “our May”, is not just remembered, but seems alive when we talk about how she sliced bread.
I also remember May and Granny slicing oven-bottom cakes in the pub kitchen. These were not cakes at all, but saucer-sized bread buns with firm, flat bottoms because they were cooked at the bottom of the baker’s oven. They also had floury tops, which meant you got floury fingers, which you inevitably wiped on your trousers, so got floury trousers. At the pub, ovenbottom cakes were split and filled with bacon, flash-fried steaks or slices of cheese. As kids, my brother and sister and I would sit on high stools up at the bar, shuffling beer mats or rumpling beer towels, then squashing the two halves and the filling of our lunch together so the bacon with its fat, the hot beef or slices of cheese sank into the crumb. As we ate, the floury tops would stick to the roofs of our mouths, until we washed them down with lemonade.
It is the same stickiness with the brash and satisfying boiled beef panini at Sergio’s Mordi e Vai stall on Testaccio market, which you wash down with Peroni. Or with Sandro’s mozzarella and tomato ciabatta at his Fraschetta, which you wash down with half a litre of functional vino. The same kind of sticky comes with every three-cornered, whitesliced, tuna-and-tomato tramezzino all over Italy. In fact, I have come to the conclusion – and you may not agree – that all sandwiches should stick to the roof of your mouth, even if just for a moment.
Then there are the panini al latte
– milk buns – from the perennially good Roman bakery Passi. Or your own oven, if you dissolve 10g fresh yeast in 250ml warm milk, then mix it with 500g plain flour, an egg, and a tablespoon each of sugar and salt. You then knead everything into a smooth dough and leave it to double in size – about two hours. Then just roll the dough into buns and rest for another 45 minutes, before brushing with a glaze made from an egg and a teaspoon of milk, then bake at 200C/390F/gas 6 until golden.
The Italian cousin of the English milk loaf May bought from Hough’s, these buns are slightly sweet and creamy inside – undoubtedly childlike, but not just for children. Like the tin loaf, they demand to be eaten fresh from the oven, split and filled with anything you fancy – a slice of prosciutto and some cream cheese – which might just stick to the roof of your mouth.