Earlier this week, we had the honor of hosting some amazing guests here at Zingerman’s Bakehouse. The guest list included our friends from Gustiamo in New York, sellers of fine Italian foods, Beatrice and Danielle. They have visited Zingerman’s before, but this time they brought with them Renato Flaborea, a famous baker from Venice, and Filippo Drago, a miller from Sicily. The two have a friendship that began in Sicily 15 years ago and their pursuit of great food and preserving old traditions led them to Ann Arbor. They are in the United States for a six-day trip that includes two days in New York, one day in Chicago, and three days here with us at Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor.
First, they baked all day with Frank Carollo, Bakehouse co-owner, and Amy Berger, long time baker. Followed by cooking up pasta with pesto, couscous with fish and suckling pig with wild fennel alongside the chefs at Zingerman’s Roadhouse into the night. This was all in preparation for offering a sold-out dinner there called “Supper in Sicily”. It was a special evening for those lucky enough to attend. The Roadhouse special dinner was the only public event on their U.S. visit and you can’t get a traditional Sicilian meal like that in Ann Arbor every night.
Not surprisingly, the menu also included several loaves of bread. Renato, Filippo, Frank, and Amy baked all day making Pane Nero di Castelvetrano, Due Macine, Pizza Bianca a Pala, Quadrucci Secchi, as well as Cannoli Siciliani for dessert. We were particularly taken with the Due Macine, which translates to twice milled. It was a crusty wheat bread with a striking appearance, created by braiding half of the dough and wrapping it around the loaf before baking. We’ll keep practicing and maybe you’ll see it emerging from a Bakehouse oven someday.
When packing for his trip, Renato didn’t just bring the usual necessities. He tucked a plastic bag of his own natural bread starter in his suitcase for the plane ride from Sicily to New York. Then Beatrice transferred it to a bowl for the flight from New York to Detroit. She says the TSA wasn’t sure if they considered the blob of bread starter a liquid or a solid or if it was a threat, but they ultimately let it through. This Italian starter was very mild and less sour than the starter we use here at the Bakehouse.
Gustiamo imports and distributes Italian foods, such as pasta and olive oil, to many places around the country, including Zingerman’s Delicatessen and Zingerman’s Mail Order. They just began importing the flour from Molini del Ponte, Filippo’s family mill in Castelvetrano. That’s where we come in. We’re honored to be the first bakery in the United States using Filippo’s exquisite flour.
Last year Frank took a trip to Sicily, where an earlier generation of his family hails from. He visited Molini del Ponte to meet Filippo and tour the mill. He fell in love with Pane Nero, a bread Ari, Zingerman’s Co-Founding Partner, had told him about many years earlier. When Frank got back to Ann Arbor, he got to work on testing the bread here and being the first in the US to bake with the ancient grain from Sicily. It might not be local to Ann Arbor, but it’s local in the sense that we have a relationship with the grower and the miller and share their passion and beliefs about good food.
The group’s next stop on their brief U.S. tour is Chicago where they’ll be doing flour demonstrations for restaurant chefs, pizza makers and bakers trying to spread the international love for their flours. Since the Tumminia flour is stone milled it has some variation, making it more challenging to use. “It has to be used with care by an experienced baker,” says Beatrice. “It is affected by temperature and humidity as well. That’s why Filippo, the miller, and Renato, the baker, came to show people first hand how to use it.”
When I sat down with Filippo and patiently waited for a translation from Italian to English, I could see in his animated hand movements and the way his face lit up how passionate he is about his business. His life’s work is to support the growing, milling, and eating of sustainable ancient grains like Tumminia. He proudly showed me photos on his phone of his first New York Times mention, the label art for the beer he makes with is wheat and the logo for his mill. For him, that logo has great significance. It is symbolic of Sicily, a triangle like the shape of the island. The circle in the center is bread.
In Filippo’s words, though he started milling recently, (“only” 15 years ago) his flours have become accepted and adopted by the most well-known chefs and bakers in Italy. Gabriella Bonci, who Filippo says is the Michelangelo of pizza in Rome posits “Filippo Drago. And that’s all.” But it was a long difficult process. Previously, the industry was dominated by industrial wheat, much like here in the U.S. When Filippo started a local wheat movement in Italy, growing and stone-milling ancient varieties, people thought he was crazy including his own family. He says he lost many customers, friends and even family over it. They told him he would not succeed, but now they see his vision as a reality. He takes a lot of pride in that. This is the kind of person you want growing and making your food. I could listen to Filippo speak and admire his hair, all day.
Beatrice let me know it was time for them to go. It was important to her they stop at Zingerman’s Delicatessen on the way to the airport. She wanted Filippo and Renato to experience it and “to have a Reuben of course”.
-by Sara Whipple