“Il pane apre tutte le bocche”
(bread opens all mouths)
It is officially harvest time in Canada. Last summer I was in Tuscany, where everything we used was local except the flour. We grew our own hard and soft wheat in the late summer, but before and after that we made our bread with Manitoba Flour. As a Canadian fully immersed in Italian life, I was conflicted; both proud of Canada for growing wheat lucky enough to be made into chewy, crusty bread and a bit worried about diverting so far from the Slow Food mantra.
As it turns out, what the Italians call Manitoba Flour is actually made from Canada Western Red Spring (CWRS) wheat. It is grown not just in Manitoba, but also in Saskatchewan and Alberta. The long warm summer days, adequate moisture levels and fertile soil contribute to Canada’s high quality wheat. Canada is one of the world's largest wheat producers and exporters, and is renowned for its selection of hard and soft wheat and favored specifically for its high percentage of protein. American Hard Red Spring (HRS) is grown in the United States and is referred to as American Flour in Italy, where it is used interchangeably with Manitoba Flour.
Italian wheat most often produces soft (or "weak") flours, ideally used in pastries and cakes. Lower-protein content in the flour will result in bread that is dense and has a tender crumb. A biga was traditionally used with soft flours to produce chewy, crusty bread. It is a stiff starter (also known as a pre-ferment) that gives both texture and taste to the bread. Today, bigas are still used in Italian bread making, but are no longer as necessary. Strong Canadian flour (is readily available and often pre-mixed with European flours.
CWRS flour is considered strong because of its high gluten content. Wheat flour is unique because when the proteins in the flour are mixed with water they form gluten. CWRS has a high protein content (around 13.5% compared to the other hard wheat varieties, which average around 11%) and thus forms more gluten when combined with water. Gluten provides elasticity and results in bread with big air pockets. The result is what bakers refer to as an ‘open crumb’: bread with a lacy interior structure.
The protein in the CWRS wheat causes the bread to grow bigger. CWRS flour absorbs, on average, 69% water, compared to 60% for the others. This is especially beneficial to bread makers, who can make more bread with less flour and increase their profit margins.
Protein content also affects the weight of the flour. For this reason, it is important to always weigh flour. One cup of cake flour weighs 114 grams whereas one cup of bread flour weighs 130 grams. It is crucial that the correct amount of flour is added, by weight, not volume.
In Italy, the percentage of protein is included with the nutritional information. In Canada, you can divide X grams of protein by the total weight and multiply it by 100. Robin Hood’s Best for Bread flour has 4 grams of protein per 30 grams of flour. That’s the perfect 13.3% protein we (k)need (har har) for any delicious crusty bread. It is so wonderful to have such an amazing product, produced so close to home.
This year’s spring wheat harvest is almost complete and the quality has been good, despite the very late harvest. Unfortunately, due to poor weather early in the growing season, Canadian farmers will harvest approximately 19.5 million metric tons of wheat (not including durum) - 3.6 million tons less than the harvest of 2008. On the bright side, warm and dry weather towards the end of the growing season yielded more wheat than originally predicted. Even better, the next time you buy flour, you will most likely be buying the best in the world: Canadian!
I guess the final product justifies bending the (Slow Food) rules, when you're making bread in Italy.