A Trip to Northern Italy (and What I Did with My Sourdough Starter)

I’ve been separated from my good friend ‘baking’ for a short stint, but only because I traveled out to northern Italy, specifically the Veneto region, to attend a very important wedding: my brother’s! His fiance and her family live in the area but most of my family is in the south, with just a few up north, and so it’s a convenient central point for everyone to congregate and celebrate — and we sure did. Countless bottles of prosecco, sent back for recycling with nary a drop, provided ample proof of the full-day event. Prossecco is the life-blood of this area and every square inch of farmland has a vineyard placed on it, soaking up the rich soil to produce those lovely little pale grapes.

This area of Italy is certainly my favorite. Vineyards as far as the eye can see, wispy clouds always threatening to drop rain, and the slight smell of burning wood on the nose from fired ovens cooking slow meals for those who probably see them more often than not. There is a peacefulness out here that can only be found out in the Italian farmland, a peacefulness you don’t stop to take notice of until you’re out on vacation with no timeline and no strict work hours — you’re a spectator. Just another naive youth among ancient vines and olive trees that could tell stories of things far back before you were born. It’s humbling, and it makes you slow down, if only for a few moments, to take it all in and imagine yourself working and living here. Very hard work, to be sure, but more gratifying and fulfilling than working in a city behind a desk? Perhaps.

Vineyards Northern Italy Conegliano

One thing is for sure: a nice afternoon walk through these vines wipes your day’s troubles away.

Olive and Roman Ruins

I watched the farmers toil the earth, the grape leaves turn ever more green in the rain, and smoke slowly rise from chimneys like smoke from an old man’s pipe. Yes this truly is a perfect place for an event such as this. The reception hall was a small bed and breakfast, Moro Barel, with an ever-turning spit jam packed with meat. That smell permeated the entire place day and night, there was no escaping the siren’s call.

The Slow Spit at Moro Barel

The homestyle food at the reception was stellar. Each dish better than the one previous, and a special award goes to the stinging nettle risotto I wish I had taken a picture of… I couldn’t part with my fork long enough to document the dish.

Before the reception the actual wedding was at the Municipio, essentially the town courthouse, and what Italian wedding is complete without the fully restored Volkswagen Beetle dropping off the bide-to-be?

VW Beetle

Awesome, right? That blue color, just perfect.

It’s a big thing in Italy, the restoration of older cars and scooters, especially VW Beetles and old Vespas. It’s an interesting movement actually as most people desire older cars back when they had heavy curves and a soul to their design. Not to say a brand new Ferrari or Lamborghini isn’t a beautiful sight to behold, but I can appreciate these older models and the work they put into them just as much.

VW Beetle

It was a great ceremony and I’m incredibly happy for my brother and new sister, but truth be told she’s been a part of our family long before this event. I’m excited for them to start their new life together — auguri!

The Bride

Just Married in Conegliano Italy

After the wedding ceremony I spent time with family for the most part with a few little trips out to see some sights and some more vineyards. One off the beaten path site we visited was Canova’s Temple in Possagno, a stunning church made in the likeness of Rome’s Pantheon (one of my favorite sites in all of Italy). We spoke to the person taking care of the place and he let us go behind a locked wooden door to climb the several flights of stairs to the top of the dome. What a view from up there. If you’re interested in architecture I highly recommend seeking out this temple, it has a wonderful mix of styles with the Doric columns, Catholic church inside, and blend of Greek and Italian influences running throughout.

Canova's Temple in Possagno

There’s something about sites like this and the Pantheon that speak to me, that heavy sense of symmetry and perfect angles. It’s a testament to the incredible architects of the time.1

From there we took a short trip out to Trieste to explore for an afternoon. This is another reason why I love Italy so much, a two hour train ride can take you to a completely different place with completely different food and completely different people. Trieste was a beautiful city and I’ll have to return in the future to spend some more time there walking along the ocean and exploring the innards of the city further.

Let’s not forget about a few meals we had thanks to the bride’s family. One was a large gathering where they made some really great tagliatelle with bolognese sauce followed up by a griddle-fried local cheese and grilled polenta. Crazy good.

Tagliatelle Bolognese

Think you’ve cooked amazing pasta for a large group? Think again, take a look at the size of that pot! Marcello, the head cook here, made the traditional Bolognese sauce as they do in the north, it’s hard to find it that good elsewhere.

Tagliatelle Bolognese

And now for a truly savory dish, it looks like a small portion but honestly you could not eat any more than this. The cheese is incredibly rich and savory, but not gooey or runny, just the right stiffness. You’ve never had a “grilled cheese” until you’ve had this. I think I’m now ruined from all further imitations. Grilled polenta is such a comfort food, it just tastes good, and this was a really good pairing. I was completely stuffed at the end of these two dishes.

Fried Cheese and Polenta

Starter Maintenance When on Vacation

Some of you might ask, “hey what did you do with your starter while you were gone that whole time?”, well the short answer is I simply stuck it in the fridge and let Brutus chill out. I increased my flour percentage by 50% and decreased the water percentage just a bit, mixed it up to a thick paste, put it in a handy Weck jar, and into the fridge it went with a clear label on top: DO NOT THROW! You never know when the eager fridge-rummager might toss something that looks like it has no life to it. In addition to the colder temperatures in the fridge, the reduced hydration helps to keep the starter from consuming all of its food during its rest.

Upon returning from my trip, Brutus was out on the counter first thing, warming up and getting hungry. I started feeding once a day for a few days and then back up to twice a day in preparation for baking as soon as time permitted. My first couple will be a refresher, some simple country sour loaves for my Dad’s birthday coming up — my trusty formula will get me back in the swing of things2.

Expect some new recipes coming your way very soon. I’ve been experimenting with more whole grain flour for a heartier bread that’s light and airy, although not quite as whole grain as my last 100% whole wheat loaves.

Kids and Baloons

theperfectloaf-8

theperfectloaf_wedding-1


  1. Notice the local sitting at the base of the far right column, not a bad place to spend lunchtime.

  2. Ok, a week isn’t that long to be gone, really, but when you travel to Italy for some reason it feels like you’re stepping into another life for a while. In a good way.

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  • SoniaF

    What a great post. I feel like I traveled to Italy while reading it and could almost taste that amazing food. Thank you for letting us share in this beautiful family event with you. The pictures (especially the bride) are gorgeous.

  • Scott Schmidt

    Hi Maurizio-

    I just returned from Italy as well – a trip to the enchanting Amalfi Coast. It rekindled my love for pasta, Neapolitan pizza made in wood-fired ovens, and Limoncello. While I was away, I did the same with my two starters (one white, one rye), and they came right back to life when I returned home.

    But – and I don’t know if other readers have done this – I have frozen some of my starter just in case my live jars ever become contaminated, ruined, etc. As you well know, when one backs up a computer, it’s important to test the backup to ensure that it will work when needed. So, I recently thawed out my frozen starter and successfully brought it back to life with about three days of feeding. It was just as lively as it was before I froze it, so I now have confidence that this can be done.

    Perhaps others will be interested in this technique, and can comment on their experiences.

    Rgds-

    Scott
    London UK

    • Ahhh the Amalfi Coast, I’m jealous as I haven’t had a chance to really explore that area as much as I should. Wood-fired pizza… I will build one in my yard one day.

      Freezing a small portion of your starter is a great idea, and in fact, I do the same thing. Mine is going on 4 (or maybe 5 now) years at this point so I definitely want to keep the lineage going. Thanks for posting that as it is a useful thing to do especially if you are going on a prolonged trip.

      Perhaps we’ll run into each other in Italy one day!

  • What a beautiful, beautiful post. Stunning photos and heartfelt, descriptive writing that had me misty eyed! You took me to Italy, where I think I must have lived in a former life. Thank you.

    • Thank you so much for the kind words, I’m glad you liked the post! It’s such a wonderful place, I’m going to definitely move out there one day 🙂

  • Andy

    A. Great photos – what camera do you have / how much training in photography?
    B. I have to travel quite a lot for work so I end up moving my starter to the fridge fairly often. When I take it out, it usually takes a few days to get back to normal. Is there a way to speed that up? For example, come home Wednesday night and have it ready to make an overnight levain Friday evening? Would I just use warm water and high hydration and try to do multiple feedings every day?

    • A. Thanks, Andy! I have a Nikon D810 and have no formal photography training — I shoot what I see. I’ve been taking pictures for a long while and have even done a couple weddings.

      B. You could try warmer water to kick start things, but I honestly am not sure if that will have the same effect. I could see increased activity due to the warmer conditions, but scientifically I would think you need a few generations of bacteria/yeast propagation before they are at full strength & population. That’s just my thoughts, it would be work an side-by-side trial!

      Thanks for the comments!

      (Oh and I’m just curious, do you receive an email when I reply to your comment? I switched to a new commenting system and I’m trying to determine if people are notified — thanks!)

      • Andy

        Got it.

        I did just receive an email.

  • Robert Blesse

    Ciao Maurizio,
    So glad you’re back! Sounds like you had an amazing visit. You’ve been busy, not to mention the Apple Watch.
    My wife and I live in Florence, Italy, moving here last September from Reno, Nevada. I retired after being on the faculty of the University of Nevada, Reno for thirty-three years.
    I’ve been making bread seriously for about three years and without question, your blog is one of the very best about making bread. I love all the information you give and your excellent, informative, and amusing style. Though this is the first time I’ve posted, I’ve been with your blog for a while. I promise I’ll make up for that with plenty of comments in the future.
    Making bread, particularly, sourdough, has been challenging here in Italy. The flours are quite different and it has taken me a while figure out the right ones to use. Also, yeast as we use in the U.S. is non-existent. I ordered instant yeast through Amazon in the UK and it was made in Mexico! However, I’ve had a starter going for about five months and feed it every day. I’m using half rye flour and half all-purpose. I’ve had to adjust, but am getting closer to good loaves.
    Anyway, I look forward to reading your coming posts and going back to your older ones, something I frequently do.
    Thanks, so much, for all you do for us breadmakers.
    A presto!
    Bob

    • Bob, thanks so much it was an amazing trip, as it always is out to Italy!

      I’m jealous you are living in Florence, it is one of my favorite cities in Italy. I have a great memory of the time when I skipped the line to see the Uffizi and instead wondered into a super small mom & pop restaurant off some random side street to have some of the best gnocchi of my life (excluding my grandmother’s of course).

      I can imagine the flour out there is very different, but you should have no trouble finding some very high quality stuff. I am always jealous of the 00 options out there for pizza (not for bread), that would be great to have here. I’m sure it’ll take some practice but you’ll learn which brands to use for sourdough, and which for pasta, pizza, etc.

      Made in Mexico… now that’s a change! Well, no worries about that commercial yeast stuff, now you have a much higher quality sourdough starter that is going to make you some amazing bread. I’ll take naturally leavened sourdough over commercially yeasted bread any day of the week 🙂

      Thank you for the comments about my site, I look forward to hearing from you some more in the future — it’s great to have someone out in Italy test out my recipes! Ciao ciao!

  • Pilar Anderson

    Hi Maurizio Thank you so much for your post look very beautiful . I’m from COLOMBIA S.America but I live in USA , I really enjoy all your Amazing teaching because is kind of you to do it and my situation has being a BLESSING because I’m suffer from Depression and others sickness and learning about the Sourdough is a new world for me because I love to bake but Sourdough always look difficult but the way you do it is EXCELLENT.
    I count my Blessings and you are one of them . Thank you for make the different and this World .
    Apologize for my ENGLISH but it is my S L.
    Pilar Anderson

    • Pilar, nice to meet you (I also got your email but will just reply here)! Thanks for your kind words about my site. I too find baking to be very therapeutic. There is something very soothing about getting dirty, mixing and shaping dough with your hands. I’m glad you are following along and I’d love to hear from you again, let me know how things are going!

      Thanks again & happy baking 🙂

  • Cait

    How long can a starter store in the fridge? At what point would it be better to freeze it? I am planning a month long trip.

    • I haven’t gone a whole month… I’ve done up to 3 weeks in the fridge with no problem. I just made sure to give it enough flour and I slightly reduce the hydration of my starter (to about 90%) and it was fine. Not sure which to choose but I feel like for a month either way would work!

      • Cait

        Thanks for your reply! You are so helpful!