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In the Italian village of Ro Ferrarese, locally grown organic wheat and a traditional floating mill are coming together to make what some call the 'world's best bread.' Everyone in the village has a role to play.
Bakers near Ro Ferrarese are recovering local, nearly-extinct varieties of wheat
When asked where the world's best bread is made, the French and Germans might like to claim the title for themselves, feigning incomprehension for the tastes of others, but according to 20th century Italian novelist Riccardo Bacchelli, it was made in Ferrara on the banks of the River Po.
The city of Ferrara is located in one of Europe's proudest foodie regions – the Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy. Together with the nearby Delta del Po Park, it forms a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Although the town's mills have long since disappeared, they've never been forgotten by the local communities whose economy is still based on cereal production.
Today, the small nearby village of Ro Ferrarese is involved in a project to recover the lost glory of its ancient bread-making tradition. With the help of EU funding, the villagers have rebuilt a traditional floating mill, using plans dating back to 1850.
They hope the mill, which will be used to make old-fashioned organic bread, will help protect their local environment, economy and sense of identity.
The Po Delta area once had as many as 170 floating mills.
Around 100 years ago there were still as many as 170 floating mills to be found in the Po Delta region, anchored between the two banks where the current is strongest. By the end of the Second World War, none remained.
The mills worked wheat of ancient varieties like Gentil Rosso, Mentana and Marzuoli grown by local farmers. The flour they ground made Ferrara's bread famous.
'La Coppia' is shaped like two arms and legs attached to a tiny body in the middle. It's been around for centuries, and is still the area's most popular bread.
Riccardo Bacchelli - who lived in the area during the late 1930s - described it as the "best bread in the world" in his novel, "The Mill on the Po." The book's detailed descriptions of life here in the past are cherished by tiny river-bank villages like Ro Ferrarese.
Locals are excited about reviving the authentic, traditional process of making La Coppia.
Alberto Fabbri, who works for the Slow Food movement, came up with the idea of building a new floating mill five years ago.
He has since been coordinating the project, and the thatched wooden construction with its large water wheel and stone grinding slab is now operational with just occasional help from an electric generator.
"We wanted to show that it was possible to construct an entire short-distance production chain that went from field to table," he told Deutsche Welle. "In other words, from the farmers to the millers to the bakers to the shops and restaurants to the consumers - proving you can make 100% local organic bread."
Links in a chain
The local variety of wheat doesn't produce high yields, but is very nutritious
While the quest for locally produced traditional bread is most visibly embodied by the mill, there are many links in the associated production chain. Planting original wheat varieties is a case in point.
Carlo Barzocchi, an agronomist, specializes in recovering past traditions.
"We have to adopt the best aspects of the past," he told Deutsche Welle. "We mustn't make the mistakes of the kind of agronomy which has renounced its roots."
Barzocchi's search to recover the ancient wheat grains which once grew in the Po Delta - before they were replaced by higher yielding varieties - took him to a seed bank in St. Petersburg.
He says traditional wheat grains often have greater biodiversity and more balanced nutritional elements compared to newer varieties, which tend to be "restricted" in terms of their nutritional value, "apart from certain elements which are present in large quantities."
"These high quantities are the ones which often provoke allergies, intolerances and other pathologies from which so many people suffer nowadays," he said.
The choice to replant ancient varieties isn't about romantic nostalgia for a rosier past, but rather the need for consumer choice, according to Barzocchi.
"There's an industrial type which has certain characteristics: Low cost, poor quality on average, highly processed," he said. "Then there's the possibility of making products which are high quality and have greater food value, using these older, more sensible varieties."
Think global, grow local
Perhaps because the community is small enough for news to travel by word of mouth, the project is gaining traction with local farmers.
One farmer who took a quick interest, Giancarlo Robibero, substituted his high-yield wheat variety with ancient local varieties.
Ferrara hopes its traditional organic bread will be an economic success
"Apart from a possible financial aspect, from a nutritional perspective, I like the fact it's so natural," he told Deutsche Welle. "In this area people nowadays only think about making money, human beings have lost their values."
Like everyone involved, Giancarlo Robibero hopes the bread will earn a reputation that will increase its market value and attract visitors.
Once his wheat has been ground into flour at the floating mill, someone else has to bake it, and that's where having a small community can make big things happen.
Roberto Borghetto says he was born a baker. He comes from a family of millers and bakers who've been making bread for over 200 years and he says his great grandfather once owned a floating mill.
Borghetto converted to organic ingredients 15 years ago, but says he had to import his flours from Germany and Austria to ensure top quality.
"I chose to become part of this chain because I agree with the people who cultivate this wheat in the village of Ro: It's the right thing to do.
"To make bread with local wheat is the best possible thing to do, especially when, as is the case of this particular wheat, it's a really tasty and healthy variety," he told Deutsche Welle. "We have great local varieties with excellent characteristics but nobody seems to know about them."
La Coppia's crunchy texture may not be for everyone - the French may still hold to their baguettes, and the Germans to their 'brot' – but Ro Ferrarese's bread has the undeniable taste and smell of wheat to it.
And for the locals, it comes with an aftertaste - the satisfaction of knowing that every grain is helping protect the Po Delta's natural environment and local economy.
After all, who wouldn't want to stop off on a boat or bike trip to sample "the best bread in the world?"
Author: Dany Mitzman (gps)
Editor: Nathan Witkop