When I got home from the grocery store I looked at the sales slip and saw tartaruga. Which means turtle in Italian. It took me a minute. I didn’t remember buying a turtle for lunch. Then, of course, I saw and remembered: it was the bread.
It is said of France, one of the special pleasures of travel there is the bread. So it is in Italy. There is no such thing as the standard-issue baguette you associate with France. Here (as I’m sure it is true there) the bread comes in so many varieties, forms, shapes, and sizes. I stood in the bread aisle for a few minutes surveying my choices, before selecting turtle–and then only because the bag contained just two rolls and because of the scored crust–I thought it would remind my wife of the bread rolls in Rome she loves so much. (It did.)
One common characteristic of the bread here is the hard crust. The bread, as my mother-in-law used to say, is cotta bene. It’s well done, to the point of crunch. A second quality is salt content–low to very low. The Florentines pride themselves in their no-salt bread, a tradition dating back to city-state times, when the Florence city state was at war with Pisa city state and salt did not arrive in Florence from the sea. When diplomatic relations and trade were restored, Florence maintained the no-salt recipe, which has endured to this day.
For Europeans traveling in the US, our bread is often a revelation, and not a positive one. Not much of a crust. What’s beneath the crust can be spongy and doughy, sometimes to the point of gooey. (When I was a kid, we ate Wonder Bread and Hillbilly Bread, both as spongy and doughy as bread could be.) In the classroom, I used to question immigrant students about their impressions of the US. If bread came up in the conversation, they inevitably closed their eyes and shook their heads. Terrible.
You break turtle bread into bite-size pieces, daub preserves on it at breakfast, drag in through olive oil left on a platter at lunch. Give us this day our daily bread, ben-cotta.