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The Baker’s Apprentice

Italy - 12 Mar 14 - Silvia Cancellieri

These days, doing a strictly manual job is often considered a sign of having little education, of not having found anything better. Wanting to produce food, then, is like making a bad joke. People like to act as though food has lost all of its social value, but nobody would deny the importance of preparing the table when friends are coming round for dinner. I wanted to be one of the creators of that pleasure that is simultaneously denied and sought after.

I have been an apprentice for a year now, my path intersecting with that of bread-baking. While I knead, I think about how all cultures have some kind of bread or bread substitute, and I feel part of the world. Bread is a simple food, made from the transformation of basic ingredients. It does not need refined additions to be tasty and wholesome, but essentially nothing more than good flour without its nutrients removed, a long resting time—as a healthy organism should have—and well-cared-for yeast that is neither hungry nor thirsty.

Bread is a food that can be easily varied based on historic, climatic or dietary needs. It fills stomachs, is versatile and has many shapes, aromas and colors. Even its simplest forms are excellent, it does not hide the quality of its ingredients and is deliciously easy to embellish, making it special, even luxurious.

It is the result of carefully prepared recipes, of coveted combinations, but most of all of the perfect interlocking between its elements, and of sensory communication with the dough. In the end it is logic and concentration, minutes that change everything, applied theoretical knowledge and food education accessible to all.

After graduating, there is a moment of silence, in which you find yourself with diploma in hand and all the knowledge that has piled up in your head over the years… and you ask yourself what to do with it all.

The world of gastronomy had flung itself open to my classmates and me with a deafening clamor, revealing itself in its immensity. I had lost myself within it, unsure which direction to take. The only fixed point: talking about food had radically changed my life. Food entered forcefully into every thought, connected to everything, almost nauseating, and hard to manage socially. You feel as though you’ve found out about something obvious that nonetheless eludes many. Gastronomy is economics, politics, cooking, social relations, health, environment, and rights. It is holistic by nature, there is space for everyone and for the most varied of passions, and for many the next step towards what to do “after” is short and taken for granted.

But not for me. The more I thought about all the issues we had tackled, the less I understood how to become an active part of the game. Time was flying, and this helped me to focus on certain factors: Studying had opened my mind, but a specific and concrete skill has to be constructed, extrapolated from the university years by putting together the pieces. Now, I’m no theorist: I want to touch with my hands, to see the results of my thoughts grow tangibly. I was looking for something practical in which to reflect the theory I had learned. Plus I understood how difficult it is to feel stable these days. My generation has grown up with the idea of “if not here, then somewhere else.” We have been trained to be ready to change places, relationships, jobs. Finally, the indelible mark of Pollenzo: not just appreciating the palatability of food, but grasping the meaning of nourishment and the provenance of products.

I concluded that I wanted to “specialize” in something that I could always take with me and which was completed through me, without needing anything else; something that could be useful in different parts of the world. That embedded knowledge that can, if necessary, distinguish me. A kind of work that has no need of desks and ties, of relationships fixed by convention. I wanted to use my senses, and communicate through them. I wanted that kind of work that in a world of online social relations brings people’s feet back to the ground and makes them aware of their needs and bodily pleasures and the differences in fulfilling them. I wanted work that respects and reflects that capacity for “doing” that was once so useful and today has become… freeze-dried. You buy it from the supermarket, a flavorless ability, foods that someone has engineered, you don’t know who, you don’t know how… products without their own life.

So I was looking for a craft, a manual skill. A tangible ability that reflected the value of my efforts and the result obtained, and through this would connect me to the surrounding world.

The bread that I hold in my hands is the best expression that I could find to put into practice so much precious knowledge and pass it on to others. Inside there is everything, though it may seem as though there is little instruction. Following the master is a daily satisfaction, a constant evolution, the discovery of an art that demands slow and patient learning, dedication and personality. A skill that slowly, viscerally becomes your own. Having in your hands your own talent, which cannot be substituted, is a bit like being a wizard, who, when playing with the transformation of a material, reveals a secret, and offers its result. 

Today we are re-evaluating the manual crafts, understanding the value of abilities and skills that could be lost forever and cannot always be replaced by the dexterity of a machine. Overwhelmed by the low-cost, throwaway consumption culture, we are perhaps reaching a limit; food no longer has flavor, shoes fall apart too soon. And we ask ourselves who, where and how we can find a remedy.

I love my work, despite the persistence it requires, the physical effort, the terrible hours.

I love it because the more I improve the more I feel that I give dignity to a food that is out of fashion but essential in time and space. I love it through the words of people, their eyes shining as their mouths water. I realize that I am finally satisfying those stomachs embittered from eating cheap air. I love being able to pass on the virtues of a slow and careful production process, whose dietary and economic value must be fully understood, receiving in exchange, finally, total satisfaction.

Silvia Cancellieri is a graduate of the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Find out more at www.unisg.it


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