The Distinct Smell of Hillbilly (Salt Rising) Bread

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In today’s culture of artisan breads, there’s certainly no shortage of wonderful bakeries that bake hearty, healthy, and wonderful loaves.   You can get anything from sunflower seed to a rustic baguette. But amongst all these truly amazing breads , there’s one I really miss from my childhood. My grandpa used to make something called salt rising bread at his bakery in northern Kentucky. It’s very hard to find at even the older bakeries still around.     As a close cousin to sourdough, it’s comes from a very old tradition.   Even though rare, its tradition is still carried on in Kentucky, West Virginia, Western New York, and Western Pennsylavania.

Salt rising bread is a dense white bread that was widely made by early settlers in and around the Appalacian Mountains.    You might call it Bluegrass bread or holler bread.   The process doesn’t use yeast, or baking powder or soda, but natural organisms to help the dough rise.  The salt in the name is a misnomer, because there’s not much salt in the bread. In fact, it ususally has less salt than most yeast leavened breads. The thought is that salt was used in the early starters to suppress yeast growth and to promote the growth of other natural bacteria.     Or, it might have been the chunks of rock salt that early pioneer women used to warm and incubate a starter over night. Commercial yeast wasn’t available until the 1860s, so pioneer women had to innovate and come up with another way to make bread on the frontier. So, they turned to nature, using the local probiotics around.

The main leavening agents of salt rising bread are a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens, as well as lactobacilis, if milk is used in the starter, and other wild microbes. Clostridium perfringens, or c-perf is one of the fastest growing anaerobic bacteria. It’s commonly found in rotting vegetables and also native to the human GI tract. Although it’s one of the most common causes of food poisoing in the U.S., no one has ever been known to become sick after eating salt rising bread.

In 1923,  Stuart A. Koser, a USDA microbiologist performed a particularly macabre and gruesome experiment with salt rising bread.  He analyzed commercial salt-rising starters and found them teaming with the c-perf bacteria, then known to be found in gangrenous, putrefying flesh wounds.   He wondered if a known disease strain could grow well enough in dough to leaven it and so pose a hidden hazard to the consumer. So he obtained a bacillus culture from the army that had originally been taken from a soldier’s infected wound. It was called the “Silverman” strain, probably after the soldier or his doctor. And Koser made bread with these wound bacteria.   He reported that it compared in size and texture to the commercially made c-perf starters.  Regrettably, Koser didn’t report on flavor or test for toxicity of his wound-made Franken-bread starter.   So his test was relatively unconclusive, other than to point out there are different levels of toxicity from the c-perf bacteria.   But the moral of his story is, don’t lick the spoon or eat any raw dough when making salt rising bread!

A salt rising starter begins with boiling water or milk, and pouring over a mash of wheat flour and corn or potatoes, with some other minor ingredients.     The bubbly substance resulting after 18 hours incubation can then be used to rise bread.  If you use cornmeal for your starter, you want to make sure it’s organic, which comes with friendly bacteria for free!   A salt rising starter is different from a sourdough starter in that it incubates at higher than room temperature, while a sourdough is incubated at lower than room temperature.

Salt rising bread has a very pungent odor that some find very pleasant and some very repulsive. I just remember that growing up, when Mom was cooking breakfast and you smelled salt rising bread being toasted with that distinct sulphery smell, you knew there was going to be a good meal.   It’s smell to me was almost as good as the smell of sizzling bacon.  The bread went well with sunnyside up eggs, goetta, bacon, or just about anything.   The kind my grandpa and uncle made had a more yellowy color  than typical white bread, even though it’s made with wheat flour.   And it was fairly dense, so it had a great crunch when toasted.

C-perf bacteria produces a cocktail of volatile organic acids that include acetic and lactic acids but also butyric. Butyric acid is what gives the characteristic sharp smell of aged cheese.   C-perf also produces  propionic acid, which gives an aroma typical of Emmental-style Swiss cheese. A hot loaf of just-baked salt rising bread releases just enough of these volatile acids to sting the inquiring nose.   That sting is either deliciously good, or horrifyingly bad.

So this chemistry imparts the great cheese-like flavor, that followers of salt rising bread love.   My grandpa’s version had a stronger smell, more like limburger cheese and strong parmeson. It’s as if an unsweetened plain cake had a love child with any smelly European cheese.   Haters of the bread might say it has a taste close to dirty socks, but to those of us who love it, that smell means you’re about to have one delicious breakfast!!

Cinghiale in Cocciolato – The Ragout of the Renaissance

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It’s rare that I have a dish in the U.S. that takes me to my travels in Italy and to some of the amazing food I’ve had there.     But that déjà vu moment just happened for me, at a place within blocks of my house.   It was at Forno Osteria & Bar.   Forno is the new passion for downtown Cincinnati’s Via Vitae Chef Cristian Pietoso, a native of Florence, Italy.

I consider Florence (not Rome) the cultural mecca of Italy, and arguably the WORLD!   There’s the engineering marvel of Brunischeli’s Duomo, Michelangelo’s David, and the Uffizi Museum, just to name a few of Florence’s gems.   It’s sort of funny that Via Vitae translates as the ‘Way of Life’, because Chef Cristian’s restaurant Forno is more about the Italian way of life than Via Vitae is.  I think Via Vitae caters to fat-walleted American businessmen at the risk of being inauthentic.   It’s wonderfully upscale and chic, for those looking for that in an Italian restaurant.

But it’s the unassuming Forno which really distills the essence of Tuscany and the simple way of life of they practice. Tuscans have a worldwide monopoly on the mastery of savoring everything.   There is an Italian phrase which sums up their outlook, “La Dolce fa niente,” which means the art of doing nothing.   I want to hang that phrase in red neon on my backyard fence.   It  has a deeper meaning than the surface translation.  It’s not actually about doing nothing at all – it’s about stopping to smell the roses and savor the simple and important things in life.  It’s about living a truly artful life and enjoying love, friends and family, art and food.

Forno is more rustic than Via Vitae. It’s more about Chef Cristian’s childhood in Tuscany, and I think the most authentic Italian restaurant in Cincinnati.

It was Chef Cristian’s ‘Pappardelle Cinghiale’, or beer-brased wild boar ragout, that took me back to my trip through Tuscany in 2009.  It was on this trip that I learned how to live like an Italian.    Chef Cristian’s dish reminded me so much of a very special dish I had at the Café Polizano in the Tuscan hill town of Montelpuciano.    It’s a beautiful centuries old town built over even older Etruscan site, whose tunnels can still be accessed today. It’s also where the teen angst vampire movie Twilight: New Moon was filmed, posing as the village of Volterra, which is about an hour northwest of Montelpuciano.

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On this trip we were staying with the owners of Café Polizano, Claudio and Davor, who both were artists and also owned the local theatre.   Their home is this fabulous 15th century villa with larger than life unscreened windows that overlook the beautiful Val d’Orcia to the south, and the towering city center of Montelpuciano on the north.      Their villa  has no air conditioning, but the cool night Tuscan air flows in and cools the thick stone walls.   Bats live in symbiosis on the shutters, acting as natural bug repellant.  Claudio is  a poet and actor; Davor a painter and director.       Claudio’s masterpiece is a compilation of food poetry called “Poessi sessualment appetibili” which means ‘poems sexually appetizing’.   Basically it’s food porn – poems that sensualize favorite dishes.    One of the most amazing of these poems is about the dish ‘Cinghiale in cocciolato’ or wild boar in chocolate sauce.  This dish is one of the oldest dishes in Tuscany, having been served there since the Renaissance days of Leonardo and Michelangelo.  It’s  a deep flavored, very masculine dish, that’s popular at Christmas.   Claudio read this poem to us in Italian, in his deep bass voce and then translated. It’s definitely one of the most amazing food soliloquies I’ve ever heard.   Everyone who has a passion for food or even a favorite dish can relate. I was so moved by the poem I had to taste its inspiration, which was served at their café.

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So, one night before going to the opera, we were given ‘soigne’ reservations at the café on their amazing balcony.   I ordered the boar with chocolate sauce, overlooking the valley below that is home to over 200 producers of the wonderful Sangiovese grape.     Think of the view of the long windy road scene in Under the Tuscan Sun. It’s lined with tall narrow cypress trees and fields of sunflowers and vineyards, backlit by the setting sun.   We shared a bottle of locally produced Sangiovese red wine that ignited the dish. The boar had been slowly braised in red wine and a variety of deep spices like coriander, peppercorns, and others. The fatty meat had rendered and made its own tasty ragout and the meat had accepted all the wonderful flavors of the prunes, raisins, onions, garlic, carrots, celery and tomatoes.   The bittersweet chocolate was just there enough to add a thin layer of even more flavor onto an already masterful symphony.   The thick pappardelle pasta, acting as sauce sherpa, was freshly made and tender, but not chewy; soft, but not mushy.   A flurry of freshly ground unpasteurized Italian pecorino cheese was made to snow onto the dish.     Every bite was a 300 piece orchestra playing the finale of a Verdi opera, accentuated with my deep moans of satisfaction.

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It’s funny how vividly food memories are cemented into our brains.   I was reminded with one bite, of the wonderful opera we saw after that amazing dinner, in a 400 year old theatre as old as opera itself, made up of nearly all personal boxes.   I was reminded of how the hot Tuscan summer air sublimates the evergreen essences of the cypress trees, and how good the peccarino cheese tastes, how stylish even the Italian nonas or grandmas, are, and how strong the expresso is, and, and and…. One taste of Forno’s boar ragout took me back to that moment in Montelpuciano, where I was tanner, thinner, younger, and dumber, and reminded me of that simple philosophy I’d nearly forgotten, “La dolce fa niente.”