Until a rainy night in a granite town high in the mountains of northern Sardinia, I never thought much about the culinary possibilities of stale bread. Nor of the universal inventiveness of cooks in hard times.
A regional dish called Zuppa Gallurese changed all that. It was love at first bite. I had discovered a new soul food, and its ingredients couldn’t be simpler or more universal — stale bread, cheese and broth. As its satisfying flavors and homey textures warmed me to my still-damp toes, I meditated on the universality of stale bread as soul food. And how it was used in endless combination with the other two ingredients all over the bread-eating world.
But first, the Zuppa Gallurese itself: despite its name it is not a soup. It’s not even runny. It is served as a “primi” course, alongside pasta on the menu (if it’s on a menu at all). It’s made from slices of leftover bread layered with cheese. In northern Sardinia’s Gallura, where sheep outnumber people by at least five to one, it’s likely to be a sheep cheese. Or several sheep cheeses, with Sardinian pecorino among them. Like the bread, they may be the dry bits and ends of cheese that has outlived its best moments. This is moistened with a covering of broth — mutton or beef bones cooked with carrot, onion and a handful of local wild herbs, maybe a tomato or a bit of leftover tomato sauce, the way anyone makes broth, with a bit of this and a bit of that.
The mixture is baked in the oven until the broth has been absorbed into the bread and the cheese has melted into it, and the top is golden and just a bit crisp. That’s it. Bread, cheese and broth. But the aromas and flavors that simple mixture blends into is ambrosia.
Maybe, I thought as I savored the last bites, it is the chilly wet January night that makes this so wonderfully satisfying. Rain still beat on the granite-paved street of Tempio Pausania outside, and any warm hearty dish might have had the same effect. But no, a dish of the best culingionis (a local ravioli) or a plate of steaming malloreddus would not have been the same. Tonight was indeed a night for simple artistry with bread, cheese and broth.
I tried it again next day, bright and sunny, at lunch and since I would only be in Gallura a couple more days before moving south into the central mountains, I tried it a third time at the larger town of Arzachena.
It was then that I began considering what other mamas in other hill towns had been doing for centuries with stale bread and cheese bits and meat bones in varying combinations. In Tuscany, ripe tomatoes join the broth and bread, to become a soup that brings tears to the eyes of Tuscans who are far from their mama’s own version of it. A similar soup in Portugal may have a few bits of sausage in it or an egg dropped in at the last minute, instead of the cheese. And for all its popularity at trendy Alpine ski resorts, what is that Swiss staple cheese fondue but stale bread and cheese melted in wine instead of broth? Or how different are the ingredients in Welsh Rarebit, for that matter.
They all began in days when food was scarce and bread went stale — as real bread still does, made without a list of unpronounceable additives to keep is soft and squishy. Surely French peasants had a version that used up the leftover pain, and the Germans for the crusts of brot. In my own New England, we added eggs instead of cheese and called it bread pudding.
So I have not only a new soul food, but a new quest for my travels — the local take on stale bread. It won’t be any better than Zuppa Gallurese on a cold night, though.