In both Italian and French provincial cuisine, as opposed to making elaborate presentations with a complex mixture of ingredients, simplicity is the key. The rule of thumb is to use as few ingredients as possible and let them speak for themselves as opposed to hiding them behind a lot of spices.
Now, the real trick to pulling that off is to use the best possible ingredients and be uncompromising about it. The thinking is that if you use high-quality ingredients, you don’t need to “make up” what they might lack.
Take olive oil for instance. When I bake Italian bread that calls for olive oil, I don’t just use any old olive oil. I use DOP (Denominazione d’ Origine Protetta) or PGI (Indicazione Geografica Protetta) oils from Italy. These designations ensure that the olive oil is not only sourced from a specific region but also that they meet the highest quality standards. In other parts of Europe, the top olive oil is designated as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin).
In California where I live, our olive oil grading is based on quality as opposed to geographic region. There’s less protection of origin, but extra-virgin is pretty high-quality stuff and meets fairly exacting quality standards. However, small producers do exist that sell olive oil from specific regions – they’re absolutely excellent.
The same goes for the flour that I use. I pay a bit of a premium for the high-protein flour I use, but it’s certified organic and it produces absolutely wonderful bread. The same goes for my Azure Standard flour. And even though I use King Arthur AP flour, there’s no argument that it’s very high quality.
You see, the thing about bread is that there really are only three basic ingredients in it: Flour, Water, and Salt. You can add yeast as an ingredient if you’re using commercial yeast, but if you’re using a natural starter, that’s just flour and water. And of course, some recipes call for olive oil. But the point is that bread is already simple with respect to its ingredients. So why not use the highest-quality ingredients to make our bread even better?
For me, that means using certified organic flour and other ingredients when called for. The fruit I use for my botanical starters are all organic or wild fruit. When I add parmesan cheese, it’s always Parmesano Reggiano. You get the picture.
Granted, using high-quality ingredients isn’t going to make me a better baker. I have to develop my skills. But using great ingredients does make the process easier. Moreover, the consistency they bring helps ensure I’ll make great-quality bread consistently.