Eating a sandwich the other day, I started to think about bread. The sandwich was good, apart from the bread. The bread wasn’t bad. It was nicely chewy, a little grainy, didn’t disintegrate due to juicy tomato slices, but it was sweet. Really sweet. Everything was good about the sandwich apart from that sweetness.
Until I started to live overseas, I didn’t give bread much thought beyond ‘Do I have enough for toast?” If bread on a holiday in a foreign country was different from the bread at home, it was no big deal. Vacations are opportunities to try all sorts of new things, and since vacations outside the UK meant France, it was all very good! But when being overseas is your everyday reality, it matters a little more. It wasn’t an issue when I lived in Italy. Plenty of decent (and not sweet) bread there. But as I moved further from home, I realized bread is certainly not the same thing in every country. To clarify, I’m talking about sliced bread. I know that buying a fresh, whole loaf is invariably tastier, but more often than not, I buy sliced loaves for convenience. I used to go to a bakery and get them to slice up a granary loaf while I waited back in the UK. I’ve not seen a bakery, as I know it, in the town where I now live.
When I lived in Japan, I was amazed by the sliced bread. For a start, they don’t sell you the whole loaf. You buy it in bags of between 4 and 8 slices. It was often doorstep-thick, soft and puffy, but lacking in body and texture. Not to mention fibre! Wholemeal bread was relatively scarce, though it existed, but it too was soft, squishy, and far too sweet. http://malaysia-seikatsu.com/acc/bread-in-japan
I learned to eat rice balls stuffed with picked plums and wrapped in seaweed instead, or rice rolls filled with fermented soy beans. I still would if they were relatively available here. I really enjoyed them!
Now I live in the US, and bread looks a lot more like the bread I ate in the UK. Loaves are full size. I have a wide choice of whole-wheat breads made of various grains. However, it still doesn’t taste like home. The main difference between British bread and American bread is the sweetness. Bread here is sweet. Much sweeter than English bread. One of the few things I remember from studying Dante many years ago is the line in Purgatory where he talked about the saltiness of other’s bread. He was speaking both figuratively and literally (the salty/bitterness of exile, and the actual saltiness of bread from outside Tuscany: see this blog post for an explanation of Tuscan bread). For some reason that resonated with me when I read it and now I always think of that when I eat bread here – while certainly not in exile, I’ve chosen to settle abroad, and the bread just isn’t right! It looks right, smells right, but it just doesn’t taste right due to that sweetness. Although here is now my home, there will always be little differences that will never feel quite right.
“Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui,
(You will know how salty another’s bread tastes,)
Paradiso XVII: 58-59
And my preferred loaf? A nice granary. What’s yours?