When I lived in Paris, I would get up, throw on some clothes, and head straight to the neighborhood bakery, sleepy-eyed and without even washing my face. A half-baguette was the perfect size for me. Once I had purchased a fragrant half-loaf and taken it back to my house, I would spread butter and jam on it for my breakfast. Just that was enough to bring me joy. If you’ve ever eaten a baguette in France, I’m sure you understand why it was delectable enough to get me out of bed in the morning. The next morning I’d eat the rest of it—and even though the texture noticeably changes in a day, it was still worth eating.
Italy also has a bread culture, but it’s not good enough to get me out of bed in the morning. Bread that was delicious when you bought it in the morning is unappetizing by evening. They sell French-style bread that they call “baguettes” in Italy, and though they’re satisfying enough if you bite into them the minute you buy them, for some strange reason they transform into something that’s not very enjoyable in just a few hours. If you forget about it until the next day it becomes hard as a rock—and if you force yourself to eat it like a starving person you’ll end up with your mouth torn to shreds.
Unsalted butter is the norm in Italy, so until I got used to it I always felt like it tasted flat when I put it on my bread in the morning. And sure—it didn’t help that I also sometimes bought croissants for breakfast in Paris, and they were incredibly delicious. You do sometimes see croissants for breakfast in Italy, but they’re so sweet that I just couldn’t get used to them either.
Despite the fact that they’re neighbors, you can see the stark contrasts in the palates of the Italians and the French just in the bread they eat.
Speaking of differences, the same thing is true with brioche bread. I visited a Japanese friend living in Milan while I was living in Paris, and she asked me to buy a bunch of bread for her in Paris and bring it with me. I of course brought baguettes, but also croissants, pain au chocolat, raisin bread, and so on, showing off each of them as I took them out of the bag. Finally, I took out the brioche.
I explained to her that a brioche was a fluffy, sweetish bread made with milk, butter, and lots of eggs…
But my friend just looked perplexed when I took it out.
Apparently, croissants are called “brioches” in Milan. When I took out this huge chunk of bread that I had brought from Paris, it was so different that my friend just tilted her head in confusion.
Later, when I had moved to Milan and went to a coffee bar for breakfast, I saw a bunch of croissants in different flavors (chocolate cream, jam, cream, and so on) on the counter and sure enough, they were labeled “brioches” instead of croissants. I’ve heard that the Italians use the word “brioche” to refer to all kinds of bread eaten in the morning, from croissants to snack breads and cake.
Incidentally, I was deceived by the bread in Milan not long after I moved here. Michetta is becoming a rare type of bread that you hardly see anymore. It’s got a bulged shape with a wonderfully toasted color along the curves, and I found it in a bakery. It was the perfect size for complementing two days’ worth of meals for me. I pointed to it and asked for one, but had an unexpected surprise when I took the paper bag. It was really light.
When I got back to my house and started cutting it up, I realized it was hollow…
It was only enough bread for one meal.
The hollow michetta is one of the signature breads of Milan. According to Wikipedia, the high humidity in Milan causes bread to quickly degrade and get moldy, so they came up with the idea of making it hollow.
Lately, though, michetta has become hard to find. Even knowing that it’s hollow, you can’t help but feel a little cheated by it. Maybe that’s why it’s gotten unpopular?
Actually, it’s not the buyer who feels cheated by them, it’s the bakeries. They’re the cheapest thing in there because they’re so lightweight so it’s probably not worth the effort it takes to make them—and that’s why they’re disappearing.